“Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) by Robert M. Price

[…] we present an original story by the estimable Price, which is dedicated to Lin Carter and Robert E. Howard, as it utilizes Carter’s Dr. Anton Zarnak and Howard’s Steve Harrison. Its style brings back memories of the weird mysteries which Howard was noted for.
—Edward P. Berglund, “Preface to the Revised Edition” Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd Rev. Ed.) vi

In the Spring of 1933, Robert E. Howard got himself a new agent. Otis Adelbert Kline was a pulp writer himself, and had been a reader for Weird Tales in the early days, ghost-editing a single issue to bridge the gap between the outgoing Edwin Baird and the incoming Farnsworth Wright. Kline’s agency handle the promotion and collection of Howard’s work, freeing the Texas pulpster to simply write, and the agent encouraged Howard to splash new markets—to spread his literary wings and try his hands at not just weird fiction but spicy stories and detective fiction.

It was the great period of hardboiled detective fiction, which would become so married to film noir; the pulp magazine Black Mask thrilled to Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s John Dalmas. Yet it was also the era of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels. Yellow Peril literature was still going strong in the interwar period; H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard exchanged letters discussing the danger threatened by Imperial Japan, on the rise since their victories in the Russo-Japanese War and the Great War, and worried over the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and the looming probability of a great race war in the perhaps not too distant future.

This was the background against which Howard created Steve Harrison, star of nine weird detective stories, four of which sold and were published in magazines like Strange Detective Stories, Super-Detective Stories, and Thrilling Mystery between 1934 and 1936. Harrison’s beat was normally the local Chinatown, and the plots tend to be more oriented toward action than detection. Racism and racial conflict are part and parcel for the stories; Robert E. Howard, who had written quite a bit for Oriental Stories, obviously never heard Robert Knox’s rule that “No Chinaman must figure in the story.”

“Three unsolved murders in a week are not so unusual—for River Street,” grunted Steve Harrison, shifting his muscular bulk restlessly in his chair. […]

“It’s your business to solve murders,” she said.”

“Give me a little time. You can’t rush things, when you’re dealing with the people of the Oriental quarter.”

“You have less time than you think,” she answered cryptically. […] “Do you remember Erlik Khan?”

Involuntarily his hand sought his face, where a thin-scar ran from temple to jaw-rim.

“I’m not likely to forget him,” he grunted. “A Mongol who called himself Lord of the Dead. His idea was to combine all the Oriental criminal societies in America in one big organization, with himself at the head. He might have done it, too, if his own men hadn’t turned on him.”
—Robert E. Howard, “Names in the Black Book” (1934) in Steve Harrison’s Casebook 143

Occult detective Anton Zarnak was created by Lin Carter in the late 1980s, first as a minor character in “Curse of the Black Pharaoh,” and then star of his own adventures—sometimes written by Carter, others by Robert M. Price, Joseph S. Pulver, Sr; Pierre Comtois, and C. J. Henderson. Carter alongside L. Sprague de Camp had a hand in the legacies of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard; the two collaborated on many further adventures for Conan; revised, finished, or re-wrote Howard’s fiction; published highly-regarded fantasy anthologies and wrote articles promoting weird fiction and sword & sorcery. Lin Carter also created his own “Xothic Cycle” to expand on the work of Lovecraft and August Derleth.

Price in his introduction to Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak: Supernatural Sleuth notes that Zarnak’s influences include Sherlock Holmes, the Weird Tales occult detective Jules de Grandin (created by Seabury Quinn), Sax Rohmer’s Sir Dennis Nayland Smith, August Derleth’s Dr. Laban Shrewsbury, Steve Ditko’s Dr. Strange, and Robert E. Howard’s own Steve Harrison. Zarnak had his abode in Chinatown, had an Sikh manservant (much as Wong to Dr. Strange, or Ram Singh to The Spider), and had a shelf full of Mythos tomes. The first proper Zarnak story opens:

Below Fourteenth Street, between Chinatown and the river, extends a disreputable region of cryptic, winding alleys, crumbling tenements, rotting wharves and abandoned warehouses slumping in decay. Here dwell the human dregs of a thousand Eastern ports: Hindus, Japanese, Arabs, Chinamen, Levantines, Turks, Portuguese. Once these dark and sinister side-streets and fetid alleyways were the battlefield of the Tong wars; that was in the days of the legendary detective Steve Harrison, who single-handedly dealt out the white man’s law and the white man’s justice along River Street.
—Lin Carter, “Dead of Night” (1988) in Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak: Supernatural Sleuth 107

Steve Harrison was a product of the 1930s; between the time Robert E. Howard drew his last breath and Lin Carter sat down at his typewriter a second World War had come and gone; together with the Korean War and the Vietnam War these conflicts changed the contours of Yellow Peril fiction—it is often forgotten that comic book characters such as Dr. Strange and Iron Man came to be in the 1960s, their pulp fiction roots showing in characterizations of Asian characters as mystical and exotic, such as the Ancient One who taught Strange his sorcery, and the Mandarin who served as a Chinese counter to the American Iron Man. Later, as such blatant Asianophobia waned, the characters would be re-imagined from their original contexts…so what was Carter up to, writing a story with 1930s racial tropes (and almost 1930s racial language) in the 1980s?

In part, it might be because Howard’s Steve Harrison stories had only rarely been published or republished; most of them only became available in the late 1970s and 80s, during the tail end of the “Howard Boom,” and those often spread out; there was no complete book of Steve Harrison stories at the time. Also in part, it could be that Carter did not see the problem; he avoided the outright vulgarities of Howard (the N-word was casually dropped in several stories), and the nature of the fiction was in keeping with the style of the original—which, for a pasticheur like Carter, was important. Some years before, African-American fantasy author Charles Saunders had specifically called out de Camp and Carter for this approach in their Conan stories:

Carter and de Camp, on the other hand, continue to practice good old-fashioned bigotry in their non-Conan endeavors. Though they have done a good job at ameliorating some of Howard’s more blatant racism, their own efforts at sword-and-sorcery are throwbacks. This is doubly shameful, because both of these men are scholars, and should know better. Their books sell well enough, so it may be that racism in fantasy matters little to fandom.

But it does matter to me.
—Charles Saunders, “Die, Black Dog! A Look At Racism in Fantasy Literature” (1975)

The Cthulhu Mythos is itself no stranger to Yellow Peril tropes, as seen in “Polaris” (1920) by H. P. Lovecraft & “The Lair of the Star-Spawn” (1932) by August Derleth and Mark Schorer. The question is not if such sentiments are present in the original material, but how a new author working with that material chooses to adapt it to the syntax of their own time. There is nothing wrong with presenting historical racism as a fact of life; To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) for example is set during the Great Depression, and the realistic racism in the novel is critical to the story.

The issue when creating fiction set in this period or in this style is how much the story plays into the inherent biases of racial tropes and stereotypes. Having a villain who is Asian does not necessarily make a Yellow Peril story, so long as the individual is not a villain because they are Asian. Presenting historical racism as it was is often necessary; writing a story as if from that period, with all the inherent approach that the racism is true and correct is neither necessary nor commendable. The point is often a fine one, and easily lost on writers trying to capture the spirit of pulp fiction without considering the ideas and messages inherent in the text, never mind the subtext.

Carter was not alone in trying to navigate these difficult waters. One of the more egregious examples might be “Yellow Peril”: The Adventures of Sir John Weymouth-Smythe (1978) by Richard Jaccoma, which is essentially Fu Manchu fanfiction with a very slight wink toward the Mythos (Jaccoma also holds the rather dubious honor of having written the script for Teenage Twins (1976), the first hardcore adult film to feature the Necronomicon—and an incantation from a Robert E. Howard story—but I digress.) Like Carter, he was essentially trying to write a 1930s style Yellow Peril story.

This is essentially where Robert M. Price’s “Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) begins:

The one-man posse of River Street set his feet squarely, while the blue steel of twin automatics leaped into his fists and began to discharge a hail of white man’s justice into the knot of Oriental thugs. When his guns were empty he cast them aside and reached for the Gurkha knife had concealed in his belt Eastern style. It descended with the force of a guillotine, cleaving the skull of the first assassin to elude the rain of bullets and reach him. Himalayan blood spattered Harrison as he pulled the blade free of the sundered wreck of a head and managed to dodge a sword thrust aimed at himself.
—Robert M. Price, “Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) in Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd Rev. Ed.) 140-141

Price is deliberately working the story as a throwback piece; a character that uses the term “chink” or “Chinaman” once or twice can be grimaced at as an acknowledgment of the casual historical use of racial pejoratives; but the text itself describes them as “Asiatics,” “Muhammadans,” and “slant-eyed devils.” Not strong language by Robert E. Howard’s standards in 1936…but in 1996?

The story itself is the kind that weaves together disparate elements of Mythos (and non-Mythos) fiction, one of Price’s major interests. So the story references not just Steve Harrison and Anton Zardak, but the Unaussprechlichen Kulten created by Robert E. Howard in “The Black Stone” (1932) and given a German name through the help of Lovecraft, for more on which see “Unspeakable! The Secret History of Nameless Cults; the minor Mythos story “Dig Me No Grave” (1937) published after Howard’s death; the Black Lotus from the Conan stories, for more on which see “Robert E. Howard’s Reefer Madness”; Gol-Goroth from Howard’s “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” (1931); the cat-headed staff of Howard’s Solomon Kane; a passing reference to Frank Belknap Long’s Chaugnar-Faugn from The Horror from the Hills (1931), which includes an Asian Mythos cult; Lloigor, Zhar, and the Tcho-Tcho from August Derleth and Marc Schorer’s “The Lair of the Star Spawn” (1932)…and those latter especially deserve further consideration:

And the Tcho-Tchos! Every cop in the area knows them only too well: the latest wave of Oriental immigrants to clutter the docks. Damn near every single one of them connected with the criminal underground in one way or another. There are only a few, but even at that, there’s too damn many of them if you ask me!
—Robert M. Price, “Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) in Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd Rev. Ed.) 155

Derleth & Schorer introduced—and exterminated—the Tcho-Tcho in their story; but the idea of a small alien race in Asia had appeal to Lovecraft, who made reference to them, and were revived by devoted fans like Robert M. Price, who here inserts them into the context of the Asian diaspora to the United States, very unlike their original appearance. The language used against the Tcho-Tcho, who were initially presented as inhuman, is essentially the same as used for any Asian ethnicity in the age of the Asiatic Barred Zone Act (1917). Price doesn’t mention the events of Derleth & Schorer’s story, and glosses over their depiction of the Tcho-Tcho by noting:

You should be aware that these dwarf-like figures belong to a warrior caste specially bred. Not all the Tcho-Tchos are like them, nor have I expressly claimed to be of their nation. (ibid.)

Price’s mingling and confusion of real-world prejudice against Asian immigration with the fantasy racism of Derleth & Schorer’s confusion is a literary sin; whatever his intent, the result is that the real-world fear and hatred is given a justification within the context of story. Price has perhaps exposited too much; the Tcho-Tcho never appear on the page before the revelation is made, so the reader is exposed to their Mythos aspect and the anti-Asian prejudice in virtually the same breath.

Then it gets weirder:

The swelling chorus of guttural voices gave Steve a hint of his earlier dread. Deep down he knew that his Celtic forbears had driven the reptilian kindred of these dusky trolls away from the open spaces of human habitation. His knife thirsted for their stinking blood. He seemed to know that his statuesque cmpanion shared his own primal hate for the Little People. Askbar Singh’s ancestral mythology would know them as the Asuras, eternal enemies of the Aryan gods. (ibid., 163)

For anyone not hip-deep in Mythos lore this probably seems like racist gibberish. It is in fact a very nerdy reference where Price attempts to tie the dwarfish Tcho-Tcho with the Little People in Robert E. Howard’s stories such as “The Children of the Night” (1931) and “The People of the Dark” (1932) which in turn drew inspiration from Arthur Machen’s Little People stories such as “The Novel of the Black Seal” (1895), “The Red Hand” (1895), and “The Shining Pyramid” (1906); those interested in the gritty details can read about it in “Conan and the Little People: Robert E. Howard & Lovecraft’s Theory.”

