“Collector the Third: Charles Wilson Hodap (1842-1944)” (1995) by Kenneth W. Faig, Jr.

And it was then that Nyarlathotep came out of Egypt. Who he was, none could tell, but he was of the old native blood and looked like a Pharaoh. The fellahin knelt when they saw him, yet could not say why. He said he had risen up out of the blackness of twenty-seven centuries, and that he had heard messages from places not on this planet. Into the lands of civilisation came Nyarlathotep, swarthy, slender, and sinister, always buying strange instruments of glass and metal and combining them into instruments yet stranger. He spoke much of the sciences—of electricity and psychology—and gave exhibitions of power which sent his spectators away speechless, yet which swelled his fame to exceeding magnitude. Men advised one another to see Nyarlathotep, and shuddered. And where Nyarlathotep went, rest vanished; for the small hours were rent with the screams of nightmare.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Nyarlathotep”

Tales of the Lovecraft Collectors by noted Lovecraft scholar Kenneth W. Faig Jr. is very much in the vein of “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996) by Peter Cannon & Robert M. Price in that it is a piece of fictional scholarship as much as anything else. The four stories in the collection are “what ifs?,” imagining chapters of Lovecraft’s life that could have been, as discovered some decades later by dedicated scholars like Faig. The stories are all generally plausible, and present less a “what might have been” than an alternate viewpoint on their subject—H. P. Lovecraft.

Not many now living will recall the Egyptian vogue of the eighteen-seventies…fifty years before King Tut and his curse fixed their hold upon the popular imagination…but a few of our older citizen will recall the famous Black or Nigger Hotep who held the audiences of at Olney’s Opera House spellbound with his Egyptian regalia and bizarre contraptions in those day. How Charles Wilson Hodap became the Black Hotep is a story which I cannot relate to you […]
—Kenneth W. Faig, Jr., “Collector the Third: Charles Wilson Hodap (1842-1944) in Tales of the Lovecraft Collectors 31.

The third tale recounts the discovery and tracking-down of biographical information of Charles Wilson Hodap, an African-American stage magician who performed under the title “Black Hotep,” with an Egyptian theme. The narrator is ostensibly David Parkes Boynton, a (fictional) very early and enthusiastic Lovecraft collector, but this is really a device of Faig’s. The narrative is primarily a combination of correspondence and interviews, with a little exposition mixed in. More than enough for readers to follow the chain of evidence as Boynton investigates whether it was this “Black Hotep” that inspired H. P. Lovecraft to create Nyarlathotep.

Nyarlathotep is one of Lovecraft’s most ambiguous creations. In the prose-poem “Nyarlathotep” and sonnet XXI of the “Fungi from Yuggoth,” Nyarlathotep is a kind of showman-prophet of doom; in “The Rats in the Walls” he is a “mad, faceless god” at Earth’s center; in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath he is the “soul and messenger of the Outer Gods,” the crawling chaos; in “The Dreams in the Witch House” he is one with the Black Man of the Witch Cult; and he is mentioned in passing in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” “The Haunter of the Dark,” “The Shadow out of Time,” “The Mound,” and “The Last Test” as part of the Mythos. Other writers would expand considerably on Nyarlathotep, explaining away his varied appearances as avatars or “masks,” but the initial presentation that many readers receive of Nyarlathotep from Lovecraft’s stories is that of a dark-skinned man, at least when the crawling chaos is in human form:

And at the last from inner Egypt came
The strange dark One to whom the fellahs bowed;
Silent and lean and cryptically proud,
And wrapped in fabrics red as sunset flame.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Fungi From Yuggoth Sonnet XXI. Nyarlathotep”

Then down the wide lane betwixt the two columns a lone figure strode; a tall, slim figure with the young face of an antique Pharaoh, gay with prismatic robes and crowned with a golden pshent that glowed with inherent light. Close up to Carter strode that regal figure; whose proud carriage and swart features had in them the fascination of a dark god or fallen archangel, and around whose eyes there lurked the languid sparkle of capricious humour.
—H. P. Lovecraft, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

The evilly grinning beldame still clutched him, and beyond the table stood a figure he had never seen before—a tall, lean man of dead black colouration but without the slightest sign of negroid features; wholly devoid of either hair or beard, and wearing as his only garment a shapeless robe of some heavy black fabric. His feet were indistinguishable because of the table and bench, but he must have been shod, since there was a clicking whenever he changed position. The man did not speak, and bore no trace of expression on his small, regular features.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dreams in the Witch House”

“Black” or “svart” in this context does not necessarily mean that Nyarlathotep’s human form took on the appearance of sub-Saharan African or African-American, and Lovecraft’s description in “The Dreams in the Witch House” in particular is explicitly not, and with the rest of the apparatus of the witch-cult inspired by Margaret Murray’The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), where the Devil is often described as appearing dressed in black clothing, and with cloven hooves; a “black man” connected with witchcraft also appears in Arthur Machen’s “The White People”, which influenced Lovecraft.

