Flowers for the Sea (2021) by Zin E. Rocklyn

My stories always feature a Black woman lead, no matter how hard history tries to erase us and our contributions. I speak to my experiences in my stories as a way to flush them out as well as show the world that we are here, we matter, we are worthy.
Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Zin E. Rocklyn (26 Feb 2021) by Michelle R. Lane

Perspective in any story is more than just the race or gender of the protagonist: it is a way of looking at the world. The history of slavery in the United States, for example, looks different from the perspective of the slave than it does from the perspective of the slaver and abolitionist. The experience and the stakes are different. It leaves its mark on individuals and generations in a way that is almost inescapable, and it shapes the way people understand and pass on their own stories and histories.

Persecution is not something Lovecraft thoroughly understood or expressed in his stories. While his life featured great hardships and poverty, he and his family never experienced systemic prejudice or discrimination. In stories like “The Festival,” he alludes to the hangings at Salem Village and the quiet diaspora of witches, but the witches are not sympathetic victims, even from the perspective of their descendants. There is no rancor at the injustice done, because to Lovecraft there was no injustice: they were witches, after all. Likewise, the fate of the people of Innsmouth is not presented as a crime amounting almost to genocide akin to the forced relocation of the Native Americans, though in all particulars it certainly approaches it.

Chronological distance offers one axis for reflection: “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys both shift the narrative on “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” seeing in the Innsmouth camps parallels to the Japanese internment camps and the Holocaust of World War 2. These stories deal with individuals who survived true persecution, the personal trauma and the breakup of families, and deal with the psychological and cultural consequences.

As a more diverse set of authors came to Lovecraftian fiction, they brought with them different points of view. The City We Became (2020) by N. K. Jemisin exists, in part, as a rejection and refutation of Lovecraft’s perspective and specific prejudices; “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle and “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” (1982) by Charles R. Saunders focus on the perspective of the marginalized Black men who faced the discrimination in the 1920s and 30s that Lovecraft never knew or attempted to depict.

What Zin E. Rocklyn brings to her stories is not necessarily a need to counter, refute, reimagine, or even mention Lovecraft and his Mythos, but her existence and perspective as a Black woman writing weird fiction. As she puts it, when asked about whether she puts broader messages on race into her work:

By default, my presence within horror and writing horror is a message unto itself. Me showing up is message enough, so there’s no definitive way for me to divorce myself from that ongoing narrative.
Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Zin E. Rocklyn (26 Feb 2021) by Michelle R. Lane

Which is absolutely the case for her short novel Flowers for the Sea (1921). Readers familiar with Lovecraft might well identify this story, which is set in an ambiguous time and place, as a left-handed descendant of “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” by way of ecological disaster fiction like “Till A’ the Seas” by R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft. Iraxi is one of the last survivors of a persecuted minority with rumored supernatual powers and ties to the sea, a literary cousin to the survivors of the Innsmouth diaspora in stories like “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” (2016) by Sonya Taaffe—but, the details aren’t quite right. There is a visceral reality to the persecution often missing from Innsmouth stories, ugly details like this one:

They called us nims. A word with hardly any meaning other than to spit upon its victim.

It morphed, much like forked tongues who spoke it, an encapsulating slure that reduced one to shreds, to the foam of the sea we feared, to nothing but the scent of a bowel movement.
—Zin E. Rocklyn, Flowers from the Sea 15

Slurs in science fiction and fantasy are not to be created lightly; too often they tend to mask real-world prejudices, and be substituted for them. Yet in this story, it serves the purpose of an introduction to the history of persecution that has brought Iraxi to this point, the beginning of the end of the pregnancy she didn’t want aboard a dying ship, hated by and hating those around her.

There is no calm, philosophical Lovecraftian indifference in this story. Anger is a major theme, sometimes ugly and sometimes righteous, but never unjustified. There is history behind that anger, long history, some of which is only hinted at…and it isn’t over. The people around her on the ship tolerate her, use her, but she is only and ever a resource to be managed, not a person to be respected…until, at last, it is too late.

Hate has its place in every life; it is a natural reaction to the pain of loss. An excess of hate can lead to terrible consequences; it is what leads to the transformation of Tommy Tucker in “The Ballad of Black Tom,” and nearly damns Maryse Boudreaux in her fight against the Ku Kluxes in Ring Shout (2020) by P. Djèlí Clark. Through Rocklyn’s prose, we get Iraxi’s struggle with her own hatred…but if she becomes a monster, it is because the monsters around her have made her one. The people that burned down her home, killed her family, called her people names for generations, and finally forced her to carry a child she didn’t want…it was their monstrous deeds that stoked the furnace of her rage and honed her cruelty to a sharp point.

There are counter-narratives that might be considered, since we only have Iraxi’s viewpoint for the whole novel. The ship is dying, women unable to bear children, and in this context Iraxi is an ungrateful madonna, given the best food while the others slowly starve. Should she not be thankful for the life she is to give birth to? Is she an unreliable narrator, self-centered and toxic, unable to appreciate what others sacrifice for her sake? Or how her individual sacrifice is for the greater good, for the survival of all?

The problem with these counter-narratives is that they run up hard against issues of bodily autonomy. How grateful should a slave be, to bear the child of her master to increase his wealth? Why should she submit herself and her own needs and desires for the good of a people who see her as little more than a particularly stubborn breeding cow? That is the presence Rocklyn brings to the tale. The arguments against Iraxi’s perspective are ultimately ugly because what Iraxi suffers is, by and large, an extrapolation of the horrors and indignities that women, especially Black women, have suffered for centuries in the United States and the Caribbean.