The Little People as initially conceived by Machen and Howard derive from racialist anthropological theories that posited a “Mongoloid” race that inhabited Europe before being driven out by the arrival of the Causcasoid race that were the ancestors of contemporary (and implicitly white) Europeans. Both Machen and Howard attributed powers and non-humanoid characteristics to the Little People, and it’s easy to see how Price might have been drawn to the idea of conflating the Tcho-Tcho and Little People who both shared short stature, non-human nature or attributes, ignorant of modern technology, worship of Mythos agencies (in at least some cases)…but also an at least implicit connection to Asian peoples.

The fact that Price gives Steve Harrison a racial—and almost explicitly Aryan—hatred for the Little People/Tcho-Tcho makes the already bizarre mashup of fantasy and real-world racism uglier. Robert E. Howard, with his strong grounding in racialist ideas of history and narrative, had no difficulty writing such stories in the 1930s; Price in putting those thoughts into Steve Harrison’s head was perhaps doing no different than Howard might have done, and certainly was not writing anything worse than Howard had written in “The Children of the Night.”

Yet this was written in the 1990s, not the 1930s.

The fundamental issue here is not so much the use of the Tcho-Tcho as villains; Derleth and Schorer had already done that. If anything, giving the Tcho-Tcho some greater depth and making them something other than an “evil” race of faceless mooks would be praiseworthy. Attempting to accurately portray the historical racism of the period is certainly understandable given the context of the setting, where Anton Zarnak (who lives in Chinatown) and Steve Harrison (who works the Chinatown beat) meet to deal with a mutual threat. Combining the real-world prejudice and the fantasy racism however…this is where the story really gets problematic.

Price himself was a long-time editor of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu Fiction line, and as part of his notes for Howard’s “The Children of the Night” he wrote:

Can you spot similarities between this tale and three by Lovecraft? I am thinking of “Polaris,” where the narrator recalls an ancient life in which he fell asleep on guard duty when he should have been watching for the advance of his people’s subhuman foes; “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” where the narrator’s opening gives nary a sign of the atavistic identity-change he has undergone by the end; and “Pickman’s Model,” where one member of a Kalem-like club is ostracized as a hideous sub-human changeling.
—Robert M. Price, Nameless Cults: The Cthulhu Mythos Fiction of Robert E. Howard 66

Not all the parallels are pleasant: “Polaris” is explicitly a “Yellow Peril” story, albeit one set in a mythical past, for example. Early on “The Shadow over Innsmouth” has more than a trace of it:

But the real thing behind the way folks feel is simply race prejudice—and I don’t say I’m blaming those that hold it. I hate those Innsmouth folks myself, and I wouldn’t care to go to their town. I s’pose you know—though I can see you’re a Westerner by your talk—what a lot our New England ships used to have to do with queer ports in Africa, Asia, the South Seas, and everywhere else, and what queer kinds of people they sometimes brought back with ’em. You’ve probably heard about the Salem man that came home with a Chinese wife, and maybe you know there’s still a bunch of Fiji Islanders somewhere around Cape Cod.

“Well, there must be something like that back of the Innsmouth people.[“]
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

With Lovecraft, the prejudice is a red herring. The real-world fears of miscegenation and “foreignness” held by other Massachusetts locals towards the folkd of Innsmouth is a mask for the much weirder and more horrific truth. The locals are correct in that the “Innsmouth look” is the result of Innsmouth being a mixed-race community, they are wrong and ignorant in assuming they know what the “races” involved are. Blinded by their prejudice, they don’t see the terrible reality.

That could have been the case with “Dope War of the Black Tong”—but we never get a sense of the Tcho-Tcho before the Mythos connection is revealed. They have no sympathetic character, no demonstration of the prejudices they must suffer, no real explanation for what they’re doing in Chinatown instead of the Plateau of Sung. In this sense, the Howardian action-adventure approach that Price adopted is partially to blame; he starts off with Harrison in the thick of it, rather than ruminating on what brought the Tcho-Tcho diaspora to the United States, or why they would form a tong.

Price’s story essentially sees Harrison confirm the prejudices he held instinctively against the Tcho-Tcho just for looking Asian.

The racialism in the early Mythos stories from the 1930s can have a very long tail, impacting stories today. It is difficult to say how much influence “Dope War of the Black Tong” has had on the depiction of the Tcho-Tcho as, essentially, default Yellow Peril villains in contemporary Mythos fiction. For example, in the roleplaying game Delta Green, the Tcho-Tcho diaspora and association with drugs and other criminal activities are explicitly part of the setting; however, the explicit association between the Little People and the Tcho-Tcho is not.

“Dope War of the Black Tong” was first published in Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd rev. ed., 1996), it has been republished in Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak: Supernatural Sleuth (2002), and Robert M. Price’s own collection Blasphemies & Revelations (2008/2019).


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

“The Vale of Lost Women”(1967) by Robert E. Howard

I was fortunate enough to locate, last year, the bulk of the long lost Howard files. This includes a number of unpublished items, some of which appear in this issue. The unpublished fragment was among these papers; it is impossible to definitely determine whether this is an unfinished story or whether the remaining portion has been lost. Conan fans will be pleased to learn that several previously unpublished Conan stories were found: “Wolves Beyond the Border”, “The Snout in the Dark”, “The Hall of the Dead”, “The Hand of Nergal” and “The Vale of Lost Women”. Only the latter was finished; L. Sprague de Camp has completed the first three titles, while Lin Carter has finished “The Hand of Nergal.” “The Hall of the Dead” has been accepted by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction , while “The Vale of Lost Women” will appear in Magazine of Horror. All titles will appear in the Lancer Conan series in due course.
—Glenn Lord, The Howard Collector #9 (Spring 1967), 2-3

We know almost nothing about the origins of “The Vale of Lost Women.” There are two drafts extant, one unfinished (17 pages) and one complete (21 pages), with editing marks not in Howard’s hand, both undated. It is mentioned in none of Howard’s surviving correspondence, and if it was ever submitted to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales, no records of its submission or rejection have come to light. Howard scholar Patrice Louinet has stated in his essay “Hyborian Genesis” that the story was written circa February 1933—before Howard took Otis Adelbert Kline as his agent, and at the end of the first period of writing Conan stories (The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian 450).

Reader response to the “new” story—unearthed after thirty years and in the midst of the Howard boom of the 1960s—was mixed.

Charles Hidley writes: “The so-called ‘Conan’ story with its fantasy domino slightly askew is a thinly-masked ‘porny’ of the cheapest sado-sexual variety and doesn’t belong in your pages and wasn’t, I’m sure, authored by Robert E. Howard. Sick as that lad may have been, he at least was an author with imagination and writing skill—of sorts—and had the taste and discretion to flesh out his erotic fetishes with some semblance of narrative—and that in a category that could be honestly labelled macabre, outre, fantastic. If this was Howard (and I seriously challenge that labeling) it was surely a segment of something of greater length and depth—and less spuriousness.”

Carrington B. Dixon, Jr., writes from Texas: “1967 seems to be a good year for Conan. First FANTASTIC reprints People of the Black Circle, and now both MOH and FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION bring out new Conan stories! Of the two new ones, however, yours is 100% Howard, and it is easily the better of the two. I cannot imagine why The Vale of Lost Women was not published during Howard’s lifetime; unless it was that he did not live to submit it. It is certainly one of Howard’s better works. It is somewhat atypical for a Conon [sic] story but magnificent nonetheless. The fact that it is told in third person limited from Livia’s point of view adds a great deal to the story. The fight scenes still have gusto, but something has been added. The descent into the Vale has a chill missing in most Conan stories; we know that, no matter what the odds, Conan will come out with a whole skin, but women do not always fare so well…. This was easily the outstanding story of the issue.”
The Magazine of Horror #16 (Summer 1967), 119-120

The mixed opinion have much to do with the combination of racial and sexual dynamics in the story, which reflect a mix of Howard’s influences and themes. The story is, somewhat unusually, told from the perspective of Livia, an Ophirian woman held captive:

As she lay on the angareb in the great hut, her state bordered between delirium and semi-unconsciousness. Outward sounds and movements scarcely impinged upon her senses. her whole mental vision, though dazed and chaotic, was yet centered with hideous certitude on the naked, writhing figure of her brother, blood streaming down the quivering thighs.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 303

“Angareb” is a Sudanese word for a low, wooden-framed bed, which Howard probably picked up from the pages of Adventure; the image of the tortured, probably castrated, brother comes from what Patrice Louinet considers the story’s likely inspiration: the story of Cynthia Ann Parker and her brother John, who were captured by the Comanche in 1836. Robert E. Howard was familiar with versions of the story, which he mentioned to H. P. Lovecraft as early as 1931, and related in some detail to August Derleth in a letter written around January 1933 (Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard 3.4-9) In adapting the story to the Hyborian Age, however, the captors are not Native Americans but black people.

This was before Howard published his essay “The Hyborian Age,” but it is evident in the story that he had generally conceived of the broad outlines and some of details of the geography in Conan’s world, specifically:

South of Stygia are the vast black kingdoms of the Amazons, the Kushites, the Atlaians and the hybrid empire of Zembabwei.

The black people in this story are thus portrayed as black Africans in all but name; despite the confusion of names (which Lovecraft sometimes chided Howard for), the Kushites here should be seen as more or less metaphorical ancestors of the Kingdom of Kush, located in Nubia south of Egypt; hence the use of a Sudanese term like angareb, and the presence of bamboo is another detail suggesting the general geographic locale of the story.

If it seems weird to contemporary readers that Native Americans may be portrayed as Africans in this manner—it would not be the last time Howard made such a racial transposition. Most notably, in the Conan story “Beyond the Black River” the Picts—one of Howard’s favorites, appearing in not just the Conan stories but the Bran Mak Morn and Kull tales, as both historical Picts of the British Isles and as mythological predecessors from Lemuria and Atlantis—essentially take the place of Native Americans, a theme that John Bullard explored in “Beyond the Black River”: Is It Really “Beyond the Brazos River”? In general, it can be argued that one of the ways that Howard kept the Conan series fresh was by continually adapting different genres and settings to the Hyborian Age, and part of that involves the odd transpositions, as in the case of “The Vale of Lost Women.”

The transposition would have been easier for Howard’s intended audience because of popular pulp (and in general Colonialist fiction) depictions of indigenous peoples of both Africa and the Americas as “savage.” The idea hold connotations beyond the immediately obvious; in the 1930s to be a barbarian was to be juxtaposed to “civilization,” but to be savage was to be incapable of civilization. Even seemingly ambivalent terms like “Noble Savage” have inherent in them the basic racist bias that the people so described would never obtain civilization by their own skill or effort. This is perhaps more important for stories like Howard’s “The Moon of Skulls,” which features a black African kingdom living in the remnants of an ancient Atlantean outpost, but it is implicit in many works from many writers of this period, and one reason why it was “easy” for Howard to translate the Comanche to the Kushites in this story is because they were both, in his understanding, “savages.”

The contrast of savage vs. barbarian vs. civilized, white vs. black, is presented by Howard in very stark relief in “The Vale of Lost Women.”

The hut door opened, and a black woman entered—a lithe pantherish creature, whose supple body gleamed like polished ebony, adorned only by a wisp of silk twisted about her strutting loins. The whites of her eyeballs reflected the firelight outside, as she rolled them with wicked meaning.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 303

Most of the women in this story are either underdressed or nude; Robert E. Howard had learned by this point that Farnsworth Wright preferred a nude or near-nude female character in a scene for the cover illustration, so the use of a nude character in a Conan story is not itself unusual or weird—Seabury Quinn and other writers at Weird Tales were doing the same thing. What sets this scene and interaction apart is the contrast between the white woman, embarrassed at her nudity, and the black woman who flaunts it. This depiction between woman light and dark (not always white and black, but light-haired and brunette, etc.) is a recurring theme in Howard’s fiction, Charles Hoffman discusses this tendency in his essays “Return to Xuthal,” “Blood Lust: Robert E. Howard’s Spicy Adventures,”  and “Elements of Sadomasochism in the Fiction and Poetry of Robert E. Howard,” and it can be seen more clearly developed in later Conan stories like “The Slithering Shadow” and “Red Nails.”

The combination of racial and sexual elements centers now on Livia. Jim Crow was alive and well in the United States of the 1930s; the K.K.K. would be vocal about the need for the “color line” and many jurisdictions had laws against interracial marriage, racist stereotypes about the supposed licentiousness of African-Americans were rampant, and underlay the accusations of the Scottsboro Boys Trial. Social attitudes, however, were sexist as well as racist; many white male Americans found it acceptable for a white man to visit black female sex workers. The distinction makes up a particularly poignant passage in Howard’s life:

“Every man has to uphold his race and protect his women and children,” Bob said earnestly. “He has to build the best damn world he can. You mix and mingle the races, and what do you get? You get a mongrel race—a race that’s not white and not black.”

