Helen’s Story (2013) by Rosanne Rabinowitz

Helen Vaughan did well to bind the cord about her neck and die, though the death was horrible. The blackened face, the hideous form upon the bed, changing and melting before your eyes from woman to man, from man to beast, and from beast to worse than beast, all the strange horror that you witness, surprises me but little. What you say the doctor whom you sent for saw and shuddered at I noticed long ago; I knew what I had done the moment the child was born, and when it was scarcely five years old I surprised it, not once or twice but several times with a playmate, you may guess of what kind. It was for me a constant, an incarnate horror, and after a few years I felt I could bear it no more, and I sent Helen Vaughan away. You know now what frightened the boy in the wood. The rest of the strange story, and all else that you tell me, as discovered by your friend, I have contrived to learn from time to time, almost to the last chapter. And now Helen is with her companions…
—Arthur Machen, “The Great God Pan” (1890)

There had been an unfounded report of my own death many years ago. However, I continue to survive and thrive. I’ve gone by other names—Herbert, Raymond and Beaumont among them. Now there’s no reason I can’t call myself Helen Vaughan again.
—Rosanne Rabinowitz, Helen’s Story (2013) 11

“The Great God Pan” was first published in The Whirlwind in 1890. This was the beginning of the Yellow Nineties; the Decadent movement was gaining ground in literature and art, and to the Victorians of the day, the serialized story was condemned. Many years later, Arthur Machen would collect some of his favorite unfavorable reviews in a volume title Precious Balms (1924), and some of the critiques will be familiar to fans of Lovecraftian literature:

His art has been hampered by the limitations imposed upon it through his having to leave his ingenious horror “indescribable” and “unutterable” from first to last. (2)

There are nameless horrors hinted at in every other page, which make other people turn green and sick, but it is beyond the power of the most susceptible reader to shudder at the shudders of these fictional people. (3-4)

If we may believe Mr Machen, those doings are of the most horrible character; but as he omits to tell us what they are, and leaves us merely with the impression that she is “a bold, bad woman” of a very ordinary description, we are compelled to take her special horrors upon trust. (5)

But note the sex-mania in it all. It is an incoherent nightmare of sex and the supposed horrible mysteries behind it, such as might conceivably possess a man who was given to a morbid brooding over these matters, but which would soon lead to insanity if unrestrained. (10)

So on and so forth. Time has been kinder to Machen’s weird fiction than to his critics, in no small part because “The Great God Pan” was reprinted and anthologized, and provided inspiration for both H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” and Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Nameless Offspring.” Mary became the archetype for Lavinia Whateley, and all the Lavinias that followed her; Helen Vaughan the model for Wilbur Whateley, and Hester Sawyer of “The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978).

It took a century and change for Helen Vaughan’s side of the story to be told.

Though she appears on the page in “The Great God Pan” only briefly, Machen’s story is focused on Helen Vaughan, her whole life from conception in sin to taking her own life. Read as a serial, we can only imagine what the turn-of-the-century Victorians took of the many unspoken horrors at play…because the supernatural in the story is very implicit, until the end. It’s not a story to titillate, exactly. Helen’s mother Mary is an orphan with a too-intimate relationship with the scientist who “adopted her.” There are direct parallels to the conception of Christ, with a diabolic turn. As a child her features are “of a somewhat foreign character,” and plays strange games. Then as an adult Helen Vaughan is the femme fatale, the model for the mad artist, the wife that ruins her husband. All in one Helen Vaughan is layer on layer all these Victorian taboos, and is at last realized as a sexual woman who is not fixed in class, who exists outside the control of any male family member or husband.

…then she dies. Which is the probably the weakest part of the plot:

“No. I shall offer a choice, and leave Helen Vaughan alone with this cord in a locked room for fifteen minutes. If when we go in it is not done, I shall call the nearest policeman. That is all.”
—Arthur Machen, “The Great God Pan” (1890)

It is a very weird build-up to the final climax of the novel because throughout the story, Machen has given no indication that Helen Vaughan is bound by conventional Victorian ideas of morality and propriety and reputation. Why should she fear the police? Why would she commit suicide?