While we’re seen as sexual beings, we’re rarely seen as sensual beings. We’ve been used and abused for hundreds of years for the sake of personal slavery to the advancement of science, but never as human beings who own their bodies and their sexuality. Even in contemporary thought, there is the myth of the Strong Black Woman who needs no partner, no love, and it simply isn’t true. It’s a bastardisation of a mantra that means we won’t put up with bullshit. I want my fiction to make that distinction, that we crave and deserve love and nurturing.
Interview: Zin E. Rocklyn by Gordon B. White in Nightmare 107 (Aug 2021)

So it is with Inaxi, though her desire for love is never requited…hence the depth and intensity of her hatred. The issues of desire for love and bodily autonomy for women, especially within the context of pregnancy, are seldom made explicit in Lovecraftian fiction; stories like “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens and “A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales touch on them, but Flowers for the Sea is particularly vivid not only in its microscopic emphasis on the horrors of an unwanted pregnancy, approaching splatterpunk levels of grue when the chapter arrives for the birth, but in the implications. Iraxi is not just a Black Lavinia Whateley; her experience comes out of a very distinct experience of Black Womanhood.

Which is ultimately something that sets Flowers for the Sea apart from many other “Lovecraftian” tales. “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is not so much a distant ancestor as it is the raw material for a tube of Mummy brown that Rocklyn uses to paint her own distinct picture.

Flowers for the Sea by Zin E. Rocklyn was published in 2021 by Tor. Readers might also enjoy her fiction “teatime” (2020) and “The Night Sun” (2020).


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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Were-Wolf (1896) by Clemence Housman

Clemence Housman, in the brief novelette “The Were-wolf”, attains a high degree of gruesome tension and achieves to some extent the atmosphere of authentic folklore.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

Clemence Housman was a British author, illustrator, and suffragette; The Were-wolf (1896) is her first novel. Lovecraft included Housman under chapter IX, “The Weird Tradition in the British Isles”—marking out Housman alongside such weird luminaries as Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and M. P. Shiel.

When and where Lovecraft first read Housman is unclear; she is not mentioned by Scarborough & Birkhead, nor does Lovecraft mention the book many times in his letters. Yet we know he must have read The Were-wolf before 1927 (when the first version of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” was published, Housman reference included), and a rare discussion of the novel may give us another clue:

Also, I have a book by Clemence Housman, “The Werewolf”. which is probably as good as that kind of story can be. It failed to make much of an impression on me.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, c.24-30 Oct 1930, DS 253

I have reead Clemence Housman’s “Werewolf”—George Kirk has it—& thought it rather good—though not so good a werewolf tale as Biss’s “Door of the Unreal”, which Cook, Munn, & Morton own.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, [7 Nov 1930], DS 259

George Kirk was a New York bookseller and a good friend of Lovecraft’s, a member of the Kalem Club which was Lovecraft’s literary circle. Probably, Kirk picked up a copy during his bookdealing, knew Lovecraft was researching weird fiction, and lent it to Lovecraft to read. As friends do.

Lovecraft’s description of The Were-wolf is accurate but bare-bones. Housman’s novel is set vaguely in Scandinavia, based mostly on inference, and without a set period. Since there are no references to modern inventions or events it could be set at any point from the 19th century to any time after the Christianization of the Nordic countries—because this is, without a doubt, a Christian horror story.

As a mode of fiction, Christian horror is not all homilies and pale hellfire; though there is plenty of pap for those who fall back on God as the ultimate power in the victory over every evil, where the recital of a Bible verse, waving of a cross, or a few drops of holy water defeats the vampire or exorcises the evil spirit. Christian horror stories tend to expand on the psychological framework of Christianity while exploring or developing a supernatural fringe beyond accepted dogma; sometimes incorporating elements of pre-Christian belief into the mix—and a happy outcome is not in any way guaranteed. So it is with The Were-wolf.

What Lovecraft leaves out of his description is the nature of the werewolf; for unlike The Thing In the Woods (1924) by Harper Williams, this werewolf is female…or at least, femme:

She was a maiden, tall and very fair. The fashion of her dress was strange, half masculine, yet not unwomanly. A fine fur tunic, reaching but little below the knee, was all the skirt she wore; below were the cross-bound shoes and leggings that a hunter wears. A white fur cap was set low upon the brows, and from its edge strips of fur fell lappet-wise about her shoulders; two of these at her entrance had been drawn forward and crossed about her throat, but now, loosened and thrust back, left unhidden long plaits of fair hair that lay forward on shoulder and breast, down to the ivory-studded girdle where the axe gleamed.
—Clemence Housman, The Were-wolf

Her name was White Fell, and metaphorically she is the literal serpent in this icy Scandinavian garden, who intrudes on the idyllic home life and sets brother against brother. Yet in some ways, White Fell represents something of the fierce freedom and independence that Clemence Housman campaigned for, the woman that could cross a hundred leagues of snow and ice hunting game, confident and independent and not constrained by either skirts or customs. Melissa Purdue in “Clemence Housman’s The Were-Wolf: A Cautionary Tale for the New Woman” argues convincingly that this is deliberate, and her detailed analysis is worth reading.

How much of this would Lovecraft have picked up on? We don’t know; gender dynamics in fiction were never his forte, and he discussed and played with such ideas very seldom. One interesting note is that Housman shifts in describing White Fell as a human woman to a “Thing”:

 The dreadful Thing in their midst, that was veiled from their knowledge by womanly beauty, was a centre of pleasant interest.
—Clemence Housman, The Were-wolf

Compare this to how Lovecraft has a character describe Asenath Waite in “The Thing on the Door Step”:

[“]I’ll kill that entity . . . her, him, it . . . I’ll kill it! I’ll kill it with my own hands!”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Thing on the Doorstep”

In both cases, Housman and Lovecraft are deliberately denying not just female identity, but basic humanity: White Fell and Asenath Waite are both cast as fiends in human shape. Whether Housman was an influence on Lovecraft in this regard, or whether both were expressing in their different ways the particular syntax of their era which struggled to define individuals who violated the known order as anything other than monsters or genderless (but not sexless) “things”—that might be splitting hairs. It is amusing that Edward Pickman Derby does describe Asenath as “that preying wolf in my body,” which might be taken as a metaphor, or might suggest a closer link in Lovecraft’s mind between Asenath and lycanthropy.