It seemed to me he was leaving out something important. “Very well, then,” I said flatly. “If a man’s going to fight to keep his race pure, don’t let him go down to the flat and leave a half-white, half-black child down there.”

Bob jerked the steering wheel so abruptly that we almost ran off the road.

“Well, damn it,” he groaned. “There’s something there that you don’t understand.”

He looked at me, ran his hand over his face, and glared. “Well, sometimes a man—Well, damn it. Sometimes a man has to—”
—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone 96

So, it’s not just that Livia is being held captive, but she is being sexually threatened in a way that would specifically speak to the (presumably primarily white and male) audience of Weird Tales—and the nature of this threat is not strictly heterosexual either:

The young black woman laughed evilly, with a flash of dark eyes and white teeth, and with a hiss of spiteful obscenity and a mocking caress that was more gross than her language, she turned and swaggered out of the hut, expressing more taunting insolence with the motions of her hips than any civilized woman could with spoken insults.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 304

Howard’s specific understanding of lesbianism was tied up in contemporary interpretations of homosexuality as a psychological disorder; he appears to have associated lesbianism with both the adoption of masculine attributes (as with his character Dark Agnes in “Sword Woman”) and with sadism, where it represents distorted sexual appetites (for more on this subject, see “Conan and Sappho: Robert E. Howard on Lesbians”). This in particular can be seen in the relationships between women in “The Moon of Skulls,” “The Slithering Shadow,” and “Red Nails”—all three of which dovetail with the light/dark female dichotomy already mentioned as a theme in Howard’s work. The presence of a “mocking caress” in this context then is not surprising—but unusually, in this case it also serves as a foreshadowing of the events later in the story.

Nor is this the only case of racial stereotypes being used in this story:

On an ivory stool, flanked by giants in plumed head-pieces and leopard-skin girdles, sat a fat, squat shape, abysmal, repulsive, a toad-like chunk of blackness, reeking of the dank rotting jungle and the nighted swamps. The creature’s pudgy hands rests on the sleek arch of his belly; his nape was a roll of sooty fat that seemed to thrust his bullet head forward. His eyes gleamed in the firelight, like live coals in a dead black stump. Their appalling vitality belied the inert suggestion of the gross body.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 304

This description of Bajujh, king of Bakalah, is not far off from the first shot of Jabba the Hutt as portrayed in Return of the Jedi (1983)—and there is a similar logic at work. Howard, through the gaze of Livia, is setting up Bajujh as the epitome of disgust. Like in “Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch, Howard is building up this individual as a visceral ultimate expression in the minds of the readers. Robert E. Howard was more than capable of describing black characters in many different ways—from obsequious to defiant, young to old, powerful to weak, intelligent and wise to animalistic—and many of his stories build up particular characters as particularly capable or dangerous to the protagonists. Yet Bajujh is not a rival for Conan—he is established as an opposite, a study in contrasts for the Cimmerian who he wanders onto the page a few paragraphs later.

Conan’s interactions with the Kushites deserves attention:

He was clad like his followers in leopard-skin loin-clout and plumed head-piece, but he was a white man. […] He himself, with a few of his chiefs, sat with Bajujh and the headmen of Bakalah, cross-legged on mats, gorging and guzzling. She saw his hands dipped deep into the cooking pots with the others, saw his muzzle thrust into the beer vessel out of which Bajujh also drank.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 305

Bajujh treats Conan as an equal, and by his actions Conan shows no discrimination with sitting and feasting with the Kushites, even to the point of drinking from the same vessels. To Livia, this is a display of Conan’s power, but to the audience the interaction could be seen as more ambiguous: after all, here is essentially a scene of racial equality and getting-along. Lingering Colonialist attitudes may be at play in this depiction, since Conan is depicted as a white man among chiefs, and accorded respect as such; the idea of white men being deemed special and equivalent to black leaders was also a theme in several Solomon Kane tales set in Africa. Yet it is clearly Livia’s own preconceptions about race that are at work when she notes:

But she made no effort to classify his position among the races of mankind. It was enough that his skin was white.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 306

It’s worth mentioning that in 1933, not all European nationalities and ethnicities were seen as equal, even if they were often nominally “white.” Ethnic sentiment against Jews, Italians, Irish, and Eastern Europeans was still widespread, sometimes flaring into violence. So unspoken in this statement is that sentiment that Livia places herself at or near the top of “whiteness”—but that ethnic considerations fade when, outnumbered and alone, she sets up the stark racial dichotomy of white vs. black, us vs. them. This is her view of the world, in this situation, which the readers are expected to recognize and sympathize with. That’s important to set up what comes next.

“You care naught that a man of your own color has been foully done to death by these black dogs—that a white woman is their slave! Very well!” She fell back from him, panting, transfigured by her passion.

“I will give you a price!” she raved, tearing away her tunic from her ivory breasts. “Am I not fair? Am I not more desirable than these soot-colored wenches? Am I not a worthy reward for blood-letting? Is not a fair-skinned virgin a price worth slaying for?[“]
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 307-308

Robert Bloch in the November 1934 issue of Weird Tales would already be lamenting “Conan the Cluck” who every issue “won a new girlfriend, each of whose penchant for nudism won her a place of honor, either on the cover or on the inner illustration.” The idea that the hero wins the girl at the end is part of the casual misogyny of pulp fiction—and of much fiction generally. Livia’s offer is playing very specifically and deliberately to reader’s expectations, based on the almost formulaic trope of the good guy getting the girl and them living happily ever after, and reinforced by the racial and sexual aspects of the story already established.

Which is why Conan’s response catches readers by surprise.

“You speak as if you were free to give yourself at your pleasure,” he said. “As if the gift of your body had power to swing kingdoms. Why should I kill Bajujh to obtain you? Women are cheap as plantains in this land, and their willingness or unwillingness matters as little. You value yourself too highly. If I wanted you, I wouldn’t have to fight Bajujh to take you. He would rather give you to me than to fight me.”
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 308

The response utterly deflates Livia; while Howard would not have put it in such terms, she comes face to face with her own white privilege, and the shock of realizing that her assumptions regarding her value and relationships with other people just because of her gender and skin color aren’t absolute values is crushing to her self-esteem. Her essential powerlessness, carefully developed throughout the first part of the story, and her offer of her virginity are designed to appeal to what white male Americans expected of white female Americans. Livia had wanted to be Helen of Troy, she ended up as Briseis. As one critic noted about this exchange, Conan’s is:

A realistic attitude, but one that is rarely encountered in most sword-and-sorcery. Usually women are masterminds who plot and deceive, using their sex as a weapon. As Howard summed it up best shortly afterward, “In spite of all Livia had experienced, she had still instinctively supposed a woman’s consent the pivotal point of such a game as she proposed to play.”
—Robert Weinberg, The Annotated Guide To Robert E. Howard’s Sword & Sorcery (1976), 106

Winter Elliott in his essay “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Women: Gender Dynamics in the Hyborian World” describes how Livia has “so clearly internalized her society’s consumerist construction of a woman’s sexuality.” (Conan Meets the Academy 62), and it is the transactional nature of the exchange which is at play here: Livia sees herself, and especially her body and virginity, as things of value which are to be exchanged for other things.

Livia, however, is trying to sell herself; she is not participant in an exchange between men, so her offer has no value. It does, however, correctly suggest that she has internalized her society’s view of female flesh as a commodity to be sold. […] In fact, the supposedly barbaric culture in which she finds herself has acted perfectly in accordance with her own civilization; her own society might more delicately treat her as property, but she would still be a possession. […] Livia’s captivity derives not from any fault of her own but from the weakness of her male guardians, who were unable to sustain their hold on their property in the face of fiercer male competition.
—Winter Elliot, ibid. 63

So Livia is not approaching this exactly in the sense of sex work. Having been raised to value herself and think of herself in these terms, she is still not yet cognizant of the fact that she does not really own herself and her own sexuality. The bargain she seeks to strike is emotional and presupposes that she and Conan share more than just skin color, but common values and assumptions of gender roles.

There’s a volatile mix of racial, gender, and sexual politics at play here. If Livia had been a man instead of a woman (or Conan a woman, or homosexual), the same offer and exchange would almost certainly not have taken place—at least, not in 1933 with any hope of getting published in Weird Tales. If Livia had been a been black, Asian, multiracial, or something other than “white,” the sexual offer might still have been part of the appeal for rescue, but not with the specific racial overtones which were such a part of Colonialist rhetoric. With the character of Livia, Howard has very carefully set up exactly this moment of conflict, and specifically so that Conan can poke a hole in it.

The subversion of expectations that takes place can still be framed as sexist; the whole exchange emphasizes the complete lack of power that Livia has as a woman, even over her own body, and serves as a kind of masculine sexual fantasy. Howard may be bending the rules by not having Conan play the noble hero willing to risk all for sexual intercourse with a white woman right away, but he’s still operating well within the general frame of preconceptions that led eventually to John Norman’s Gor and Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty novels. Once it’s clear who is in charge, Conan goes on:

But I am not such a dog as to leave a white woman in the clutches of a black man; and though your kind call me a robber, I never forced a woman against her consent. […] If you were old and ugly as the devil’s pet vulture, I’d take you away from Bajujh, simply because of the color of your hide.

“But you are young and beautiful, and I have looked at black sluts until I am sick at the guts. I’ll play this game your way, simply because some of your instincts correspond with mine.[“]
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 308-309

There’s a lot to unpack here. These are the first racist statements made by Conan himself in the entire story, if not exactly his entire career to this point; Howard had already written “The Queen of the Black Coast,” which involves Conan joining the crew of Bêlit and her black corsairs, although it wouldn’t see print until 1934, so it wasn’t that he hadn’t interacted with black characters at this point, but it emphasizes that while he might lead them and interact relatively equally with them, Conan isn’t above all the prejudices of his own time. Certainly the “black sluts” comment implies sexual experience with black women, illustrating the same double-standard Howard faced in Texas in the 1930s. The language isn’t necessarily too “blue” even for Weird Tales, other stories would use the word “slut.”

The last phrase, “because some of your instincts correspond with mine” echoes the language of H. P. Lovecraft, who would use similar but not identical phrasing in some of his letters to describe the racial homogeneity of different nationalities (cf. A Means to Freedom 1.77) It wouldn’t be the only time some of the arguments and discussions from their letters made their way into Howard’s fiction (or maybe vice versa), “The God in the Bowl” echoes aspects of Lovecraft and Howard’s discussions on the inequalities of justice and policing.

Racism is not just about epithets and depictions, but also absence. In this story, the black characters are almost all unnamed and never have a speaking role. In large part, this is because the story is told from Livia’s perspective: Conan can speak the same language as the Kushites, Livia cannot, so in her narrative they are either silent or voice obscenities and animalistic cries. Livia’s worldview does not encompass how they think or view themselves, except in relation to their interactions with her—which are minimal. The only hint we have at their history and inner life is through her, as it impacts her own life.

The second twist in the story is Livia’s flight from Conan as she imagines him coming to claim her, bearing the price she asked for sexual access to her body. A parallel could be drawn here with the earlier story “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” though unlike in that story, Conan has already stated he has no intention of rape, the fear of it drives Livia into the supernatural menace which Weird Tales would require, the eponymous “Vale of Lost Women”:

[…] she thought of a valley of which the blacks had spoken with fear; a valley to which had fled the young women of a strange brown-skinned race which had inhabited the land before the coming of the ancestors of the Bakalas. There, men said, they had turned into white flowers, had been transformed by the old gods to escape their ravishers. There no black man dared go.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 313

The legend has echoes with Greek myth, particularly that of Daphne in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and likewise echoes Howard’s “brown race” of Atlantis as being distinct from both white- and black-skinned peoples in “The Moon of Skulls,” or the discussion of the Boskop Man in his letters with Lovecraft (cf. A Means to Freedom 1.141, 159, 169, 183); Lovecraft himself would refer to the “general of the great-headed brown people who held South Africa in B.C. 50,000” in “The Shadow out of Time.”