Whether or not Nyarlathotep’s human appearance is “black” (or Arabic, or anything else) in the sense of race is largely irrelevant to the plot of the stories he appears in, though in the poems it adds an exotic element to his history, a suggestion of otherness. But when readers are aware of Lovecraft’s prejudice against black people, they may interpret the stories differently—and later writers and artists are forced to consider the issue of how to depict Nyarlathotep, and in human form that at least implicitly means discussing the physical features associated with race—even Lovecraft feels the need to specify the Black Man of the Witch Cult is “not Negroid.” Adding a racial dimension to the characterization means addressing racial prejudice. Is Nyarlathotep an example of Lovecraft’s racism?

Probably not—at least, there is no indication in Lovecraft’s letters that he ever intended such a characterization of the crawling chaos—but such issues must underlie and inform Faig’s narrative of Charles Wilson Hodap. Boynton detective work slowly unveils more information about the life of this African-American entertainer, and finally hit upon the crucial connection with a young, enthusiastic audience: a six-year old Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Here, Boynton believes he has found the inspiration for at least one of Lovecraft’s iconic creations: a hardworking, kindly black entertainer.

The conceit works to the extant that it is a neat solution; Faig, being the Lovecraft scholar her is, ties it in with Lovecraft’s life and the history of Providence. It is an ultimately believable and perhaps a touch mundane revelation, one which requires no grimoires or neuroses. The final pages detail a scholar’s best wishes for such a discovery, with articles published, associated materials related to Hodap’s life found and deposited with an appropriate library, and funds raised to place a proper marker on the graves of Hodap and his wife. It is as warm and fuzzy an ending as one might hope for in such a story.

The shadow of Lovecraft’s racism remains, hovering over the narrative, and the question to ask is: is Faig attempting to downplay or whitewash Lovecraft’s racism? Certainly he is playing with the idea that Nyarlathotep as conceived by a young Lovecraft was “black” in a racial sense. The text, aside from a couple incidents of “Nigger Hotep” is markedly limited in its depiction of period racism.

Accompanying the advertisement was a line drawing of Hotep himself, sketched against a background of a fantastic array of mirrors and strange-looking apparatus. Naked from the waist up, Hotep’s flesh was inked in the blackest ebony, forming a stark contrast with the white of the strange-looking turban which crowned his head and the loose, skirt-like garment which fell from his waist. From hi features, so far as I could tell from the drawing, I judged him to be a Negro of the purest Nubian type.
—Kenneth W. Faig, Jr., “Collector the Third: Charles Wilson Hodap (1842-1944) in Tales of the Lovecraft Collectors 31.

Young Lovecraft himself never appears on the page to give a personal opinion. The idea of a positive relationship with an African-American is probably out of context for most readers aware of Lovecraft’s prejudices, but not necessarily inaccurate to life. If it were true—if Black Hotep had existed and inspired Lovecraft’s Nyarlathotep—would that change anything of the readers’ opinions of Lovecraft himself? Would it inform or influence how they viewed appearances of Nyarlathotep when they read his stories again, seeing the vaguely sinister figure in a more theatrical bent, like William Marshall in Blacula?

Without addressing these subjects directly, Faig’s tale is in many ways a reflection on the nature of Nyarlathotep, H. P. Lovecraft, and the readers’ relationship with both. Just as readers’ interpretation of Nyarlathotep can shift when they are aware of Lovecraft’s racism, so can readers be made to question that interpretation by presenting a kind of counter-example: a Lovecraft who instead of being afraid of black people, found inspiration in at least one black entertainer, whose legacy lives on through his work.

Of course, Charles Wilson Hodap never existed; Faig’s story is a work of fiction, and Lovecraft scholars have posited other origins for Nyarlathotep. Is this then a story of an alternate timeline, or an idealized timeline? This kind of biographical fiction focused around Lovecraft or other authors is its own kind of metafictional biography, perhaps best represented by works like Peter Cannon’s The Lovecraft Chronicles (2004).