A final word on Lovecraft and Housman involves a bit of a flub:

Yes—I noted with regret the Housman misprint, which came in an eleventh-hour appendix sent in too late for proofreading. In such copies as I have personally distributed, I have made pen-&-ink correction.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Vincent Starrett, 6 Dec 1927, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 524

In that rare first printing of “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” the name Clemence had been erroneously printed as Clarence.

Clemence Housman’s The Were-wolf is in the public domain, and may be read online.


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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

West of Innsmouth: A Cthulhu Western (2021) by Kikuchi Hideyuki (菊地 秀行)

I had long thought I wanted to crate an authentic Western. […] Japan has a similar genre in the jidai shōsetsu (historical samural novels), but their high point, the sword duel, can take such a huge variety of shapes that the wirten word can easily match movies when it comes to tension. […] Even so, I never gave up that dream of writing a Western. I wanted to capture the blood-pounding, muscle-flexing excitement I’d felt as a kid watching famous Westerns in novel form.
—Kikuchi Hideyuki (trans. Jim Rion), “Afterward” in West of Innsmouth 211

Kikuchi Hideyuki (菊地 秀行) may be one of the most prolific and original Japanese authors of Cthulhu Mythos fiction. Unfortunately, like a lot of the popular fiction created for Japan, almost none of it is translated for English-speaking audiences. Fans of anime may recognize him as the author behind the series of Vampire Hunter D novels, or the mind behind Wicked City and Demon City Shinjuku which have become classics of horror anime films and Original Video Animation.

West2

In 2015, his novel Jashin Kettō-den (Legend of the Duel of Evil Gods) was published, a Weird Western which sees a a ninja and a bounty hunter mixed up in a bit of occult business with the Esoteric Order of Dagon…and along the way they pass through Dodge City and Tombstone, and places in between. In 2021 the novel, translated by Jim Rion, was published by Kurodahan Press, who have also published many other Mythos works, such as Kthulhu Reich (2019) by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健).

Kikuchi Hideyuki has done his homework, and if some of that research was done reading classic Westerns, it still shows. This is not an historical samurai epic in an exotic locale; this is a post-Unforgiven Western, gritty and realistic in parts, with an eye for detail…but with allowances for a few specific callbacks to stories and details that Western fans would recognize. For example, in real life Wyatt Earp probably did not carry a Buntline special—but he does here, and the character is none the worse for.

While the addition of a ninja to a Western milieu may seem odd—or perhaps an episode out of the 1970s Kung Fu television series—there’s no anachronism involved. Japan has had contact with North and South America for centuries, and while that contact was lessened during the isolationist sokaku period, by the 1870s gunboat diplomacy had re-established trade and travel, and some Japanese were among the many Asian peoples that immigrated to North America. A more serious and interesting question is the addition of weird elements.

Iä! Iä! Ph’nglui mglw’nafh
Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl western!
—Kikuchi Hideyuki (trans. Jim Rion), “Afterward” in West of Innsmouth 214

Does West of Innsmouth actually work as a novel? As a weird western, it plays a balancing act between the realistic and the fantastic. Supernatural entities appear, but many of them are perfectly susceptible to a .45 caliber bullet between the eyes or through the heart. The essential plot—what is going and and why the characters do what they do—is actually very solid, with only one quibble: the Japanese co-protagonist is hunting four unusual characters because they killed his brother in Japan at the orders of the Marshes of Innsmouth…but the same characters are being hunted by the American co-protagonist who is working for the Esoteric Order of Dagon. Not an irreconcilable plot hole, but it feels like this is a detail that was overlooked. 

Where the narrative sometimes trips is the extraneous weirdness that tends to crop up along the way. The reader doesn’t need (or get) an explanation for everything, but this ends up being a much more magical Wild West than most readers may be used to, somewhat similar Edward M. Erdelac’s Mekabah Rider series, and there’s perhaps a bit too much of an element of chance in the plot than strictly necessary; too many coincidences, and perhaps too many odd elements that show up briefly and unnecessarily. For example, one antagonist turns out to have learned muay boran from a Thai martial artist in St. Louis…and what are the odds of that?

The Cthulhu Mythos elements are ultimately handled in a very thematic way, with strong visual images for given scenes and repeated motifs that are consistent and have some very effective scenes of horror, but the lore itself handled lightly. The name of Cthulhu is thrown around more often, there is more open talk of spells and incantations, but no one breaks out a Necronomicon or starts giving detailed geneaologies of Innsmouth families; nor does anyone go insane from the revelations. The odd result is that the use of Mythos elements is somewhat restrained, but also much more openly “magical” than you might expect.

In the afterward, Kikuchi Hideyuki admits The Kouga Ninja Scrolls as an inspiration, and you can see some definite thematic resonance there. This is a novel which I think would almost benefit from being longer, or perhaps serialized as a few novellas. The pacing is almost too quick, the challenges all end up being rather short and bloody…but then, this is the Old West, and gunfights often don’t last more than the end of a paragraph, nor should they.