The appearance of a third race queers the binaries of Livia’s world in more ways than one:

The lithe brown women were all about her. One, lovelier than the rest, came silently up to the trembling girl, and enfolded her with supple brown arms. Her breath was scented with the same perfume that stole from the great white blossoms that waved in the starshine. Her lips pressed Livia’s in a long terrible kiss.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 313-314

It’s interesting to compare this lesbian kiss with that in “Red Nails.” Both sexual displays are part of or prelude to occult ritual, or have some supernatural effect. Salacious as the scene may be, Howard’s reserve for such overt displays of homosexuality between women to part of a distinctly weird and supernatural scene may in effect have been his effort to get them past the censor. Or perhaps he felt the broaching of sexual taboos complemented and gave weight to scenes that were set to violate natural laws; his letters are generally silent on the subject.

The denouement is almost perfunctory. Conan’s unusually talkative explanation encompasses the demon from the Outer Dark, how he decided it wasn’t appropriate to hold Livia to her bargain, and that he’s sending her home nearly in the same breath. It is anticlimactic in more than the sense that the last action beat has passed.

Conan’s assurance that “I saw that to hold you to your bargain would be the same as if I had forced you” is in keeping with his previous statement that he had never forced a woman, but there is a thread here which neither Livia nor Conan delve into, which is that due to Livia’s status as a slave it is impossible for her to give consent; they are in an unequal power relationship, and Conan is the one in a position of dominance. One could draw parallels with slave women in the South before and during the American Civil War: Livia’s ability to say “No” is meaningless if Conan chooses not to respect it, and Conan (and Howard) appear perspicacious enough to realize that.

So, Conan’s decision doesn’t change the essential relationship: Conan is still the one making all the decisions about Livia and her body. If they’re not having sex, it’s because that’s what he decided, regardless of her feelings in the matter. Things might be looking up for Livia, in that she’s headed home, but she still has almost no agency as a person and hasn’t learned any particular lesson regarding being racist or assuming privilege for being white and female—since Conan is basically affirming all that by giving her exactly what she wanted for just the reasons she thought he should.

One suspects that there was a desire to give a happy ending which yet left Conan unencumbered by any sort of ongoing romantic relationship; which underscores how Conan circumvents the tropes by not ending up with the woman at the end, and is in stark contrast to the eventual fate of Cynthia Ann Parker. So rather than a tragic ending, or the expected sexual conquest, Howard ends “The Vale of Lost Women” with a gruff masculine joke:

“Crom, girl,” grunted Conan, embarrassed, “don’t do that, you’d think I was doing you a favor by kicking you out of this country; haven’t I explained that you’re not the proper woman for the war-chief of the Bamulas?”
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 317

When picked apart like this, it is easier to see how “The Vale of Lost Women” came to be, from a rough idea translated to the Hyborian Age, to the addition of various commercial elements (nudity, check; weird monster, check), and some of Howard’s common themes (light and dark women, a possible reference to ancient Atlantis, echoes of his discussions of race and civilization with Lovecraft). On top of this, there is the unusual interplay of gender, racial, and sexual dynamics—aspects which Howard doesn’t always get credit for, as noted in “Black Canaan” vs. “Black Cunjer.”

On a cold read, however—how much of that would actually come across? This story was published the year before the Civil Rights Act of 1968; would African-American readers have appreciate a story where they exist only to be either subservient to a white Conan and/or slaughtered? Second-wave feminism was pushing reforms for women in post-WWII America as well, questioning previous popular media images of women as solely homemakers and housewives and pushing for equal access to education and equality in the workplace. Howard may have been relatively liberal for 1930s Texas, but what story poking at tropes of the hero ending up with the girl in 1933 reads very differently in 1967. Or 2020.

Not terribly surprising then that critical reception of the story in the ensuing decades since its publication has been almost uniformly negative. To give a handful of reactions:

Two Conan stories, “The Vale of Lost Women” and “Shadows in Zamboula,” are typical antiblack hysterics. Reading them is like having a front-row seat at a Ku Klux Klan rally. In their depiction of blacks as savages, cannibals, and slaves, these stories deserve a place of dishonor beside Edgar Rice Burroughs in the lowly annals of racist literature.
—Charles R. Saunders, “Die, Black Dog!” (1975)

“The Vale of Lost Women” is probably the worst of the Conan stories and it is not surprising that it was never published during Howard’s lifetime. The supernatural element just seems to be added as an afterthought. The plotting is basic formula, with little complexity. However, the story does have a few noteworthy graces.
—Robert Weinberg, The Annotated Guide To Robert E. Howard’s Sword & Sorcery (1976), 106

Rejected for obvious reasons. Certainly this is the worst Conan story, with the possible exception of “Pool of the Black One.” But it does shed some light on Conan’s career as a chief of the Blacks.
—Darrell Schweitzer, Conan’s World and Robert E. Howard (1978) 52

Not surprisingly, the story failed to sell. If Howard was trying to discreetly infuse some of his growing interest in Western lore into the Conan stories, he was perhaps too subtle: it is impossible to detect the source without having access to peripheral documents. The powerful story of Cynthia Anne and John Parker was lost between the unconvincing supernatural threat and Livia’s penchant for nakedness. As to the racial overtones of the story, while the violent ethnocentricism of the tale is understandable when we recognize its origin in the nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxon settler viewpoint, with the blacks standing in for Indians, it makes for unsettling reading for the modern audience. At any rate, Howard’s first foray into the American southwest version of the Hyborian Age was a failure, and it would be another year before he made another attempt.
—Patrice Louinet, “Hyborian Genesis” in The Coming of Conan (2003) 450

Racial overtones aside (the tribesmen of Ersatz-Africa stand-in for the Native Americans, leading to some really strong “anti-Kushite” rhetoric on Conan’s part), what draws the most heat from this story is Conan bartering to rescue the captive Livia in exchange for a roll in the hay. No one looks good in this story. Not Robert, not Conan, not even Livia. No one. This is perhaps the worst Conan story and a real low point for the series. The commercial elements all misfire, and the allegory of “Kushites = Native Americans” when Kush has previously equaled Africa doesn’t work at all. Worst of all is the insulting and contrived hackneyed ending. “Oh, I was going to kill all of the tribesmen anyway, and how dare you think that I’d bed you as payment, even though I’ve given you no reason to suspect otherwise?” Honestly, this reads more like Robert trying to work out a story, or at least work something out in this story.
—Mark Finn, Blood & Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard (2013) 226

This story, “The Vale of Lost Women,” contains some of the most problematic—and racist—passages in Howard’s work.
—Winter Elliott, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Women” in
Conan Meets the Academy (2013) 65n5

“Vale of Lost Women” doesn’t stand in the top rank of Howard’s Conan tales. Some might say it is the worst. But best and worst are relative. In “Vale”, Howard’s prose crackles with poetic lyricism, even at the tale’s grimmest moments. The story, so crude and harsh outwardly, rests on a foundation of myth springing from mankind’s basic fears and needs. By any standard “Vale of Women” is a memorable tale that draws in a reader with furious intensity and edge-of-the-seat suspense. If this is Howard at his worst, then he has earned his accolades.
—Dave Hardy, “Hither Came Conan: Dave Hardy on ‘The Vale of Lost Women'” (2019)

The assumption is that the story was rejected. If so, it was not necessarily because of the racial or sexual elementsWeird Tales certainly had both in its pages, and it is hard to say where the line was on such tales. Howard and many other writers had included racism before, nudity was often accepted (even encouraged), suggestions of lesbian interaction were not unknown. Perhaps Howard himself thought the story didn’t come together and chose not to submit it.

We don’t know.

The lesbian touches in “The Vale of Lost Women” has sometimes also been subject to some rather unusual takes, a couple of which are worth examining:

Written in the 1930s, this story was not published until much later, most likely because of its explicit lesbian content. Conan comes upon a  young white woman captive of a tribe of black Africans. Conan rescues the woman, but when he comes to collect her as his reward she has other ideas. Rejecting the brutality of men, she flees to the Valley [sic] of Lost Women, an idyllic all-women society. She finds, to her dismay, that the valley is filled with lesbian natives who seduce her despite her fears. Again, Conan rescues her, and chivalrously allows her to retain her virginity. Sexist and racist.
Eric Garber and Lyn Paleo, Uranian Worlds (1983) 65

Perhaps because of this story’s length and deceptively simple plot, many readers have dismissed it as one of the lesser stories of the canon, some even going so far as to designate it the worst Conan story. It is not—and by quite a margin. It is necessary to correct this oversight by examining his, one of Howard’s most underrated stories. […] When Livia flees from Conan to the vale of lost women, she is fleeing not only her captors, but the male sex as well. […] What Howard seems to be saying is that, although men and women constantly brutalize each other physically and mentally, they belong together nonetheless. To seek refuge from the battle of the sexes in either homosexuality or asexuality is to deny one of the most important constants of the human condition. At best, it can bring about spiritual emptiness; at worst, it can cause spiritual degradation. When Conan rescues Livia, he saves her not from any physical harm, but from a shadowy existence without a soul.

“The Vale of Lost Women” is an interesting counterpoint to “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter.” Composed around the same time, both were among the first stories in the Conan series to be written. Neither story was published during Howard’s lifetime, almost certainly owing to their explicit sexual themes. But, though sexuality lies at the heart of each short tale, in execution they are polar opposites. […] Howard unflinchingly shows his own sex at its absolute worst, wallowing in rapine, murder, and wanton cruelty. Driven to attempt rape in “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” Conan opposes it in word and deed in “The Vale of Lost Women.” He turns against sworn allies to keep Livia’s body unsullied by her rapist-captor, he battles a monster to prevent her spirit from being violated, and finally he forsakes any ulterior motives of his own concerning her.

The story’s denouement is that Livia will be returned home; Conan has reestablished normalcy in her life. By keeping her body and spirit inviolate, and by restraining his own passions, Conan also symbolically restores Livia’s normal sexuality.
Marc A. Cerasini & Charles Hoffman,
Robert E. Howard: Starmont Reader’s Guide 35 (1987) 77-79

The take given in Uranian Worlds seems to be a misreading. Part of the problem is that the majority of the lesbian content focuses on the supernatural section, which is relatively brief. The brown women are utterly speechless except for their alien, inhuman song, and we basically get nothing of their inner life or motivations for trying to sacrifice and/or convert Livia. Far from the uranian utopia Garber and Paleo would have it be, there is no indication that the Vale of Lost Women is a human society in any sense. While it might be interesting to see a piece that actually explores the Vale of Lost Women from that perspective—it is interesting to think of the implications of the Vale of Lost Women (Lost to whom? In what way?), the story itself does not really support the reading in Uranian Worlds.

Cerasini and Hoffman’s reading has simply aged badly; based on the idea of homosexuality or asexuality as deviations from heterosexuality rather than equally valid and natural. Such an interpretation still fails to address the essential lack of agency that Livia has in the story; the idea that she needs a man to “rescue” her from homosexuality is just as misogynistic as the idea that Livia has no right to refuse Conan sex. They are correct in that it is a fundamentally different approach to the pursuit of sex that characterizes “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” and the attitude that Conan displays in this story toward refusing to take sex by force would be one of the most important legacies of “The Vale of Lost Women.”

It did have a legacy. In 1979, “The Vale of Lost Women” was adapted for the Marvel comic book Conan the Barbarian #104 (Roy Thomas, John Buscema, Ernie Chan, Ben Sean, Joe Rosen), set chronologically after the events of “The Queen of the Black Coast,” when Conan was adventuring among the black kingdoms of Kush.

After those three original stories, I got a chance in #104 to adapt another REH story: “The Vale of Lost Women.” This was not one of Howard’s best—in fact, not a few of his admirers consider it the worst Conan story he ever wrote. Some editor somewhere may have agreed; the tale wasn’t published until three decades following the author’s suicide in 1936. Still, it was a Howard Conan story, so I was bound and determined to adapt it—and it really didn’t make a bad comic book issue.

Two things commend this story to my memory. One is the fact that it contains the only mention ever by Howard of “Kheshatta, City of Magicians,” a mysterious locale in Stygia. The phrase always fascinated meas it doubtless did sometime Conan prose writer Lin Carter, who in the late 1960s had scribed a paperback novel titled Thongor and the City of Magiciansand I wondered what a city with a sobriquet like that might possibly be like! After all, it’s not as if the rest of Stygia was exactly lacking in the black magic department—so a whole “City of Magicians” must really be something to see! Alas, Howard, gives no clue—for the story’s heroine Livia is captured by the savage Bakalah en route to the place, and never gets there! (It was thus left to me to set a multi-part tale in Kheshatta when I became scripter of The Savage Sword of Conan again in the 1990s—and it was one of my favorite story arcs.)