Well, in Rosanne Rabinowitz’ Helen’s Story, she doesn’t. While Rabinowitz keeps most of the essential plot details of Machen’s tale, she also doesn’t attempt to copy his prose. Machen was borrowing the style of Robert Louis Stevenson, with Dr. Raymond made in the mold of Dr. Henry Jekyll of “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” (1886). The chain of evidence style works for the atmosphere that Machen was building, the moralities and assumptions that he was building to. Yet Helen Vaughan in Rabinowitz’ depiction is the embodiment of that Victorian horror of the independent, sexually confident woman. It’s her story, told in her words, and told in later days. It shouldn’t be told in as a Machen pastiche, so it isn’t.

Which is really part of what makes the story work so well. Helen Vaughan becomes something beyond the Victorian imagination’s ability to classify; she doesn’t fit into the roles assigned for her as monster, succubus, or slut. Helen’s Story is that of an artist, an outsider that looks for family, that tries to achieve a particular effect through her work. The kind of individual whose spirituality cannot be contained by any church, whose morality is too fluid for any system of law, who flits in between the systems of the world. Which is very much in the spirit of what Machen sought to convey to his Victorian readers, but done in a way which Machen because of the conventions of the time could not, except through hint and intimation (cf. “Unseen” (2020) by Claire Leslie).

“Ah, mother, mother, why did you let me go to the forest with Helen?” Mrs. M. was astonished at so strange a question, and proceeded to make inquiries. Rachel told her a wild story. She said—
—Arthur Machen, “The Great God Pan” (1890)

Of course I got into trouble. After Rachel left, there was an almighty row in the village.
—Rosanne Rabinowitz, Helen’s Story (2013) 11

There is a lot to be said for how women are often depicted (or not depicted) in both fiction and real life. In some cases, they can give their own accounts, set the record straight. In Lovecraft studies we remember The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft (1985) by Sonia H. Davis and One Who Walked Alone (1986) by Novalyne Price Ellis; readers of wider literature might recognize a precursor to Helen’s Story in Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995) by Gregory Maguire. In all these cases, the accounts of the women have to be taken together with and against that of the other narrative which they are responding to. They tell their stories, but in telling those stories they are instinctively or intentionally shaping them around the stories that are already out there.

Which raises the question: how reliable is Helen Vaughan as a narrator?

The mere existence of Helen’s Story sheds a bit of doubt on Machen’s “The Great God Pan.” If you accept the narrative conceit that Helen Vaughan is alive and well, then the ending at least is a fabrication. That calls into question the events of the rest of Machen’s story: how much of this “really happened” versus being a narrative construction by the people telling the story—Clarke and Raymond. How much is Helen being honest, in painting herself as this misunderstood woman, raised by an uncaring scientist and constantly discriminated against for being different?

This is the kind of textual complexity which is shared by H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys. The conflicts and correlations between the stories force the reader out of the passive role of just absorbing information; now with two conflicting narratives to keep track of, the reader has to decide for themselves how much of each is “true” or accurate. The real story is neither the one or the other, but somewhere in between. The effect is not unlike a historian dealing with different accounts of a battle, or a Bible scholar who has to evaluate a canonical gospel and a newly-uncovered apocryphal gospel.

It’s the kind of approach that the Cthulhu Mythos is built on. Stories written not just as sequels, but as commentary and expansion, to correct old ideas and add new ones. In the case of Helen’s Story, the effect is especially appropriate as Helen’s narrative in Machen’s “The Great God Pan” is always told in someone else’s words. It’s the kind of historical narrative that is built around scraps of evidence and hearsay, and represents the prejudices of the man who compiled and presented the facts of the story to the audience, who were also presumed to be mainly men and to share the same prejudices. Helen’s Story is like a female scholar came along a century later, dug up an account of the woman herself that all the other scholars had overlooked, and presented it to explode the orthodoxy.