“I can’t figure women for the life of me,” I said. “They give me more fright than Cthulhu himself, maybe.”
—Kikuchi Hideyuki (trans. Jim Rion), West of Innsmouth 194

Sexism and racism were realities in the American Old West, but with today’s audiences a certain balance has to be maintained. So in contemporary Western cinema and literature it’s a fine line between accuracy to the period and necessity to the plot. West of Innsmouth does fairly well overall; the various Native American characters depicted are generally antagonistic, but they aren’t stepping straight out of Hollywood Westerns of the 1950s, 60s, or 70s (although ironically given Hollywood’s penchant for redface, a couple of times Asian characters are mistaken for Native Americans in the novel.) Black characters are mostly absent, and figure very little into events, but aren’t depicted as caricatures. There are several women supporting characters, including a brief but memorable cameo by Belle Starr. Overall, it is a balancing act, and I would say Kikuchi Hideyuki leans on the side of being less prone to putting old-timey racism in his characters’ mouths, although keeps enough prejudice in the story to demonstrate that yet, it was present in the Old West.

There are few enough Weird Westerns that deal with the Cthulhu Mythos, and compared to works like “Showdown at Red Hook” (2011) by Lois H. Gresh, or Weird Trails (2004)West of Innsmouth is certainly more ambitious than most. As a novel it compares favorably with works like Cthulhu Armageddon: A Post Apocalypse Western (2016) by C. T. Phipps, and if it is not perfect, it is never boring, nor does it devolve into white hats versus black hats. Overall, it’s fair to say that Kikuchi Hideyuki succeeded in writing a real western.


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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Trolling Lovecraft (2021) by V. McAfee

As for seriously-written books on dark, occult, & supernatural themes—in all truth, they don’t amount to much. That is why it’s more fun to invent mythical works like the Necronomicon & Book of Eibon. The magical lore which superstitious people really believed, & which trickled down to the Middle Ages from antiquity, was really nothing more than a lot of childish invocations & formulae for raising daemons &c., plus systems of speculation as dry as the orthodox philosophies.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 28 July 1926, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 378

People have always believed in magic, even if they haven’t always called it magic. This was rarely the kind of magic we might associate with fantasy fiction today; practitioners generally weren’t throwing fireballs. The form and goals of magic have always changed to match the syntax of the era. In ancient Rome, someone might scratch a curse on a tablet of lead, or have a diviner root around in entrails to answer a personal question, or wear an amulet to ensure an easy childbirth. In Lovecraft’s lifetime, they might check their horoscope in the newspaper, carry a rabbit’s foot on their keychain, or let someone hypnotize them.

When most people think of “real” magic, they think less of this kind of superstition and pseudoscience, as Lovecraft would put it, and more on specific tropes of grimoires, spellcasting, magic circles, maybe witchcraft and cults as described in The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret A. Murray. Ancient traditions passed down, either in oral traditions or crumbling books and manuscripts, or both. Lovecraft lived and wrote during the period called the Third Great Awakening which saw the rise of organized occultism (in the form of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Theosophical Society, and other groups), an increased focus on Spiritualism and other new religious movements, increased interest in ancient religions thanks to advances in archaeology, scientific interest in supernatural phenomena (as explored by the Society for Psychical Research and other groups), and wider publication of occult literature to an increasingly literate public. Owen Davies explores the magical world of Lovecraft’s era in his book A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination, and Faith during the First World War.

After World War II, magic continued to be popular. Aleister Crowley, a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, had developed its system of ceremonial magick into an influential system of belief called Thelema. Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente, among others, formulated and organized contemporary witchcraft as Wicca. Interest in psychic phenomena, Eastern spirituality, and more new religious movements increased during the 1960s. Aleister Crowley’s secretary Kenneth Grant rose to prominence by expanding the system of ceremonial magic—and incorporating in elements of Lovecraft’s fictional Mythos. Anton LeVay, who founded the Church of Satan in 1966, also worked some Lovcraftian material in. In New York City in 1977, a Necronomicon appeared that purported to be a genuine grimoire. For more on such developments, check out The History of British Magick After Crowley and The Necronomicon Files.

While some might argue that all occult literature is in some sense fiction, the development of the Lovecraftian occult was different from claims to have found an ancient magical manuscript and translated it, or to have received a communication from some spirit from “outside.” While some of it (like the Simon Necronomicon) was deliberately fraudulent, the Lovecraftian occult proved to be no different, in the end, to any material derived from traditional sources. A little weird, maybe, and consciously derived from the works of a dead pulp writer rather than some medieval magician, but for people who found defined gods as ideas, concepts, and symbols—what was the difference between a traditional goddess such as Isis and a fictional one like Shub-Niggurath? If you believed enough, and if the rituals you worked around the idea worked well enough for you—why not be a Lovecraftian magician?

This postmodern approach to magick, where prospective magicians were not restricted to traditional systems but pursued a more individual, personal, even eclectic and experiential approach has sometimes been called Chaos magick. Lovecraftian occultism has incorporated by many chaos magicians (or chaotes) into their personal mythology, most notably by Phil Hine in The Pseudonomicon. This approach has in turn inspired takes on Lovecraftian spirituality, notably When the Stars Are Right: Toward an Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality by Scott R. Jones, and Lovecraftian occultism has influenced Lovecraftian fiction.

Which is a very long prologue to begin talking about Trolling Lovecraft by V. McAfee.

I’m not really familiar with his history
enough to do that…
but I guess I could give it a shot. Like go
back to when he was a kid and haunt him
with weird bs?
—V. McAfee, Trolling Lovecraft 5

McAfee’s debut novel is told from the perspective of Dyl, a working chaos magician. It is occult fiction in the sense that it follows the precepts of chaos magic, without explaining the terminology or many of the concepts. Readers who aren’t familiar with sigil-making, or how you might charge an orgone accumulator, are going to miss a few things. While I wouldn’t be surprised if McAfee was very familiar with Hine and the Pseudonomicon, the focus of the novel is not some exegesis on Lovecraftian occultism…it’s the use of chaos magic for a very specific purpose: trolling Lovecraft.