The other thing I loved about “The Vale of Lost Women” was a line of dialogue Conan speaks near the end of the story. After killing the “demon from the dark” that tries to fly off with Livia, he casually dismisses the creature as just one of many: “They’re thick as fleas outside the belt of light that surrounds this world.” Howard had a real way with a phrase, and this disparagement by Conan of the fanged, bat-winged monstrosity he’s just slain strikes precisely the right note.
Roy Thomas,
The Chronicles of Conan Volume 13: Whispering Shadows and Other Stories (2007),  145-146

By setting this in the context of Conan’s travels, and toning down or jettisoning some of the more overt violence, nudity, and racism, the result is indeed a pretty good comic book, while keeping the essentials of the plot and much of Howard’s prose. In part, this is because of the familiarity of the character as Roy Thomas, John Buscema & co. had built him up to this point; the look and voice of Conan is consistent with the character from previous issues, and seeing the fear and reactions of Livia makes her much more sympathetic as a character. The reader response was also positive…and in-depth:

Dear Roy, John, and Ernie,

Ish #104 was great, as usual, both in art and in Roy’s story adaptation, but something struck me about that particular adaptation that had never registered before. Roy, you and I rarely see eye to eye on the liberties you take with Howard’s stories, but this time I owe you a long overdue apology and a heartfelt thank-you.

As much as I love Robert E. Howard’s work and idolize his greatest creation, the Conan saga, there is one thing aout the creator of Conan that I cannot stand. Simply put, the man was a bigot.

This fact is painfully obvious to anyone who has read Howard’s original stories. They are full of derogatory remarks about blacks, rife with racial slurs. And although the Conan stories are not as anti-black as some of his earlier works, they too contain their share of prejudice. “The Vale of Lost Women” has always stood out in my mind as one of the worst. As I was reading issue #104, I prepared myself several times for the racial insults I knew to be forthcoming, but, lo and behold, no slurs! Then and only then did I realize that you had edited the derogatory racial barbs from other Conan stories as well as this one. For this, yo u have my eternal gratitude.

Howard was a bigot, this is true, but he died over four decades ago. He lived before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, back when we had to sit in the back of the bus and drink from separate water fountains, and his writing reflects this. Howard was a product of his times. I understand this and overlook his hatred of my people; others may not.

If you hadn’t cut out Howard’s bigotry and allowed the genius of his writing to shine through, you certainly would have antagonized every black in Conan’s reading audience and many liberal-minded whites as well. Most people would have attributed this bigtory to Conan, not to his creator, and this would have been tragic because the best comic magazine in history would have been cancelled long ago.

Once again, thanks Roy—and I’m sorry it took me so long to get around to it.

—Dale Armelin, “The Hyborian Page” in Conan the Barbarian #110 (May 1980)

The matter of racism in Sword & Sorcery, and the pulp revival in general, was alive and well when Conan the Barbarian was being published, when the Conan paperbacks filled displays at bookstores. African-Americans were customers too, and there really was a conversation to be had about how Howard’s racism would be translated; Charles R. Saunders in “Die, Black Dog!” specifically called out L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter both for ameliorating racism in Howard’s work when they edited/rewrote it—and for not taking the same care to avoid repeating the racism of the 1930s in their own contemporary fiction.

Frankly put, the conversation about race & Robert E. Howard (and Lovecraft, and weird fiction, sword & sorcery, etc. in general) is never over. It is a conversation that must be had continually, if only because the fiction these people wrote in the 1930s still finds an audience, and those who wish to expand and adapt their fictional worlds.

Roy Thomas & co. would go on to make Kheshatta, City of Magicians an established part of the Hyborian World, both in the Conan comic books and subsequent media. Likewise, the attitude of Conan toward “the demons of the Outer Dark” would strongly influence later interpretations of the character. While there had from the very first Conan story (“The Phoenix on the Sword”) been an element of sword against sorcery, that immortal horrors might yet be susceptible to cold steel, this cocksure attitude that a man like himself with a sword is a match for such entities would lay the groundwork for many monster-of-the-issue (or novel, or episode, etc.) takes on Conan.

More important, perhaps, is Conan’s attitude toward women. While Conan is far from exactly chivalrous in his attitudes in “The Vale of Lost Women,” his assertion that he won’t take a woman against her will is significant in a setting where slavery is commonplace. Conan has ever been a sexual entity in all of his incarnations, and many depictions of him have no particular qualms about employing sex workers—but it is that particular characteristic that Conan won’t force a woman to have sex against her will has subtly shaped some of his most contemporary depictions.

In the pages of Savage Avengers Annual (2019), for example, when Conan finds himself in contemporary South America, he refuses to sleep with sex workers being held against their will, and automatically sets about on a quest to destroy the human sex trafficking ring that enslaved them. While this might seem a bit of an obvious attitude to take for many contemporary readers, it’s a canonical approach that was embraced as a core tenet of Conan’s ethos that after it had appeared in “The Vale of Lost Women”—and arguably may have been a part of Robert E. Howard’s own evolving attitude toward women in his fiction.


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

The Leopard of Poitain (1985) by Raul Garcia-Capella

“Just—Irem. Ah, I see by your expression you too know of my namesake, that legendary place—”

You have heard of the city called ‘Irem’?”

“I’ve read esoterica about the City of Magicians. ‘Tis said to be but fancy, master. But a poet never forswears such dreams.”
—Raul Garcia-Capella, “Caravan to Kuthchemes” in The Leopard of Poitain 57

The fictional worlds of Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft are intertwined, one Mythos shading into another. In his long and varied career Conan faced Lovecraftian horrors such as the tentacled monster Thog in the lost city of Xuthal, and dealt with wizards birthed on Dagoth Hill which might have been cousins to Wilbur Whateley. Lovecraft himself put small references to Valusia, Bran Mak Morn, and the Serpent Men into his fiction…so it is not too much of a gloss to say that the Howardian heroes existed in the same world as nameless Lovecraftian protagonists.

Fans took note of this, and the Lovecraftian element has never quite left Howardian fiction even to this day.

I was born in Puerto RIco and brought up in San Juan in P.R., and in Miami. My paternal grandmother, a schoolteacher, taught me my first couple of grammar school years. Mom and Dad were readers; Dad was also a movie fna. As a kid, I’d read fairy tales to my younger cousins, while Dad introduced me to the serials, some of which were the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon and the Nyoka serials, not to mention a number of Tarzan movies, Westerns, etc. Here’d by books for Christmas, and by the time I was eight had read Tarzan of the Apes and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in Spanish.
—”An Interview with Raul Garcia-Capella” by James Van Hise
in Sword & Fantasy #6, 44

Raul Garcia-Capella is better known as an illustrator for science fiction and fantasy books and magazines, with dozens of covers and interior art to his credit, sometimes under the name Ray Capella or R. Garcia Capella. Born in 1933, his family arrived in Brooklyn in the 1940s, just in time for the last decade-and-a-half of the pulp magazine craze.

DID YOU READ WEIRD TALES AT THE TIME?

No. Weird Tales didn’t attract me, I knew it was horror and my interest was more for science fiction/adventure. Through collecting and coming across Lovecraft’s work in the Boys High Library I realized HPL and Howard had written for Weird Tales.

I’d buy writers that had appeared in WT but I didn’t get the magazine itself, as when I did, I never could get through an entire issue. Later, I discovered Clark Ashton Smith and began appreciating the quality of material published by it. but I never got into collecting it. (ibid., 47)

This was during the period Dorothy McIlwraith was editor at Weird Tales, where she dropped science fiction and adventure stories. It wasn’t until about 1960 that Garcia-Capella became involved with Howard fandom, in the pages of the prominent fanzine Amra, and it was there that he began to write:

I wrote the brief autobiogrpahy of an Argossean; a fanciful bunch of ideas featuring a character who lived in the Hyborean Age. I thought it’s be presumptious to mess with Conan, who could only be done by Howard. So my creation tried to add more color to Conan’s world without altering it. In a word, it was a tribute. But [George H.] Scrithers wouldn’t let me off the hook because I’d outlined stories and titles. He kept nudging me by mail whenever I contirbuted illos or articles. Although hesitant to do it, when I finally started, the tales wrote themselves. It was great fun. I was reading Howard and Brackett and all the people that influenced me. But it was just—boom; they came out. (ibid., 51)

“The Leopard of Poitain” was published in the April 1960 issue of Amra, the outline inspired by “A Probable Outline of Conan’s Career” (P. Schuyler Miller & John D. Clark, 1938). This was followed up over a period of years with other adventures of Arquel of Argos. They were fun; Raul Garcia-Capella was a competent fantasist, and he knew what he wanted to write—action-driven sword & sorcery inspired by Robert E. Howard, Leigh Brackett, A. Merritt, and Fritz Leiber. Arquel himself, the eponymous “Leopard of Poitain,” is no Conan-clone or pastiche. An adventurer, certainly, but like Leiber’s Gray Mouser more interested in the thaumaturgical and wizardly side of things than the Cimmerian.

Working in another man’s story-world is a tricky business. […] Capella wisely—very wisely—uses Howard’s world without using Howard’s principal characters in on-stage rôles. Arquel is neither Conan nor an iitation of him; Capella is no Howard—he’s fr saner, far easier to know and like. n doing so, Capella has illuminated corners of the Hyborean world that Howard overlooked: what was going on behind the scenes; why the enemies were foiled in their attempt to launch a sneak attack or to bring into being a evil, magical past best left buried; and how magic and magicians can work for good as well as for evil.
—George H. Scithers, “Introduction” to The Leopard of Poitain ii

The book-length collection The Leopard of Poitain (1985) is a bit of a hybrid. The first half (“Book I”) is a stitch-up novel that collects all of the Arquel adventures published in the pages of Amra and Fantasy Book up to that point, and pieces them together with brief episodes “Witch’s Pebbles” that forecast the new and longer novella (“The Winds of Acheron”) which makes up the second half (“Book II”), and takes place in and around the events of the final Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon (1936). As he put it:

Jim Kelly, a fantasy fan who wanted to get into publishing, wrote asking why no one had put all the Arquel stories into one volume. The edtiors forward the letter to me. While exchanging letters, I let Jim know the project would need the final novella; it hadn’t been written. He agreed to wait and sent an advance check when the book was ready. The rest you know. Morgan Holmes proposed using the novella—”The Winds of Acheron”—and I did some polishing on it for that edition.
—”An Interview with Raul Garcia-Capella” by James Van Hise, 53

Explicit Lovecraftian references in Garcia-Capella’s Arquel stories are few—a reference to Irem here, a Serpent Man there—and he made no attempt to create new entities and tomes as was common in Mythos pastiches of the period. One of the most Lovecraftian is “Turutal” (1965), which involves a lost dwarf race known as the Ituru awakened from a curse to reclaim their miniature citadel; shades of Robert E. Howard’s “Little People” stories and Conan tales such as “The Devil in Iron” and “Shadows in the Moonlight,” although it has no direct connections to either.

As a result, The Leopard of Poitain is often overlooked and forgotten compared to the Howardian pastiche novels published by L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, Björn Nyberg, Poul Anderson, Karl Edward Wagner, Andrew J. Offutt, and Robert Jordan of the period. Yet it is no more or less of a piece than any other work expanding the world that Howard created, and by extension is a serviceable a sword & sorcery offshoot of the Mythos as any other—and more conscientious of the source material and style than most pasticheurs. As he put it:

[Robert E. Howard’s] style balances mood and action almost seamlessly. Whether he’s doing horror or adventure, he has a flair for making scenes segue almost so well that you’re carried headlong. You can’t stop, go back, catch a gltch in the plot or—in the case of the “spicy” stories, for instance—an unevenness about the relationship between the characters. But you don’t care. In other words—his pacing is some of the best there is, in the pulp era or now.

In Moorcock’s aricles on fantasy, he traced the influences of gothic horror and the manner in which a description set story mood or was made to reflect the feelings of the characters involved. Lovcraft overdid it. C. L. Moore did this more lengthily than Brackett; Howard learned how to do it with a few words. In “The devil in Iron,” the fisherman loosens the knife in its scabbard at the beginning of the opening paragraph—which ends with a sentence that sets the mood. Conflict comes first; mood closely folows and is interspersed throught the fisherman’s exploration to his climactic demise. (ibid., 55)

Raul Garcia-Capella continued to write and illustrate, including other “Hyborian Age” tales such as “The Lair” (2006). He died in 2010.