The combination of re-examining the essential gender bias in Machen’s “The Great God Pan” and the textual questions that can be raised by this kind of narrative is great. Rabinowitz knocks it out of the park in how she interweaves flashbacks that reflect on the narrative of events in “The Great God Pan” (and another Machen story, “The White People”) with the continuing narrative of what Helen Vaughan is doing in the present day. However, in basing Helen’s Story on “The Great God Pan” in this way, Rabinowitz does inherent a particular narrative necessity: how to end it.

Helen’s Story starts off by negating the ending of “The Great God Pan,” that means that this story has to provide a new conclusion. The ending which Arthur Machen wrote contains the only blatant supernatural elements in the entire story; there are hints and intimations, but nothing like the sudden appearance of “a mountain walked, or stumbled” in “The Call of Cthulhu.” Readers up until that point could have considered that Dr. Raymond had molested Mary, that Helen Vaughan was his child, that “seeing the Great God Pan” was cover for the terrible failure of his experiment that lobotomized his adopted-daughter-in-all-but-name. So without that ending…Rosanne Rabinowitz not only needs to find a fitting conclusion, but a fitting revelation.

What is the Great God Pan in Helen’s Story?

The final sentiment, the last revelation, the apotheosis or ipsissimus that Helen experiences…is utterly apt. It is both an homage to ending in “The Great God Pan” and a negation of it; because it is not an ending at all but a beginning. The crux of possibilities that bridges dream and reality in works like Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams (1907), Lord Dunsany’s “Idle Days on the Yann” (1910), and H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Silver Key” (1929). Sex without guilt, art without compromise, love without jealousy, freedom without boundaries…but with still those roads back to the old fields we know.

Helen’s Story by Rosanne Rabinowitz was first published as a hardback by PS Publishing in 2013, and reprinted as a paperback by Aqueduct Press in 2017, it is also available as an ebook.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

The City We Became (2020) by N. K. Jemisin

“Cover up that shit,” Bronca snaps at them. “Took me a minute, but I get it now. ‘Dangerous mental machines,’ hah.” […] “Yeah, that was H. P. Lovecraft’s fun little label for folks in Chinatown—sorry, ‘Asiatic filth.’ He was willing to concede that they might be as intelligent as white people because they knew how to make a buck. But he didn’t think they had souls.”

“Oh, but he was an equal-opportunity hater,” Yijing drawls, folding her arms and glaring at the men. “In the same letter, he went in on pretty much everybody. Let’s see—Black people were ‘childlike half-gorillas,’ Jews were a curse, the Portuguese were ‘simian,’ whatever. We had a lot of fun deconstructing that one in my thesis seminar.”
—N. K. Jemisin, The City We Became 148

And of course the New York Mongoloid problem is beyond calm mention. The city is befouled and accursed—I come away from it with a sense of having been tainted by contact, and long for some solvent of oblivion to wash it out! …… How in Heaven’s name sensitive and self-respecting white men can continue to live in the stew of Asiatic filth which the region has become—with marks and reminders of the locust-plague on every hand—is absolutely beyond me. In fact, I’m jolly well certain that they won’t continue. New York will become a vast trading-mart for long-distance white commuters—and for the nameless spawn. When, at length, the power of the latter rises to dangerous heights of rivalry, I can see nothing short of war or separation from the union. There is here a grave and mighty problem beside which the negro problem is a jest—for in this case we have to deal not with childlike half-gorillas, but with yellow, soulless enemies whose repulsive carcasses house dangerous mental machines warped culturelessly in the single direction of material gain by stealth at any cost. I hope the end will be warfare—but not till such a time as our own minds are fully freed of the humanitarian hindrances of the Syrian superstition imposed upon us by Constantinus.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, Jr., 21 Aug 1926, Selected Letters 2.68

Weird fiction cannot afford hagiography. For all that H. P. Lovecraft accomplished during his lifetime, for all the lives and literature he influenced, there is no point in pretending the man was a saint, his memory to be enshrined with only the good things he has done. Every author that stands on the shoulders of giants has to decide on how best to address that legacy. Some ignore it, moving past Lovecraft’s prejudices; others reinvent his Mythos, put their own spin on it; a few use it their fiction as a mirror to highlight Lovecraft’s racism.