There are a lot of ways for dealing with life, the things it throws at you, and historical figures like H. P. Lovecraft. Many writers have addressed Lovecraft and his work in many ways in fiction, from reverence to revulsion, ridicule to reimagining. None of these are wrong; a writer might express their appreciation for Lovecraft by creating a fictional version of them in their story, as Robert Silverberg did in “Gilgamesh in the Outback”, or work out frustration by calling out his racism as N. K. Jemisin did in The City We Became. Chaos magic is as valid an approach as any other—and maybe as valid a goal for chaos magic as any other operation.

He took his copy of a collection of Lovecraft’s prose off the shelf and found Beyond the Wall of Sleep, one of his favorites and one of the original pieces that he was going to mess with. He read through it quickly and found it unchanged, just as Her Greatness had said. Then, Dyl pulled up a transcription on the web and found that the phrase ’empire of Tsan-Chan’ had in fact been changed to ’empire of Fiat-Nox’.
—V. McAfee, Trolling Lovecraft 67

While trolling Lovecraft is the premise of the novel, the focus is on Dyl and the consequences of his actions. Like many magicians, he’s young, male, egotistical, often horny, and perpetually getting himself into deeper and deeper shit through poor life choices. This is not a magical adventure in the sense that Dyl has to find an ancient grimoire bound in human skin and has to defeat Cthulhu before the evil cult can summon him into the real world; this is an extraordinarily personal journey about someone who becomes unmoored from his personal reality because he decided to troll Lovecraft…and while many other people might not believe in it, it’s real for him.

Which is what chaos magic is all about.

Trolling Lovecraft was written by V. McAfee for NaNoWriMo 2020, and a print edition was successfully funded and delivered on Kickstarter in 2021. Digital copies can be purchased at the Gate Zero shop on Etsy and Gumroad.


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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez

Believe green buds awaken in the spring,
That autumn paints the leaves with somber fire;
Believe I held my heart inviolate
To lavish on one man my hot desire.
—The Song of Bêlit

Robert E. Howard’s novellette “Queen of the Black Coast” was published in Weird Tales May 1934. It was the ninth story of Conan the Cimmerian published in Weird Tales, and is notable as one of the most popular, critically lauded, and most influential of the Conan adventures. The story by itself is very tightly contained, with Conan and Bêlit meeting, falling in love, and being separated by death all within five quick-paced chapters. The story and characters have been adapted several times in comics, with the writers and artists stretching out the narrative inserting additional episodes so that more of the adventures (and romance) of Conan and Bêlit can be explored. The story provided the inspiration for the first Conan comic, La Reina de la Costa Negra, and in 2019 Marvel Comics published a prequel series Age of Conan: BelitPoul Anderson wrote an entire authorized novel, Conan the Rebel (1980) which similarly takes part between the first and second parts of “Queen of the Black Coast.”

In that dead citadel of crumbling stone.
Her eyes were snared by that unholy sheen,
And curious madness took me by the throat,
As of a rival lover thrust between
—The Song of Bêlit

As the name implies, and the “Song of Bêlit” that opens each chapter, Bêlit herself is a character coeval with Conan for this story—it is her story as much as it is his, and can be compared to “The Phoenix on the Sword” in how she is presented through her song as already a legend to the readers. While Conan would be involved with many women throughout the series as written by Howard (and expanded on by various others), Bêlit represents his first, and for most of his initial run in Weird Tales, only real equal: a woman, warrior, and queen as fierce as himself. In authorized and unauthorized materials, writers and artists have explored and expanded on her character and characterization.

Was it a dream the nighted lotus brought?
Then curst the dream that bought my sluggish life;
And curst each laggard hour that does not see
Hot blood drip blackly from the crimsoned knife.
—The Song of Bêlit

Fandom and literary criticism have both borrowed the term canon to refer to those texts in a particular series or body of works which are considered, for whatever purposes may be put to them, to be “true” in any given sense. The idea of canon gets murkier when you consider that anyone can potentially write their own sequel, prequel, etc. to a given story, they can take an established character and put them in an entirely new story of their own invention, or take their character and put them into an established setting. Different writers can draw connections between their work, as Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard did by slipping references to each other’s fictional worlds into their own stories, so that Howard’s Hyborian Age is technically a node of the Cthulhu Mythos shared universe…

How much of that is canon? It depends. Pretty much everyone agrees that what Robert E. Howard wrote and published during his life is as “canon” as Conan gets. What about his unpublished works, like “The God in the Bowl?” What about unfinished works, which were completed by later authors? What about works that were officially commisioned and licensed by Conan’s estate or their agents, like the aforementioned comic books and Conan the Rebel? What about works which are set in the period but don’t feature Conan at all, like The Leopard of Poitain (1985) by Raul Garcia-Capella?

The question closely parallels (and in places, overlaps) with questions of canonicity in the Cthulhu Mythos. Lovecraft’s fiction is generally considered as canonical Mythos as you can get, and Lovecraft includes references to Howard’s stories: does that make Conan & company Mythos-canon by extension? All or none of these might be “canon,” depending on whom you ask. In terms of fandom, you yourself as the reader are the final arbiter for what you consider canon.

The intellectual property lawyers might have other ideas.

The shadows were black around him,
The dripping jaws gaped wide,
Thicker than rain the red drops fell;
But my love was fiercer than Death’s black spell,
Nor all the iron walls of hell
Could keep me from his side.
—The Song of Bêlit

Intellectual property law is complicated, and there is money invested in copyrights and trademarks. It’s not just a question of publishing collections of Howard’s original stories: all the writers, artists, inkers, colorists, letterers, editors, etc. who produce new works of Conan are contributing to the total body of Conan-related work, and there are rights, percentages, and real money, issues of creative control and branding that are at stake. While it’s nice to think that Conan and Bêlit’s ongoing appeal is due to Robert E. Howard’s original story alone, the reality is that there decades of work by many individuals that have gone into the ongoing promotion, adaptation, and development of the Conan properties…but, eventually, copyrights expire and a work falls into the public domain.