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

“Red Monolith Frenzy” (2012) by Justine Geoffrey

for Howard,
who would have hated it
and for Bob,
who probably saw it coming

Dedication to “Red Monolith Frenzy” (2012)

Robert E. Howard’s “The Black Stone” (Weird Tales Nov 1931) was one of the first expansions of Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s Mythos; it introduced the Black Monolith in the town of Stregoicavar; the mad poet Justin Geoffrey and von Junzt and his Black Book, Nameless Cults. Lovecraft enjoyed these new elements to the Mythos, particularly von Junzt and his book, which the Gent from Providence incorporated into his own stories, including “The Shadow out of Time,” “The Dreams from the Witch House,” “The Haunter of the Dark,” and “The Thing on the Doorstep,” and two stories ghostwritten for Hazel Heald:“Out of the Aeons” and“The Horror in the Museum.” Lovecraft even had a hand in creating a German name for the Black Book: Unaussprechlichen Kulten.

What Lovecraft largely did not comment on in the story was the lengthy flagellation scene that the protagonist in a dream-like vision witnesses before the phallic image of the Black Monolith. Robert E. Howard’s inclusion of this scene was plainly an effort to get on the cover of Weird Tales, which often went to stories with scenes of female nudity and flagellation, as beautifully illustrated by Margaret Brundage. Lovecraft’s refusal to include such scenes may explain why during his lifetime none of his stories ever received a cover illustration.

“The Black Stone” wasn’t the first hint of sex in the nascent Cthulhu Mythos, but for a long time it was one of the few stories that had anything like a sexual act on the page…and has inspired others. For one example, Spanish artist Estaban Maroto famously lifted the flagellation scene from “The Black Stone” to spice up his comic adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Festival,” recently republished in Lovecraft: The Myth of Cthulhu (2018). For another, there’s “Red Monolith Frenzy” by Justine Geoffrey.

Inspired by Robert E. Howard’s mad poet, “Justine Geoffrey” is the female pseudonym of Scott R. Jones, author of books like When The Stars Are Right: Toward An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality, a number of short stories, and the editor and publisher of the sadly defunct Martian Migraine Press, which produced evocative anthologies such as Conqueror Womb: Lusty Tales of Shub-Niggurath (2014), Resonator: New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond (2015), Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis (2016), Chthonic: Weird Tales of Inner Earth (2018) as well as Necronomicum: The Magazine of Weird Erotica (2014, 4 issues).

The use of a feminine pseudonym by Jones is similar to the use of “Sally Theobald” by Robert M. Price for “I Wore The Brassiere Of Doom” (1986): a transparent hoax, not intended to deceive the audience. However, where Price never used that name for more than the single story, Jones found his alter ego an excellent editorial voice as well as author pseudonym. In adopting this voice for the editorial of the premiere issue of Necronomicum, “Justine” is able to make observations about her “co-editor”:

For instance, my co-editor Jones frequents any number of Lovecraftian and weird fiction groups on social media, and reports that all too often, when the subject of Sex and the Weird comes up, he is witness to a barrage of prudish voices protesting that there’s no place for sex in horror. “Lovecraft never wrote about sex!” they shriek while clutching at their pearls. (Never mind that sex and sexuality and weird blasphemous couplings are pretty much the foundation of HPLs horrific universe. Methinks the geeks protest too much!) These are the same voices that get inordinately upset when you mention Lovecraft’s racism, or chuckle with derision if you happen to misidentify a Gug as a Ghast during casual conversation. Basically, these are the to-be-expected thrashings of the Old Guard as they’re shown the door by the new fans, and the new voices with new things to say.

As an authorial and editorial poise, the assumption of an identity had value for Jones—and he is neither the first nor the last author to find refuge in a pseudonym, to take on those aspects and attitudes necessary for what has to be written.

Such as the Blackstone erotica series.

Taking its name from Robert E. Howard’s eponymous monolith, the Blackstone series of Lovecraftian erotica began with book 1: “Red Monolith Frenzy” (2012), and was followed by book 2: “Green Fever Dream” (2012); book 3, “Yellow Sign Bound” has not been published, although an excerpt appears in the printed collection Priestess (2014), which also contains the prequel story “Summonings: Anicka and Kamil” (2012) and the interqual “Summonings: Yvette’s Interview” (2013).

“Red Monolith Frenzy” is the start of things, chronologically and narratively. A novella in five parts, the narrative is a combination of the structure of “The Black Stone” and Lovecraft’s “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” at least initially. “Justine G.” is the narrator, the character that is the focus of the action, and Jones’ adoption of the pseudonym for these works lends strength to the idea that this is really her story (weirdly and unconsciously echoing the confessional style of “Sally Theobald.”)

There is a lot of deliberate homage, sometimes almost to the point of parody. But the work is not a remix in the sense of “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon; it is an original twist on the old material, keeping a sense of humor like “Koenigsberg’s Model” (2011) by Peter Tupper & “The Ape in Me: A Tale of Lovecraftian Lust” (2016) by Raine Roka. The pacing of the story is determined: contemporary erotica demands regular “beats” of titillation every couple of pages, much as action stories require hitting the right action beats to keep things moving, and keep the reader turning to see what happens next. A dull spot in a regular novella a reader might struggle through, but with porn they’re more likely to put the book down and never come back. So the flow of the story is a bit faster than Lovecraft, or even Howard writing at his Lovecraftian best. For the “omnisexual” Justine G., this means the fun and revelations keep on coming, usually more or less at the same time.

The sexual content is explicit and varied. It is difficult not to draw comparisons with Edward Lee’s “Hardcore Lovecraft” fiction such as Trolley No. 1852 (2010) and The Dunwich Romance (2013), which takes similar inspiration from Lovecraft but also doesn’t attempt Lovecraftian erotica pasticheOn the spectrum of erotic horror, this first episode in Priestess definitely leans toward the fun-loving erotic, and does so in a way that doesn’t involve rape, inhuman monsters, or even tentacles, which is rare enough for Lovecraftian erotica. The editorial for Necronomicum returns to mind when considering the direction of this story:

We want to showcase a kind of erotica that, though it draws a lot of its dark inspiration from, say, the work of H. P. Lovecraft and writers of his ilk, moves beyond the cheesy realms of “monster sex” or “tentacle smut” and into areas where our connection to ourselves, and to the Other (within us and outside of us) can be explored. Stories that thrill as much as they chill, that provoke thought in the head as much as they produce heat in the… well, elsewhere, let’s just say.

The character of Justine Geoffrey—both within this story and in a more metafictional way as the author and editor of works for Martian Migraine Press—is not that of a victim, a prostitute, or a sadistic slut. She enjoys sex, and gets sexually excited easily; emotional attachments in this first chapter are very ephemeral, so that sexual attraction and consummation does not necessarily equal love. By some standards, her behavior might certainly be considered evidence of hypersexual disorder, but Justine G. feels no inherent guilt or distress at her sexual desires and escapades.

At what point does a woman empowered by and embracing her sexual nature and actively pursuing sexual experiences cross whatever threshold separates a healthy sexual appetite into a mental health disorder? At what point does a character in a porn novella cease to be a believable character and become a wanton caricature, a fantasy of a nymphomaniac? Does the apparent gender and sexuality of the author influence how the audience reads these stories? These are the questions at the heart of the characterization of Justine Geoffrey, both in the stories and in the larger context as author and editor.

Answers are going to be subjective. The complexity of Scott R. Jones’ female anima is one of the more interesting aspects of a series that largely makes no bones about nor has any shame in being Lovecraftian erotica. “Justine G.” is not a patient to be analyzed, and as an editorial voice has grown beyond the role she experiences and enjoys in “Red Monolith Frenzy” and the other episodes in Priestess, where Jones would go on to draw inspiration from Mythos writers such as Ramsey Campbell and Alan Moore.

“Red Monolith Frenzy” was initially published as an ebook in 2012. It was collected in Priestess in 2014, which was translated into German and published as Die Chronik des Schwarzen Steins in 2018 in a limited edition of 999 copies.


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

Editor Spotlight: Christine Campbell Thomson

The ‘Not at Night’ series was originally conceived by its editor on the top of a bus one evening when it became clear that a money maker was needed for the firm of Selwyn & Blount, the original publishers. It was one of those brilliant ideas that grew and grew over a period of some ten or eleven years ending with an Omnibus voluming containing the pick of the stories (in the opinion of the editor) and the War, which put a final end to its existence. During its long and honourable life over a quarter of a million copies were sold and the little 2/- volumes were seen in the stalls of almost every railway station, as well as in the bookshops.
—Christine Campbell Thomson, introduction to Not At Night (1960)

During the interwar period, American pulps became increasingly popular, both at home and abroad, being exported to Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and other countries—but were largely seen as disposable fiction. Very few stories in the pulps were republished in anthologies between hardcovers. Which makes Christine Campbell Thomson’s decision in 1925 to edit and publish a collection of horror fiction, much of it culled from the pages of Weird Tales, all the more innovative.

What’s more, the book was a success. Not At Night (1925) reportedly was republished ten times in the next three years, spawned ten direct sequels, at least one imitator, an omnibus, and even had a brief paperback reprint revival in the 1960s and 70s. It was the first hardback publication for the fiction of many Weird Tales writers, and the list of those published within its pages includes H. P. Lovecraft and many in his circle of correspondence, notably Frank Belknap Long, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Henry S. Whitehead, and Seabury Quinn.

Christine Campbell Thomson herself was an author, editor, and literary agent. In 1924 she had been agent to Oscar Cook, and shepherded his memoir Borneo: Steal of Hearts (1924) to great success; they were married a month after its release. Cook held a controlling interest in the publishing firm of Selwyn & Blount, and Thomson was working for that company when she hit on the idea of a cheap collection of horror stories, mostly reprints, aimed at the bustling book-stall market. As she told it:

The first book, Not At Night, came out in October, 1925—a tremendously exciting moment! For the idea had been conceived on the top of a bus (they were open-decked buses in those days) just as it pulled away from its Oxford Circus stop about six o’clock one evening. I was on that bus with the then Director of Selwyn & Blount, Ltd. He was, I remember, lamenting, like every other publisher, that he waned something new and couldn’t find it…and something popular. I believe that he claims the bright moment when Not at Night took birth, but I think that it was a case of two minds on the same thought at the same moment—at any rate, I know that I am responsible for the title of the Series!

The price of the projected book was a matter of fierce argument. Finally we agreed upon two shillings in the belief that Not at Night would be the kind of book that a man would buy at a railway-bookstall, throwing down a single coin and running for his train. We wanted, above all, to produce books that would be within the reach of a very large number of people….

The jacket for this first volume (and for many of the later ones), was designed by that clever advertising-agent, Betty Prentis, who was then working as a freelance artist under her trade-name Eliza Pyke. It was “Eliza”, with her sense of dramatic colour, who contributed not a little toward a “brighter bookstalls” movement!

Publication-day dawned and we held our hands in trepidation. Were we backing a wrong horse? Within a week we knew that we were on the right one. Not At Night was launched and we daringly planned a second and a third to follow in the ensuing years. For originally this was a one-book scheme. The popularity of the Series never waned, and it became a matter of pride to make each subsequent volume equal the quality of the previous one; for—in our modest opinion—it was impossible to surpass it!
—Christine Campbell Thomson, introduction to Not At Night Omnibus (1936) 9-10

Thomson wrote little more than this on the Not At Night series; there are no introductions to the original volumes except the omnibus, and her memoir I Am A Literary Agent (1951) while full of fascinating anecdotes, leaves off most of her time as an editor at Selwyn & Blount. However, a fairly extensive correspondence regarding the series (and their appearances therein) survives from Lovecraft and his contemporaries, giving us a unique opportunity to see what they thought about their book appearances, in their own words, and a hint at some of what was happening behind the scenes.

Not At Night (1925) & More Not At Night (1926)

MoreNAN

The first two Not at Night volumes were comprised primarily of stories from Weird Tales in 1925 and 1926—quite literally hot off the press—and include two stories by Lovecraft’s friend and Mythos originator Frank Belknap Long, one by August Derleth, and the first Jules de Grandin episode from Seabury Quinn. Lovecraft was not present in these volumes, and appears to have been generally ignorant of their existence: while popular in the United Kingdom, the books were not imported into the United States in large numbers.