N. K. Jemisin calls Lovecraft out on it.

Why not? Dead men cannot have their feelings hurt. He wrote all those words, so there’s no false reporting. The only ones likely to be upset about Jemisin’s bare handful of references to Lovecraft in the novel are those who either share in his prejudices, or are so strongly attuned to the idea of Lovecraft as an icon that they perceive a simple statement of facts as an attack.

It seems evident that Jemisin didn’t open a random book on Lovecraft and pull out the first racist quote she came across, so it’s not like the “On the Creation of…” scene in Lovecraft Country (2016) by Matt Ruff. This moment in The City We Became and those that follow it aren’t exactly essential to the novel, but certainly enrich it by expanding on themes of cosmic horror and race. The structure of the story, how the characters react to the information as they get it, how Lovecraft and his work are described, all shows effort and craft in how Jemisin chooses to incorporate Lovecraft into her book.

This is not N. K. Jemisin beating the dead horse named H. P. Lovecraft. It is a way for her to address him and his legacy on her own terms. In a 2017 interview, the question was asked and answered:

So if you’re using Cthulhu, are you an H.P. Lovecraft fan?

Oh, hell no.

This is deliberately a chance for me to kind of mess with the Lovecraft legacy. He was a notorious racist and horrible human being. So this is a chance for me to have the “chattering” hordes—that’s what he called the horrifying brown people of New York that terrified him. This is a chance for me to basically have them kick the ass of his creation. So I’m looking forward to having some fun with that.
N. K. Jemisin’s New Contemporary Fantasy Trilogy Will “Mess with the Lovecraft Legacy”

This approach can probably safely be called cathartic (NK Jemisin: ‘It’s easier to get a book set in black Africa published if you’re white’). Many writers exorcise their demons and address their issues by writing them out. It is a process which can often be as beneficial for the reader as well: how many women, how many people of color, who have felt uncomfortable knowing that Lovecraft was racist but unwilling to say anything might feel a relief to actually see it called out in print?

There are other ways Jemisin could have expressed her point. The reference to Lovecraft’s 1926 letter to Long is factually accurate, but lacks context. In 1926, Lovecraft’s New York adventure—and his marriage, in all but name and legalities—was over. He had slumped back off to Providence, Rhode Island, having been unable (like millions of others) to make his way in the city, to find gainful employment, to be with his wife and friends. Lovecraft had left Providence for New York less than two years prior, with hopes and aspirations for work, married life, a home of his own with his wife—and returned older, alone, wiser in the world, richer in experience of a thousand things. One memoir stated that:

He came back to Providence a human being—and what a human being! He had been tried in the fire and came out pure gold.
—W. Paul Cook, “In Memoriam: Howard Phillips Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 43

What Cook does not add is that the stresses and failures Lovecraft had experienced in New York had brought his prejudices to a fever point; throwing himself into the “melting pot” of New York City had only exacerbated his prejudices, and for the rest of his life he would write about his hatred of the city, which he considered no longer culturally a part of the United States, but completely overtaken by immigrants and people of color. Nothing of which excuses Lovecraft’s prejudices in  his letter…but perhaps gives more context as to why Jemisin chose to focus on this particular letter.

The City We Became is not a book about H. P. Lovecraft. Jemisin’s references to him and his fiction are symptomatic of the real crux of the novel, which is the city itself. Her novel is a love affair of New York City, in the same vein as Fritz Leiber, Jr.’s Our Lady of Darkness (1977) or John Shirley’s City Come a-Walkin’ (1980) for San Francisco. A snapshot in time of New York as it is, the people that live there are represent it; an acceptance and an exorcism of old ghosts.