In the European Union “Queen of the Black Coast” is in the public domain. That doesn’t just mean that publishers can freely translate and publish it, but that authors can take the original text and transform them into original works in various ways. Which is exactly what Rodolfo Martínez did.

Now we are done with roaming, evermore;
No more the oars, the windy harp’s refrain;
Nor crimson pennon frights the dusky shore;
Blue girdle of the world, receive again
Her whom thou gavest me.
—The Song of Bêlit

Martínez is a Spanish fantasy and science fiction writer and translator, perhaps most notable to English-language audiences for his Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Wisdom of the Dead (2019). The Song of Bêlit is a pastiche of and expansion of Howard’s “Queen of the Black Coast”—literally reproducing essentially the entirety of the text of Howard’s novelette, but wrapped around and combined with original chapters that extend and expand the scope of the original story.

Except for the chunks of pure Howard, the story is a pastiche in the purest sense: Martínez is familiar with Howard’s entire Conan ouevre, including the stories that had not yet been written when “Queen of the Black Coast” was, and in addition to Conan and Bêlit other familiar characters poke their head in to the narrative, which is considerably lengthened and convoluted. It’s a fun story, and doesn’t come up to Howard’s original prose, but then no one but Howard could do that. There are a few errors, no doubt more from translation issues than anything else; the wizard Thoth-Amon from “The Phoenix on the Sword” is here as “Toth-Amon.” There are a few references to Isis and Osiris that might have made even Howard wince—but then again, perhaps not.

Rodolfo Martínez was cognizant of all the criticism he might receive for doing this, and discusses the issues involved in some depth in an essay at the end of the book. One of the most interesting things is that Martínez did not just sit down and write the novel; he mapped out the blank space between the beginning of “Queen of the Black Coast” and the end, the three years which Howard had said separated Conan and Bêlit’s meeting and their parting. Howard later alluded to some of the events that happened during this period in later stories, and those had to happen, but beyond that Martínez wished to deliberately avoid the plot that Roy Thomas had written when he expanded on that missing period during his run on Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian.

The approach is very Sherlockian: finding the gaps in the existing canon, trying to fill it with something new while not reproducing someone else’s work. Which is what makes The Song of Bêlit a kind of recension—a variation on a text, part of a group of texts. Martínez was trying to fill in the gaps without contradicting anything that Howard wrote (although he does a little judicious shuffling of paragraphs for narrative purposes). So consider this a “might have been”…and, perhaps more importantly, a glimpse at what might yet be.

Believe green buds awaken in the spring,
That autumn paints the leaves with somber fire;
Believe I held my heart inviolate
To lavish on one man my hot desire.
—The Song of Bêlit

By itself, The Song of Bêlit is an oddity: a Spanish fantasy novel based on a public domain English pulp novelette, now translated into English and available to buy and read. Yet in making that transatlantic crossing to the United States of America where copyright law is different, it gives readers a first taste of what is to come.

Because when they enter the public domain, that means that anyone can play with Howard’s original text, and write original stories with Howard’s characters. We’ve already seen something of the explosion of creativity that has led to with regard to Lovecraft and his Mythos. Who can forget Kanye West—Reanimator (2015) by Joshua Chaplinsky & “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon? We have seen far from the last of Bêlit, whether in her own adventures or with Conan by her side, readers will no doubt see much, much more of their characters…and then they will have to decide for themselves which stories fit into their canon.


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

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The Shuttered Room (1966) by Julia Withers

Incidentally, I’ve just sold Heritage Productions THE SHUTTERED ROOM. No doubt they’ll flesh out the “romance” between Dunwich boy and Innsmouth girl to give it “body” and we’ll have a shilling shocker out of it, but I couldn’t care less, really….
—August Derleth to Ramsey Campbell, 6 Feb 1964, Letters to Arkham 170

“The Shuttered Room,” the title story for the collection The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces (1959), is arguably Derleth’s greatest work of fanfiction. While originally billed as one of Derleth’s “posthumous collaborations,” and Derleth had claimed to base it on unspecified notes by Lovecraft. In one letter, Derleth described it as:

[…] wedding of the Innsmouth and Dunwich themes, as manifestly HPL intended to do, judging by his scant notes.
—August Derleth to Felix Stefanile, August 11, 1958, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Whether or not these notes actually existed is open to speculation; no surviving letters suggests Lovecraft had any intention to unite the two themes. Nevertheless, in 1958 Derleth sat down to write the story (A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos 215, 231). The result is not his best Mythos story, or even his best pastiche, but probably the best fanfiction story that Derleth would ever write, a literal union of the Whateley and Marsh family trees from “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” paying detailed homage to both.

In the 1960s, August Derleth and Arkham House began to have some success in selling the film rights to various Lovecraft & related properties, resulting in five films:

Despite the fact that every film except The Shuttered Room was distributed by American International Productions, this wasn’t an early effort at a cinematic universe or franchise along the lines of the Universal monsters. While a couple of the films shared a few elements such as the Necronomicon, each was produced separately and without any direct tie-ins to the others in the form of characters, sets, props, or storylines.

The films all received different marketing promotions and led to the creation of associate media: Die, Monster, Die! got a comic book adaptation and there was an Italian fotonovela created for Curse of the Crimson Altar, for example. In 1966, released before the film came out, The Shuttered Room received a film novelization—as a kind of Gothic romance.