By the way—Long has had two stories of his reprinted from Weird Tales in British anthologies of weird fiction. “Death Waters” appears in “Not At Night”, & “The Sea-Thing” in “More Not At Night”. These collections, he tells me, he’s only just received copies himself) are very good, & I shall ask him for the loan of them.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 11 Mar 1927, Essential Solitude1.74

The two collections containing Long’s tales are called, respectively, “Not At Night” & “More Not At Night”. As soon as I ascertain the publisher I’ll let you know.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 16 Mar 1927, ES1.75

As a mark of their debt to Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright, whose agent in London Charles Lovell apparently provided the materials for these and subsequent volumes in the series, Thomson included a dedication in More Not at Night and several subsequent volumes:

The Editor desires to record her acknowledgements to Weird Tales by whose kind permission these stories are reprinted.

You’ll Need A Night Light (1927)

YNAN

The third Not At Night volume was the first hardback publication of a Lovecraft Mythos story: “The Horror at Red Hook.” The book also marks the appearance of stories from Thomson (under the name Flavia Richardson) and her husband Oscar Cook; both had submitted and published their work in Weird Tales.

A third pleasure is given me by the news of Red Hook’s anthological reprinting; and I’d like to see the book if you can get me a copy later on. I can most emphatically and advantageously use any royalties, be they ever so humble, which may chance to trickle in from Mr. Lovell. I’ve been meaning to ask Belknap whether he obtained anything for the two stories reprinted in previous issues.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Farnsworth Wright, 16 July 1927, Selected Letters 2.155, Lovecraft Annual 8.11

I also learn to my great pleasure that the British “Not at Night” anthology which reprinted two of Belknap’s tales has used one of mine—”Red Hook”—in its third issue. This will bring enough of a royalty to keep me in postage stamps if Belknap’s experience by any criterion.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 26 July 1927, ES1.100

I’ve forgotten the name of the British firm that issues the “Not at Night” anthologies, but Wright could tell you quickly enough. It’s like an average publisher to choose a writer’s worst tale for particular preference. “Red Hook” was so poor that I hesitated in sending it to Wright in the first place, but he thought it was one of my best!
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 4 Aug 1927, ES1.101-102

I have never tried my luck with the British market, but I believe I will later take advantage of your much-appreciated suggestion. No—I have patronised no agents in England, although I am told that Weird Tales’s London representative systematically endeavours to re-market all the contents of that dubious congeries of mediocrity on the other side. As a result of this arrangement, they tell me that one of my poorest printed effusions—”The Horror at Red Hook”—is about to be reprinted in the latest number of the Selwyn & Blount “Not At Night” anthology—an institution which has already used two stories by Frank Belknap Long.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Vincent Starrett, 23 Aug 1927, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 523

At Cook’s I saw the two “Not at Night” anthologies, & asked the name of the publishers. It is Selwyn & Blount.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 5 Sep 1927, ES1.104

Anthologies, by the way, are right in my line. I’ve just received the 3d. of the Selwyn & Blount “Not at Night” series with my “Horror at Red Hook” as the last story in the book. This is my first—if not my last—appearance between cloth covers.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 19 Dec 1927, Mysteries of Time & Spirit 195-196, SL2.211

I duly received the Selwyn and Blount anthology which you forwarded. Not half bad! My first appearance between cloth covers, save for prefaces to two books of other people’s poetry which I’ve edited. I note that their illiterate proofreader copies the misprinted punctuation of the Latin quotation—the comma after tali which so lacerated my heart in Weird Tales.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Farnsworth Wright, 22 Dec 1927, SL2.212, LA8.16

You’ll Need A Night Light is not technically Lovecraft’s first appearance in hardcover, since he had previously had material appear in The Poetical Works of Johnathan E. Hoag (1926) and White Fire (1927), both tributes and collections of work of notable amateur journalists that Lovecraft had edited, but it was his first fiction appearance in an anthology. While happy to be in the anthology and pleased at the idea of royalties, Lovecraft’s estimation of the book’s literary value was low:

Your inclusion in the last “Not at Night” volume also gave me great pleasure, but you should have been there before with “The Outsider” or one of your more important tales than “The Horror at Red Hook.”
—Donald Wandrei to H. P. Lovecraft, 15 Jan 1928, MTS 199

As for that ‘Not at Night’—that’s a mere lowbrow hash of absolutely no taste or significance. Aesthetically speaking, it doesn’t exist.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 20 Jan 1928, MTS 202

In fact, a hallmark of the Not At Night series under Thomson’s editorship was going for the grue, so to speak. She often picked not the best of the stories from Weird Tales, but some of the most vivid and visceral, such as Eli Colter’s “The Last Horror” and Seabury Quinn’s “The House of Horror”—a far cry from Lovecraft’s preferred aesthetic, but the readers ate it up.

Gruesome Cargoes (1928)

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The fourth Not At Night volume consisted primarily of original stories and reprints from Hutchinson’s Mystery-Story Magazine and Ghost Stories, rather than reprints from Weird Tales. The volume’s publication apparently coincided, more or less, with some financial difficulty at Selwyn & Blount, which led directly to their acquisition by another British publishing company, Hutchinson’s, with which Oscar Cook had some association (his stories appeared in several of their magazines). Selwyn & Blount were maintained as an imprint or associated company, and continued to produce the Not At Night series.

As for the “Not at Night” anthologies—your mention of the Asbury book coincides with special timeliness with a note just received from Weird Tales’ London agent. Selwyn & Blount have failed, & no royalties can be paid their authors before next March. Another company has taken over the sale of the remaining books—but I fancy that the new “Gruesome Cargoes” will end the series unless this Asbury person finds a way to take over its good-will.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 5 Oct 1928, ES1.160

So “Gruesome Cargoes” isn’t taken from W.T.! Maybe they wouldn’t have failed if they’d stuck to their good old source! Home you get some royalties from the defunct S & B in the end.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 17 Oct 1928, ES1.165

The Asbury that Lovecraft mentions involves the other Not at Night book published in 1928…and one not edited by Christine Campbell Thomson or published by Selwyn & Blount.

Not at Night! (1928)

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In 1928, the American publishing firm of Macy-Masius produced their own Not at Night! volume, edited by Herbert Asbury and with contents drawn from the first three books of the British Not at Night series. This volume was apparently unauthorized—whether the publishers knowingly violated copyright law or there was a misunderstanding regarding the license to use certain stories from Weird Tales is not entirely clear, although based on the disclaimer at the front of the book the publishers appear entirely ignorant of the original provenance of the stories in an American pulp magazine:

These stories were originally printed in England in “Weird Tales,” and were selected and arranged for the English edition  by Christine Campbell Thomson.

Asbury’s introduction underlines his basic ignorance of Weird Tales:

And a whole new school of writers has arisen to contribute to the scores of magazines in this country and England which specialize in tales of horror and the occult. All of these periodicals appear to be enormously successful, and their number is rapidly increasing. […] Most of the authors represented in this collection appear to be comparatively unknown in this country (Seabury Quinn is the only one whose work I have ever seen before), and scholars and critics will look in vain for evidences of the skill and erudition displayed by such masters of the horror story as Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce and Algernon Blackwood. But any such comparison would be manifestly unfair, for the only criteria applied in selecting these tales from the many which were available were shock and gruesomeness.
—Herbert Asbury, introduction to Not at Night! (1928) 10-11

Seabury Quinn was also regularly published in Real Detective, where Asbury likely read him. The book republishes Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook,” in addition to stories from Ausut Derleth and Frank Belknap Long. Its appearance caused consternation, and a legal challenge from Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, and Macy-Massius withdrew it from the stands.

I am indeed interested to hear of the proposed action regarding Not at Night, and certainly hope the matter can be properly straightened out. It seems rather a tangle—I never heard of this Jeffries before; but was told last September by the agent Lovell that a certain Hutchinson and Co. had bought the edition of the book containing Red Hook, and that I would receive from them such royalties as would have been due me from the late lamented Selwyn and Blount. At that time nothing was said of any other sale of rights, British or American. I fancied that Macy-Massius might have later bought the rights from Hutchinson—and bought the rights to the earlier books from the receiver of the deceased corporation—but in any case it seemed to me that something was due the various authors represented.

As to including me in the list of plaintiffs—I suppose it’s all right so long as there is positively no obligation for expense on my part in case of defeat. My financial stress is such that I am absolutely unable to incur any possible outgo or assessment beyond the barest necessities; so that, unsportsmanlike though it may seem, I cannot afford to gamble on any but a “sure thing”—sure, that is, not to involve loss. If, however, the guarantee of non-assessment on your part is to be taken literally as covering all possible expenses both principal and incidental, I suppose it would be foolish not to stand behind the action and reap whatever royalties might be due me in case of victory. I certainly need all such things that human ingenuity can collect.

Therefore—it being understood that I am in no position to share in the burthens of defeat—you may act for me if you wish; though I doubt if my profits will amount to very much in case of victory. I will pass on your letter to Little Belknap, and fancy he will extend similar authorisation.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Farnsworth Wright, 15 Feb 1929, SL2.260-261, LA8.20

No—I didn’t notice the “Not at Night” advertisement you mention. Bold plagiarism of titles—but I suppose it’s a different anthology. I must look it up.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 27 Sep 1928, ES1.159

This will be my second appearance between cloth covers, one other anthology having used a tale of mine a year ago.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 20 Nov 1928, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge & Anne Tillery Renshaw 22 SL2.253-254

It rather tickled me to see this Herbert Asbury claiming editorship of a book which he merely took as he found it—but maybe he changed the punctuation in some of the tales. I suppose “Red Hook” must be in it—& if so, I am wondering if I ought to get any royalties. Maybe I’ll write the London agent Lovell & see.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, Dec 1928, ES1.169

Residual current honours are purely anthological. I believe I last winter appris’d you, that my “Horror at Red Hook” had been included in the British weird anthology “Not at Night”—published by the now unhappily deceased London firm of Selwyn & Blount. Well, Sir, that anthology has just been republished in America, (Macy-Masius, $2.00) & I am still in it.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Maurice W. Moe, 13 Dec 1928, LMM 196

This fame business would be rather expensive if it were followed up—O’Brien’s book $2.50, the Asbury “Not at Night” perhaps $2.00, & the O. Henry thing I don’t know how much! […] I’ve just wondered, though, if Long & I oughtn’t to get some royalties from the Asbury affair. We kept our book rights, & Selwyn & Blount have either paid or promised a legitimate return—even posthumously. How come this Asbury person git so much fo’ nuffin’? But then—Gawd knows I’m no business man. Your account of the new “Not at Night” sounds very attractive, & I may yet fall for it. The copies to be autographed have not yet come, but I’m prepared for quick action when they do. Asbury’s geographical mistakes are somewhat amusing. Really, I’ll have to emigrate to the States if there’s a chance of getting well known over there some day! Beastly fog, this—I can hardly see St. Paul’s dome from my Bloomsbury upper window as I write!
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 14 Dec 1928, ES1.170

I thought the appearance of the volume delightful, but did not care much for Asbury’s slighting reference to the artistic & scholastic merit of the contents. I was tempted to answer his slur about scholarship by pointing out that his own lordly erudition was not sufficient to detect & delete the mispunctuation which destroys the sense of the quotation from Delrio—the comma after tali which the British anthologist stupidly copied from the original misprint in Weird Tales. I’m not sure yet wether or not I’ll buy the book. Belknap has put in an order for a used copy at the nearest Womrath Library—since they sell books rather cheap after withdrawing them from circulation.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 26 Dec 1928, ES1.173

Yeah—that Asbury goof sure gives a dirty dig in his praefatio. And then, after jeerin’ at bum scholarship, he goes & retains the misprinted punctuation in my Delrio quote!
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 26 Dec 1928, Letters to James F. Morton 171

It was interesting to hear of your new professor’s acquaintance with “Not At Night”—& flattering to learn his opinion of “Red Hook.” I can’t like that yarn at all, myself, & wouldn’t be inclined to place it first even in the Asbury compilation.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 1 Feb 1929, ES1.180

Wright is going to sue Macy-Masius for printing (under an invalid contract) the contents of “Not at Night”, & wants Long & me to let him include us among the complainants. I think I’ll let him—I surely wouldn’t mind some extra royalty!
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 15 Feb 1929, ES1.184

As for Wright’s lawsuit—I suppose the rights sold to Selwyn & Blount were British rights only, so that reprinting in the U.S. is illegal. Wright said something about a defective & unauthorised contract which Macy-Masius had made with somebody named Jeffries—but I couldn’t quite get the drift of the situation, since the explanation seemed to assume my possession of information which in truth was never given to me. However, I wish Wright luck, & hope that Belknap & I can get something out of it. Too bad you relinquished all rights on those older tales of yours which are represented.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 25 Feb 1929, ES1.185

By coincidence, I have also just received as a gift a copy of the Asbury “Not at Night” volume.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 20 Aug 1929, ES1.208

Herbert Asbury edited the pirated American “Not at Night” anthology (containing my “Horror at Red Hook”) which Macy-Masius withdrew from the market rather than pay royalty or damages to Weird Tales.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Carl Ferdinand Strauch, 5 Nov 1931, LJVS 302

By Daylight Only (1929)

BDLO

Lovecraft’s third anthology appearance was “Pickman’s Model” in By Daylight Only, which also included stories by H. Warner Munn and August Derleth. Whether for cost or other reasons, Thomson had returned to reprinting the “best” (or at least, most grisly) Weird Tales had to offer. It also appears to have used a simplified royalty system, offering a lump sum payment to writers (probably minus an agent fee) rather than residuals based on sales.