But she is a city, in the end—fair R’lyeh where the streets are always straight and the buildings all curve, risen from the brine-dark deep well between universes. And no living city can remain within the boundary of another while it is unwelcome.
—N. K. Jemisin, The City We Became 428

Lovecraft’s New York—the New York of Al Smith and Fiorello La Guardia, Prohibition, the Harlem Renaissance and the Harlem Hellfighters—is long gone. Jemisin’s novel is about her New York, the post 9/11 New York, the New York of Lyft, IKEA, and Dunkin’ Donuts. It isn’t any less diverse, it isn’t really any weirder. Where a novella like “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle deals with the fictional New York that Lovecraft presented in his writings, Jemisin deals with Lovecraft himself—and finds the only real use for him as a springboard to talking about bigger things, or perhaps a bedrock of ideas and images to mine. If there is any criticism to be had of the book, it’s that it feels like having evoked Lovecraft and R’lyeh, Jemisin could have made more use out of the connections with the city…but again, this isn’t a book about H. P. Lovecraft.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

The Queen of K’n-yan (2008) by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健)

This is Cthulhu Mythos fiction unlike any you have read before.
—Darrel Schweitzer, introduction to The Queen of K’n-Yan xiii
The Queen of K’n-yan (2008, Kurodahan Press) by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健) is the English-language translation of his 1993 novel 崑央の女王 (K’n-Yan no Joō); the translator was Kathleen Taji.
There is a world of Mythos fiction beyond the English language, and it depends on translation. The original works of Lovecraft and his contemporaries, their ideas, concepts, and language, have to be translated from their original English into the new language. This process is not automatic or uniform, not every word that Lovecraft & co. wrote has been translated or published; many of the letters especially have not yet made the jump into other languages, and may never. Imagine what it takes to read Lovecraft, filtered through someone else trying to capture his style and language, to twist the language to translate not just the literal words but the ideas and weird names which might not transliterate easily or cleanly.
Then imagine translating an original Mythos novel back into English. How much survives? How much is recognizable? What new cultural syntax is picked up?
It is more of an issue than you might think, because there is a cultural syntax to the Cthulhu Mythos already; the stories, and the secondary literature of pastiches, sequels, prequels, etc. are highly intertextual, sometimes metatextual—and not everything that is written in English gets translated. The result is that some ideas which are largely outmoded in current English-language Mythos fiction may be retained longer in non-English-language Mythos fiction; and of course some new bits are often added which English language Mythos fans have never seen before.
Kathleen Taji’s translation of The Queen of K’n-Yan is a good example. As a novel, Asamatsu Ken’s work is definitely atypical for Mythos fare: the setting is a contemporary Japan and WW2-era China, the massive, secured corporate arcology and overall plot are something out of a cyberpunk novel, echoes of The Thing (1982), Aliens (1986), and Gunhead (1989). Archaeological mystery and psychic flashbacks to a Japanese war camp conducting medical experiments on Chinese civilians give way to a survival horror/body horror aesthetic somewhat foreshadowing works like Parasite Eve (1995) and Resident Evil (1996).
As the title suggests, the primary Mythos influence of the story is “The Mound” (1940) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft:
It isn’t too much of a spoiler to let you know that Asamatsu Ken’s The Queen of K’n-yan involves the discovery of a mummy from that same underground realm, but excavated in China […]
—Darrel Schweitzer, introduction to The Queen of K’n-Yan ix
Asamatsu Ken takes the idea of the people of K’n-Yan and expands them to a global scale, parts of their underground realm running throughout Asia, and ties them into existing history and mythology:
Before the advent of humanity, the world was divided and ruled by several races of intelligent beings. That’s to say, the dragon race, the denizens of Zhùróng – the fire deity – the earth wolf tribes, the wind bull people, and the star-spawn – as can be deduced, they symbolize the five elements of water, fire, earth, wood, and metal. The human descendants of the dragon race are the Han, the human descendants of the earth wolf are the Manchu, and the human descendants of the wind bull people are the Tibetans […] The denizens of Zhùróng, the symbol of fire, rose in revolt against the Yellow Emperor and were sealed underground in retribution. The underground cavern where they were imprisoned is called K’n-Yan. And the star-spawn were banished to the distant heavens.
—Asamatsu Ken, trans. Kathleen Taji, The Queen of K’n-Yan 85
For English-language Mythos fans, this might be sounding suspiciously like the early “elemental” theory of the Cthulhu Mythos first postulated by August Derleth in “The Return of Hastur” (1939). Derleth designated various entities according to the four elements of the Western tradition of Hermetic occultism (Cthulhu, water; Tsathoggua, earth; Hastur, air; and creating Cthugha as the missing “fire elemental”). Asamatsu Ken is certainly paying homage to this idea, even if he is taking it in a different direction:

What appeared were strange sentences containing a mix of Chinese characters, cursive Japanese hiragana, and roman letters. They read –

“Beseech the god of the western seas, THCLH, with sacred reverence.
Beseech the forefather of heat and flame, THGHC, with sacred reverence.

Beseech anon our birth lord, ZTHRNG, with sacred reverence.

The infant princess, through the black disease

When reborn as Queen

Even death will not die…”
—Asamatsu Ken, trans. Kathleen Taji, The Queen of K’n-Yan 112

Zhùróng is a complicated personage, but often considered a god of fire; THGHC is a reference to Derleth’s Cthugha, THCLH to Cthulhu. The complexities of Japanese, Chinese, and Japanese languages coming into play here were probably difficult to translate, but readers can recall how in “The Mound” Cthulhu was represented as “Tulu” and get the vague idea of how Japanese readers might have been piecing together clues.
As an aside, applying the five-element approach to the Mythos is not unique to Asamatsu Ken’s work either. Shirow Masamune in his manga Orion (仙術超攻殻オリオン) has a Cthulhu-esque entity arise from an occult effort involving an unbalanced water-element.
The discussion of “races” in the context of Mythos fiction is more complicated, and not unique to this work. Perhaps for the best, Asamatsu Ken doesn’t delve too deep into the geopolitics or genetics of it all. The main characters are left piecing together bits of history so old that they’ve faded into myth, trying to sort out bits of truth from the old legends.
As the story enters its penultimate phase, the survival horror aspect comes to the fore. A weird game of cat-and-mouse occurs between Morishita Anri (the novel’s protagonist, Japanese), Dr. Li (the novel’s secondary antagonist, Chinese), and the Queen of K’n-Yan, who a la The Thing has taken on the form of a human woman—hinted to possibly be either Morishita or Li. Reanimated body parts are combined together in was reminiscent of Bride of Re-animator (1990):
An ankle with eyes. A left hand with three lips. Orifices with fangs. A large intestine with wings on its back. Thirty upper arms congealed together, spherical in shape. A thigh with a face, knees with thin hands, and ankles growing out of shins. Eyeballs with tentacles, and most horrendous of all, hordes of internal organs, squirming and groping.
—Asamatsu Ken, trans. Kathleen Taji, The Queen of K’n-Yan 175
Strange as it may be with all these diverse elements, the novel does actually come together at the end, in a fairly satisfying way. Not every mystery is explained, nor do they need to be; background noise about large sinkholes in China where the Princess of K’n-Yan was discovered, outbreaks of disease, and rising heat suggest what is about to come, but that is a horror for the future beyond the last page in the novel.
For all that works, at least within the internal rationale of the novel, there are a few things that don’t translate well. There are elements of style and plot which simply don’t come across to English-language readers as nicely as they could, and it is difficult (not having read, or able to read, the original) to tell whether this is a quirk of the translation being too literal or simply a faithful reproduction of Asamatsu’s style which doesn’t quite click.
Stylistically, the chunks of raw exposition embedded in the narrative stand out as exactly that; the Mythos references when they come aren’t exactly subtle. From the standpoint of characters, most are fairly weakly developed except for the protagonist Morishita Anri and the mysterious Dr. Li…and even then, there is a relatively late development in the novel which comes almost out of nowhere:

Something was trying to take shape. Akiyama Haruka’s face appeared in midair – three times larger than the actual face. This was followed by the appearance of a neck, shoulders, lithe arms, and lastly, shapely breasts. Akiyama winked at Anri, and her pupils sent an insinuating and lascivious look her way.