The novel was written by “Julia Withers,” a pseudonym used by prolific novelist and ghostwriter Jerrold Mundis who had worked on several different screenplay novelizations in the late 1960s. It’s difficult to tell how successful the slim paperback (only 156 pages) was. It is even more difficult to tell if Mundis ever bothered to read Derleth’s original story. Probably not; there is little enough let of Derleth’s original story in the screenplay by D. B. Ledrov and Nathaniel Tanchuck. Much of the best writing in the short story is in the descriptive passages that Derleth wrote so well, and the best part of the film is the cinematography; the novel lacks both.

The Shuttered Room (novel) is a very barebones kind of contemporary thriller dressed up (at least in terms of the cover) as a kind of Gothic romance, where family secrets, an old building, and a family curse threaten a nice young couple. There is no Mythos content beyond the name of Dunwich itself—here an isolated island rather than a town. Even “Whateley” is rendered as “Whately,” and there is no reference to Innsmouth at all. What Mundis does add above and beyond what is in the film is a touch of the grotesque, some backstory that either never made it to the final film or was cut out, and one important thing…

There, squatting in the midst of the tumbled bedding from that long-abandoned bed, sat a monstrous, leathery-skinned creature that was neither frog nor man, one gorged with food, with blood still slavery from its batrachian jaws and upon its webbed fingers—a monstrous entity that had strong, powerfully long arms, grown from its bestial body like those of a frog, and tapering off into a man’s hands, save for the webbing between the fingers…
—August Derleth, “The Shuttered Room” in The Watchers Out of Time 158

Something vaguely resembling a woman crouched in that doorway. Its hair was long and matted and tangled. A tattered filthy garment hung from its twisted body. Its eyes were large and bulbous. Its nose was non-existent, only two gaping holes. A slit with jagged teeth served for a mouth. It’s skin was leathery and cracked—scale-like, actually—and it glistened with moisture.
—Julia Withers (Jerrod Mundis), The Shuttered Room 149

Imagine trying to describe a Deep One/Whateley hybrid, in a setting which has already expunged every reference to Innsmouth and to an audience that has no familiarity with “The Dunwich Horror.” The solution in Mundis’ The Shuttered Room was to describe the nameless Whately child as a monstrous freak: “stillborn…or it should have been…but it lived.”

“Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” as Lovecraft would put it. The idea was that living things re-experience the stages of evolution as they grow; so that human embryos have gills…tails…which are lost as they develop. The idea that an embryo might get “stuck” at a certain stage and yet successfully be born and grow to adulthood is not unique to The Shuttered Room novel. In fact, it is strongly reminiscent of the 1953 horror film The Maze—and one has to wonder if Derleth might not have taken a bit of inspiration from this film too. Some years after Derleth wrote “The Shuttered Room,” Ramsey Campbell mentioned the film to Derleth:

There have been movies with a definite slant toward the conceptions of the Mythos, however […] there was the one starring Richard Carlson titled THE MAZE, which was about the hideous frog-creature which is kept and fed in an ancient castle, and finally turns out to be the first in a line who now live in the castle!
—Ramsey Campbell to August Derleth, 10 Aug 1961, Letters to Arkham 12-13

Did Derleth borrow from The Maze? Did Jerrold Mundis? In such a case as this, where the original work has been so translated, and so changed in the transformation from short story to screenplay to short novel, it’s difficult to say…but the various works stand as distinct iterations of a very odd cadet line of the Mythos.

The film was not so creative. Or perhaps it just wasn’t in the budget. The company forewent any supernatural or preternatural explanation; there was no monster, and almost no explanation. In that sense, at least, the novel is an improvement on the film, or at least a step closer to Derleth’s original story. The idea of a madwoman trapped in the attic is closer to Jane Eyre than Cthulhu; perhaps that’s why the marketing of The Shuttered Room (novel) bears the hallmarks of the Gothic romances of its day, rather than any effort to market it to Lovecraft fans. The novel stands as an example of how truly weird and diffuse Lovecraftian influence can get.


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

The Village Green (192?) by Edith Miniter

Meanwhile [R. H. Barlow] has elected himself a sort of successor to Cook & me as literary executor for Mrs. Miniter, & is busily going over the huge bale of unclassified Miniteriana which Cook sent here last year. Amongst this material is the long-lust novelette of 1923 (about a literary club with figures taken from the Hub Organisation—I am recognisably depicted!) called “The Village Green” […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Edward H. Cole, 15 Aug 1936, Letters to Albert Galpin & Others 143

Even during his lifetime, H. P. Lovecraft was a character that blurred the lines between reality and fiction. His personal myth was born by the persona he projected in his vast correspondence—but his encounters with folks he met in-person were no less memorable. Frank Belknap Long, Jr. famously killed a fictionalized Howard in “The Space-Eaters” (Weird Tales, July 1928), one of the first Cthulhu Mythos stories; Robert Bloch did the same thing in “The Shambler from the Stars” (Weird Tales, Sep 1935), and Lovecraft’s wife would base a character on him in “Four O’Clock” (1949). In the decades that followed his death, Lovecraft would enter fully into his own mythology; August Derleth would cite his books alongside the Necronomicon, and out past the known planets Richard A. Lupoff would find him in “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” (1977). Since then Lovecraft’s image has appeared in short fictions, comics, manga, games, and other media. Actor Jeffrey Combs even famously played him in Necronomicon: Book of the Dead (1993)—with the aid of a prosthetic to mimic Lovecraft’s prognathous jaw.

Yet one of the earliest literary depictions of H. P. Lovecraft has been read by very few people.