It does not seek to rewrite the past, exactly: the Lovecraft who encounters Faig’s Black Hotep is still presumably the Lovecraft that grows up to argue for the necessity of segregation and the biological inferiority of black people. Yet it present an example of an African-American that had a positive, and perhaps essential, effect on Lovecraft—and while that may not counterbalance everything Lovecraft wrote and said on the subject of race, it is difficult not to see it as inviting reflection along those lines.

The Tales of the Lovecraft Collectors were first published from 1979 to 1988 in the Esoteric Order of Dagon amateur press association. They were collected in a limited edition and published by Moshassuck Pres in 1989, and then revised and published by Necronomicon Press in 1995. Faig has published numerous other works about Lovecraft and the Mythos.

 

“Star Bright, Star Byte” (1994) by Marella Sands

Marella Sands warns of new gates through new technologies […]
—Thomas M. K. Stratman, introduction to Cthulhu’s Heirs (1994) 9

Cthulhu is older than digital computers, and neither Lovecraft nor his contemporaries dreamed of the internet. By 1994, the world wide web was three years old, the first full text web search engines online to help navigate the new conglomeration of web sites and networks. Four years before Google, a year before Nintendo released the Virtual Boy. Virtual reality—the immersive experience of a simulation, created and maintained by a computer program, that allowed you to interact with people and programs—was the promise of cyberpunk, had been since William Gibson described the globe-spanning Matrix in his 1984 novel Neuromancer.

Marella Sands’ “Star Bright, Star Byte” might be called Cthulhupunk. The setting is low-key cyberpunk: 20 minutes into the future, virtual reality systems are run like 1990s bulletin boards, hosting hundreds of users that jack in through implants in the back of the head. Immersed in virtual reality, they can ignore the cultists murdering people on hilltops—at least, until someone called Narla hacks the system. To gain control of a virtual world where anything can be programmed to be just right…even the stars.

“Star Bright, Star Byte” is an artifact of its time. Competent, uncomplicated, and fairly straightforward, Sands sets up and resolves this essential conflict with a minimal cast of characters (Kent Taylor, sysop; his friend Joe, and Narla). Even with the near-future setting of immersive virtual reality, the social mechanics are the same as cybersex in the 1990s: Narla presents as a good-looking woman, the better to entice and distract Kent while the system is hacked, but the sysop knows:

Of course, she could be a balding corporate executive in real life. Or another all-American male computer jock like me. Not all people program constructs to match their gender on the Outside.

The juxtaposition of still-unrealized technology and decades old internet culture is exacerbated by the combination of cyberpunk and the Cthulhu Mythos, both in a rather uncomplicated form—we get little sense of who the cultists are or why they’re trying to accomplish what they’re doing, except to hurry the Great Old Ones back. This is not atypical of Mythos fiction of the period; the tropes had already been established. Sands’ chooses not to dwell too deeply on either the logistics or the mechanics of how the world works: it’s the idea that is the thing. That with new technology comes new risks, and old horrors might appear under new masks to take advantage of the possibilities offered.

This is not exactly a new premise; Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” (1953) is somewhat comparable in basic concept, but not execution: there is a tinge of grittiness to “Star Bright, Star Byte” in the reality of Kent Taylor’s bachelor pad, the terrible smell from the long-neglected cups of coffee by the computer terminal, the way the “all-American male computer jock” feels blistering if he gets any sun, and admits he’d probably find the real Bahamas disappointing compared to his computer simulation—not exactly high tech and low life, but details that define the more personal stakes involved.  Where Clarke could end his story with the suggestion of a terrible finality, Sands prefers in Mythos fashion to leave readers with the terrible potentiality—that while the cultists were vexed this time, they might still try again.

“Star Bright, Star Byte” is not the only work of the period to try and combine the disparate cyberpunk/Mythos aesthetic; which include Lawrence Watt-Evans’ “Pickman’s Modem” (1992), Michael D. Winkle’s “Typo” (1994), Scott David Aniolowski’s “I Dream of Wires” (1995), GURPS CthulhuPunk (1995), and Alan Dean Foster’s “A fatal exception has occurred at…” (2002), to name only a few examples, and showcase the syntax of an era in which people were still exploring the conceptual limits of the shiny new internet. In a more general sense the effort to marry or address the advance of technology with the Mythos continues right up to the current day: Nick Mamatas explored virtual reality and the Mythos in “Inky, Blinky, Pinky, Nyarlathotep” (2011)—the latest participant in a nascent literary tradition.

“Star Bright, Star Byte” was published in Cthulhu’s Heirs: New Cthulhu Mythos Fiction (1994) by Chaosium.