“Hold me, please…pretty please.”

On hearing her words, Andri felt like retching.

The queen knows?! Somehow she’s found out that I’m gay.
—Asamatsu Ken, trans. Kathleen Taji, The Queen of K’n-Yan 199

The issue of Mosihita Anri’s homosexuality, for about the first hundred and ninety-eight pages up until this point, is so low-key as to be completely absent. Going back to re-read the novel, there are only extremely vague hints which maybe point to that if the reader already knows she’s a lesbian; this feels like a character development which was either not communicated well in the original or which was so subtle that the translation didn’t quite convey it. Which is not in any way a dig at Kathleen Taji, only an exemplar of how difficult the job of translation is. How do you communicate someone’s sexuality in Japanese culture when they do not have any immediate love interest? Were there cues that would have made sense to a Japanese audience that an English reader would miss?
These are the kind of questions that consume the reader in The Queen of K’n-Yan. It is an effective Mythos novel; Asamatsu Ken knows what he is doing. Yet it is undoubtedly a very different Mythos novel from August Derleth’s The Lurker at the Threshold (1945) or Robert Bloch’s Strange Eons (1978). The setting and the syntax are in line with Japanese horror of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Mythos translated, adapted, and integrated into a post-WW2 world with computers, genetic engineering, wuxing, and the People’s Liberation Army.
Perhaps most importantly, The Queen of K’n-Yan is an example of what translation offers to the English-speaking audience: something different, a new way to think about the old Mythos. For those of us who cannot read Japanese, it is only through translation that we can approach these works—even if, like Wilbur Whateley in “The Dunwich Horror,” thumbing through the English translation of the Necronomicon, we know that there is something missing from the original.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales

Thirteen women in shadowy Innsmouth, brides of arranged marriages to the inhuman denizens of the neighboring reef, are bound by the will of their male relatives, until they pursue revenge.
—J. M. Yales, A Coven in Essex County | Prologue

“A Coven in Essex County” is a rare example of serial Mythos fiction, told in 18 monthly episodes on The Visitant. The story that develops focuses on perspective and impact—readers are presumably already initiated into the mysteries of Innsmouth, they know the big secret that the nameless protagonist in Lovecraft’s tale uncovered from the drunken lips of Zadok Allen. What Yales zeroes in on is not the terrible threat of the Deep Ones, or even the fact of their existence; not the aftermath of the story, as with Ruthanna Emrys’ “The Litany of Earth”, or the possible variations such as “Take Your Daughters to Work” (2007) by Livia Llewellyn or “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” (2003) by Ann K. Schwader—no, Yales wants to present the story of the women of Innsmouth, the wives and daughters who grow up in this strange, twisted society—and the expectations that are placed on them.

As background: there is an inherent imbalance in the gender dynamics of “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Human men marry female Deep Ones, then their hybrid children—primarily women—are apparently married off. The focus of Lovecraft’s story is on the nameless narrator protagonist, whose great-grandmother is a Deep One, and whose grandmother was one of these Innsmouth brides, “married off on a trick” to an Arkham man. Lovecraft’s initial notes for the “Innsmouth” suggest a more complicated and subplot that didn’t make it into the drafts:

All opponents killed off—many women commit suicide or vanish. Things refuse wholly to leave the town. Horrible incidents—hybridisation. Marsh dares not call in outside world—Things threaten to rise in limitless numbers. Compromise reached—secret habitation, since they would prefer to avoid general war.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Notes to ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth'”, Collected Essays 5.249