A group that didn’t feel interested in jaunty publications talked just as jauntily about literature, and not entirely their own. Indeed the large man with the long chin, who had received a letter from “Bob” Davis containing the words: “It (The Bats in the Belfry) is splendidly written, but it exceeds the speed limit….I have been some time coming to a conclusion about this story, but I didn’t want to push the matter hastily. Even now I may be wrong….” took the confession in a nonchalant manner that shocked his confreres.
—Edith Miniter, The Village Green and Other Pieces 147

“The large man with the long chin” is later identified as H. Theobald, Jr.; “Theobald” being one of Lovecraft’s pseudonyms in amateur journalism, as seen in “To Mr. Theobald” (1926) by Samuel Loveman. To appreciate the characterization, it is necessary to be familiar with the author.

Edith May Dowe Miniter (1867-1934) was a journalist, both amateur and professional. She became involved in amateur journalism at age 13, edited and published many papers, and was largely associated with the Hub Club in Boston, Massachusetts, and the National Amateur Press Association; she would serve terms as president of both organizations, the first woman to hold executive office in amateur journalism, and even met her husband through amateur journalism (NAPA History, Early Amateur Journalism in Massachusetts, and “The Other Miniter: In Search of John T. Miniter” in The Fossil 386).

Through amateur journalism, Edith Miniter met Lovecraft. They actually met in person at the 1921 National Amateur Press Association convention in Boston, where Lovecraft would also meet his future wife Sonia H. Greene. Miniter’s amateur journals contain many insightful snippets on folks including Lovecraft and Winifred Virginia Jackson. She was noted particularly for her wit, which was scathing and unsparing, but also often irreverent and universal, an example of which is “Falco Ossifracus” (1921), the first parody and pastiche of Lovecraft’s particularly florid style. Lovecraft in turn wrote poems dedicated to her and her cats, and held the elder stateswoman of amateur journalism in high esteem.

While she published many stories and poems, her only novel was Our Natupski Neighbors (1916); she started other novels, including The Village Green, but never completed any of them before her death in 1934. Lovecraft was one of those who helped scatter her mother’s ashes in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, whose scenery and lore had helped to inform “The Dunwich Horror.” Her papers first went to fellow amateur journalist W. Paul Cook, and then Lovecraft’s teenaged friend R. H. Barlow, whom had been introduced to amateur journalism through Lovecraft, got involved. Barlow would eventually publish Miniter’s short story “Dead Houses” in his journal Leaves, alongside other pieces from the Lovecraft circle, and some of her papers were later donated to the John Hay Library along with Lovecraft’s materials.

The Village Green, however, would languish mostly inaccessible until 2013 when it was finally published in The Village Green and Other Pieces, edited by Kenneth W. Faig, Jr. and Sean Donnelly. The editors suggest that the novel was written circa 1923-1925, and go on to say:

Make no mistake—the editors make no exaggerated claims for The Village Green, whose portrait of a local literary club patterned on Edith’s Hub Club never really jells into a coherent narrative. (xi)

The unfinished novel is very old fashioned by contemporary standards, in terms of prose and framing, but of its time it would have been quite candid. It is Dickensian in the sense that it is a novel of incidents and episodes, often prosaic, fragments of discussion with layers of a social game of manners both implicit and explicit; it is similar to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) in that it is a starkly realistic example of the inner lives of ordinary people, including their sexual affairs—though while Miniter is explicit that the affairs happen, she isn’t explicit about any of the details of coitus itself. The result never quite comes together, because, much like life, it just continues on until it stops. Probably the closest comparison would be some of August Derleth’s output of regional literature called the Sac Prairie Saga.

Lovecraft’s character is probably the main drew of the novel for most. The reference to “The Bats in the Belfry” is, I suspect, a reference to “Bat’s Belfry,” the first story by August Derleth in Weird Tales (May 1926), which if true might indicate Miniter was working on the manuscript rather later than 1925. The scenes or episodes with H. Theobald, Jr. are few, yet as Lovecraft noted, he is easy to recognize:

Theobald—the man with the long chin—opined that this retort had been ancient in the 18th century. At this arose a fusillade of comments. Theobald did not really try to live in the 18th century, though he might date letters 1723 and refer to Colonies. Had he actually asked for a typewrite with a long “s”? Did he smoke the pipes of that period—did he read newspapers of that day? “I hate to say it, but you’re nothing better than an anachronism, Theobald,” observed Trinkett.

Theobald calmed the tumult with an upraised hand—the too white hand of an invalid. “‘Tis plain,” he said, “that my character is receiving a Dickensonian or 19th century distortion to the grotesque, which well conceals the quiet manners of a gentleman of Geo. the II’s reign. You must know that in my time ’twas thought monstrous vulgar to excite remark in publick assemblies; and that no matter how humorsome a queer old fellow might be he would save his odd humors for the coffee-house, nor seek to drag them into a rout of any sort of mixt genteel company.”
—Edith Miniter, The Village Green and Other Pieces 148

It is hard to tell how much of this is true to life for Lovecraft’s behavior in person, and how much of it is Miniter gently taking the piss with her good friend. Her amateur journal pieces which mention Lovecraft don’t tend to go into this level of detail in putting words into his mouth, but at the same time these are very similar sentiments—and spellings—to what Lovecraft would include in his correspondence with others. If it’s a parody or a caricature, it is a gentle one, and Theobald’s insistence on being a 17th century gentleman in the 20th century is not too far from what Lovecraft often presented himself as. Whether Miniter actually quotes directly from Lovecraft is impossible to say at this remove.

The Village Green will probably be too much for weird fiction fans; the decidedly non-fantastic plot and incomplete status will likely shy away everyone except historians and Lovecraft scholars. Yet it is important not to forget what it represents: Lovecraft’s impact on the lives of those around him, including women like Edith Miniter, who wished to immortalize her friend in one of her stories. While incomplete, the novel stands as a testament to an important figure in amateur journalism history, a regional writer whose work is often unrecognized today, and deserves to be better appreciated for what she wrote and accomplished in her life.

The manuscript for The Village Green is available online at the John Hay Library.


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

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).