Some of this never made it into the finished version of “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” where Lovecraft focuses on one family line. Implicit but unspoken is that regardless of the offspring the Deep Ones never stop intermarrying…and as his notes hint, these are not implied to be marriages of love and mutual attraction. Read between the lines as Yales must have, and the picture gets grim and depressing: the women of Innsmouth have been raped…and this has been going on for a long time. Long enough to have become part of the social structure of the town. Parallels might be drawn to the child brides and forced marriages of certain patriarchal religious sects, or the system of concubines in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985); the disenfranchisement of the Innsmouth women, who are trapped in a system that does not recognize or reward their agency, recalls Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: A Romance (1850). The author certainly takes the concept farther than Lovecraft ever dared to, as the women become literal commodities, bodies and lives traded away for Innsmouth gold.

In the decades since Lovecraft wrote, many gender and sexual permutations of Deep One/human relations have been explored, sometimes in pornographic detail, but the particular dynamics of those relationships—and the society that permits and encourages the relationships—is rarely explored. Ann K. Schwader’s “Mail Order Bride” (1999) makes the females the dominant sexual partner, using unsuspecting human males as essentially sperm donors and providers; the graphic novels Neonomicon (2010) and Witch Doctor, Vol. I: Under the Knife (2011) suggest that a quirk of biology is to explain for why normally only male human/female Deep One result in viable offspring.

Sex in all three cases is rarely forced: it is generally presented that the male humans are willing to have sex with female Deep Ones, just as it is generally presented that female humans aren’t willing to have sex with male Deep Ones. (Homosexual and transsexual variations on the theme, such as Caitlín R. Kiernan’s “Pages found among the effects of Miss Edith M. Teller” (2005) and Monique Poirier’s “The Flower of Innsmouth” (2011), are another barrel of fish entirely.) The systemic “marriage” of human women to male Deep Ones, by force or coercion, and the effects that would have on those women is largely unexplored. Many have found sympathy for the devil, but few besides Yales have looked into the hardened souls of the traumatized women of Innsmouth—an issue made more complicated because the women are yet divided by social convention and personality as well. To achieve redress, they have to overcome their differences and unite…and they have one very good reason to come together.

To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me […] If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? […] The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
—Shylock in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice Act III, Scene I

“A Coven in Essex County” is experimental fiction, and one of the most difficult and important parts is the beginning of the penultimate chapter, “A November Wedding.” Throughout the story, the character of Cora speaks in a kind of glossolalia, languages coming together in almost Joycean runs, bits of English, German, pidgin languages, R’lyehian, folding together, syllables merging, alphabets converging as they sought to express meaning…and perhaps all the better, when in this section they hit upon the inexpressible, the unnameable. The obscured climax is in its was as effective as the italicized culminating revelation of Lovecraft’s stories.

However, this is not a story about revelations, either cosmic or personal. It is about impact. Yales’ story is not so much about the act of marriage as how it impacts the women forced into these arranged unions:

Something happened after the wedding night to women of Innsmouth that erases what in other places would signify them as women. There is a gravity about them, an otherworldliness as much attributable to their exotic looks as to the fact that none of them quite focus on any one thing with their eyes. They seem always to be elsewhere, and absent the calculating intelligence of the gentler sex.
—J. M. Yales, A Coven in Essex County | A November Wedding

Just so, the last leg of the story is not on the moment of revenge as how it impacts the women who perform it. After the deed, these women’s story does not end. The society of Innsmouth was built on this system of arranged marriages, now that they have transgressed, they enter into an unfamiliar social territory. Familiar ground for many women over the last century, as the slow struggle for women’s rights and place outside the home has caused a shift in societal norms—but then, the suffragettes of Lovecraft’s era never had to deal with covenants with the Deep Ones.

Josephine Maria Yales published “A Coven in Essex County” over a period of 18 months from 2016 to 2017 on the Visitant. She has published a good deal of nonfiction pertaining to women, gender, and horror.


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)