Also, [Wright] says that the successors of the late Selwyn & Blount are going to issue another anthology of W.T. stuff, & intend to include “Pickman’s Model.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 2 Aug 1929, ES1.206

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the new Not at Night annual had a goodly quota of your material. I trust that I may get a free copy, as I did of the issue containing “Red Hook”.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 13 Aug 1929, ES1.207

Did you get “By Daylight Only” free, or did you have to buy it? I haven’t seen a copy, & had no idea it was out, although Wright lately sent me a cheque for $21.25 to cover “Pickman’s Model.” Where does one get it? I’d sort of like to own it, since I’m represented therein.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 15 Dec 1929, ES1.236

I’d like the address of the place you got “By Daylight Only” if you have it conveniently at hand. I’m too broke to buy it now, but sooner or later I’d relish its presence on my shelves. […] Too bad you let Wright have all rights on “The Tenant”.  Got $21.50 for the use of “Pickman’s Model”—the arrangement in this case being one outright payment instead of the dribbling royalty system used in connexion with the earlier “Not at Nights”.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 22 Dec 1929, ES1.238

If I get “By Daylight Only” it will probably be from the Argus—whose catalogues have reached me regularly for many years. What is their price? Not much more, I imagine, than the ultimate cost when ordered from England, if all the duties & incidentals be counted in. Munn—represented by “the Chain”—tells me he has a copy; & I am asking him whether or not he had to pay for it.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 27 Dec 1929, ES1.239

I’ll probably purchase “By Daylight Only” from the Argus. It ought to be worth a dollar & a quarter!
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, Jan 1930, ES1.243

Switch On The Light! (1931)

SOTL

While at this point considered an “annual” tradition, the tides of publishing mean schedules sometimes slip. So it is that there appears to have been no new Not at Night volume published in 1930, but two volumes in 1931. The first of these, Switch on the Light! includes Lovecraft’s  “The Rats in the Walls” (which had recently been republished in Weird Tales, and led to his correspondence with Robert E. Howard) as well as one of his stories ghost-written for revision client Zealia Brown Reed Bishop, “The Curse of Yig.” August Derleth and Frank Belknap Long are also both present.

Belknap’s Visitor from Egypt & my Rats in the Walls will appear in the new British “Not at Night” anthology.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, Nov 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 269

This reminds me that your “Pacer” will be companioned in the “Not at Night” anthology by Belknap’s “Visitor from Egypt” & my own “Rats in the Walls”—the remuneration for each of which seems to be the same as yours.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 21 Nov 1930, ES1.287

Glad the new “Not at Night” is a decent specimen of its kind. I shall wait till the publishers send me a copy. Shall be very glad to see your “Pacer” between cloth covers, & hope you will be equally well represented in whatever 1931 volume the firm may publish.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 29 May 1931, ES1.344

Why don’t I publish my things in book form? Because no publisher wants to buy them for that purpose! […] Stories of mine in anthologies, aside from “Red Hook” & “Cthulhu”, are “Pickman’s Model” (Not at Night, London 1929) & “The Rats in the Walls” (“ “ 1930).
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 19 Jul 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 21

M R James, the Not at Nights, &c., were all most enthusiastically welcome.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 3 Aug 1931, ES1.354

I’ll wait a while before buying the Rat-containing Not at Night—for it seems to me they did send me a belated copy once. Moreover, they very definitely promised me a copy of the present anthology this spring. Same with Belknap—who has received none so far.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 9 Oct 1931, ES1.393

In 1930 Wright reprinted [“The Rats in the Walls”] in W T, & in 1931 it was included in the British “Not at Night” anthology.
—H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 16 May 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin 87

Hope your mother will be able to get you the Not-at-Night with the Rats.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert Bloch, Sep 1934, LRBO 112

At this point, the success of the Not At Night series may have inspired similar efforts in America—less blatant that Macy-Masius’ volume, but strongly indicative. Weird Tales attempted to publish a reprint anthology of its own, The Moon Terror & Other Stories (1927), which performed poorly, still being advertized for sale into the 1940s. More successful was Beware After Dark (1929), edited by T. Everett Harré and including Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”, and another possible influence is Creeps by Night (1931), edited by Dashiell Hammett and including Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann.” In the 1930s, Weird Tales author E. Hoffmann Price also tried to get a Weird Tales anthology published, without success. Lovecraft mentions these briefly:

I’d be glad enough to have them use “Pickman’s Model”, which was included in the British “Not at Night” series, but has not seen book publication in America.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 12 Sep 1931, A Means to Freedom 1.213

I’m very glad that “Pickman’s Model” has been used in a British publication, and will gladder when it appears in American covers.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, Oct 1931, MF1.228, Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard 2.269

My “Call of Cthulhu” is in “Beware After Dark”, edited by T. Everett Harre & published by the Macaulay co., & the British “Not at Night” collections (published annually) usually include me among their contents.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Carl Ferdinand Strauch, 10 Oct 1931, LJVS 299-300

At Dead of Night (1931)

ADON

Nothing by Lovecraft appeared in At Dead of Night, though it had a story (“Passing of a God”) from his friend, correspondent, and collaborator Henry S. Whitehead. Lovecraft and his associates were still struggling to get copies.

At Dead of Night, the new Selwyn & Blount anthology, has come; it has Prince Borgia’s Mass, and is a lousy collection. I was glad to see Passing of a God here, however.
—August Derleth to H. P. Lovecraft, 15 Jan 1932, ES2.442

Thanks for the Not at Night information—my order goes to the Argus in this mail. But I do think Charles Lovell was a damn cheap sport not to send us free copies after promising to do so last May. Is there anything by our gang in the latest number?
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 27 Jan 1932, ES2.444

Thus all the “Not at Nights” have done their reprinting directly from W.T. without any notification of the respective authors.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 2 Feb 1932, ES2.447

I am informed by the Argus that the stock of “Switch on the Light” is exhausted, but that a fresh lot is due within a week. Therefore they are retaining my dollar & promising as early delivery as possible. I doubt if I’ll get the current annual.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 2 Feb 1932, ES2.448

The Argus had not yet sent my Not at Night, but I presume they will not forget to do so when it comes in. Sorry you aren’t being paid for your story in the latest issue. I believe you said there is nothing of mine in this one.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 25 Feb 1932, ES2.458

Grim Death (1932)

GD

The eighth entry in the series saw the first hardcover publication of the fiction of Texas pulpster Robert E. Howard, with his Cthulhu Mythos tale “The Black Stone.” Howard had been corresponding with Lovecraft for two years at this point, and had turned his hand to a few pieces of Mythos fiction, but this was the first Mythos story written by someone other than Lovecraft to appear in book form.

No—I fancy the gang aren’t represented at all in the new “Not at Night”, for nobody’s been notified, & cheques usually precede publication.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 28 Oct 1932, ES2.506

Glad the new Not at Night has “The Black Stone”—but it isn’t a volume I’d like to buy.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, Nov 1932, ES2.513

(N. B. I suppose you know that your “Black Stone” is in the new “Not at Night” anthology.)
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 7 Nov 1932, MF1.463

Don’t spare the new “Not at Night” from your library if you have any conceivable use for it—though of course I’ll be glad to have it if it is a question of Grandpa or the ash-dump! When I said I was glad Howard’s story was included, that was from a personal rather than a literary angle—for I concede that our Master of Massacre has by no means escaped from the crude & the conventional, despite the undeniable power of some of his suggestions of a monstrous & unhallowed antiquity.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 12 Nov 1932, ES2.523

I shall greet both of the volumes you mention with profound gratitude. Those “Not at Nights” are surely growing into an ambitious five-foot shelf of mediocrity!
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 19 Nov 1932, ES2.525

No, I didn’t know my “Black Stone” had landed in the “Not At Night” anthology.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, Dec 1932, MF1.494, CL2.497

By the way, could you give me the address of the “Not at Night” people?
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, Dec 1932, MF1.510, CL2.581

So you didn’t know “The Black Stone” had landed in the “Not at Night” anthology? That’s odd, for you ought to have received a small cheque from Charles Lovell (W.T.’s London agent) for the reprint rights. Better ask Wright about it. The address of the “Not at Night” firm is as follows: Selwyn & Blount, Paternoster House, Paternoster Row, London, E.C.4., Eng.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 21 Jan 1933, MF2.524

Glad you liked “The Black Stone.” It appeared in the British Not at Night anthology for 1932. Yes, I wrote the verses attributed to “Justin Geoffrey.” Glad you liked them.
—Robert E. Howard to Emil Petaja, 6 Mar 1935, CL3.304

Lovecraft’s general derision of the contents is not without some justification; most of the contents of the anthologies have rested in obscurity, though some like Howard’s “The Black Stone” and Dr. David H. Keller’s “The Thing in the Cellar” have gone on to be regarded as classics. Issues of payment, notification of authors, and copies of the work continued to plague the Weird Tales gang, for whom anthology appearances were still a novelty.

Keep On The Light (1933)

KOTL

Robert E. Howard returned again for the ninth entry in the Not At Night series, with the Mythos-related story “Worms of the Earth.” This volume also included Clark Ashton Smith’s first anthology appearance with “The Isle of the Torturers” set in Zothique, and Whitehead returned with “The Chadbourne Episode.” Other Weird Tales notables a little outside the Lovecraft circle included in this volume are Hugh B. Cave and Mary Elizabeth Counselman.

Selwyn and Blount, London publishers, who bring out a yearly anthology of weird tales under the title of Not at Night, have recently selected “The Isle of the Torturers” for inclusion in their next collection.
—Clark Ashton Smith to Ray & Margaret St. Clair, 23 May 1933, Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 208

[…] a few of my things have been printed in anthologies, hence may be obtainable if one is willing to lay out the price of a whole book for each story. […] “The Rats in the Walls” is in “Switch on the Light” (one of the Selwyn & Blount “Not at Night” series published in London & probably obtainable for a dollar each through the Argus Book Shop of Chicago). Other tales of mine in Selwyn & Blount anthologies are “The Horror at Red Hook” in “You’ll Need a Night Light”, & “Pickman’s Model” in “By Daylight Only”.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert Bloch, 22 April 1933, Letters to Robert Bloch 19

I understand that “Worms of the Earth” is to appear in the “Not at Night” series. I’ve been laying off to get the book that published my “Black Stone” but haven’t ever got around to it.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, Sep 1933, MF2.634, CL3.108

I am delighted to hear that “Worms of the Earth” will appear in the new “Not at Night”. With “The Black Stone” last year, you are surely becoming quite a fixture!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 2 Nov 1933, MF2.655

I have, by the way, ordered […] the [Christine Campbell] Thomson anthology, Keep on the Light, which contains my yearn, The Isle of the Torturers. These have not yet arrived.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, Jan 1934, DS 522, SLCAS 247

And by the way—let me congratulate you on the inclusion of “The Isle of the Torturers” in the latest “Not at Night.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 11 Feb 1934, DS 524

I received also the new Not at Night anthology, Keep on the Light, and was struck by the immense superiority of the items taken from Weird tales, over others which, I presume, are by British authors. Howard’s Worms of the earth and Whitehead’s The Chadbourne Episode were the leaders.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, Mar 1934, DS 535, SLCAS 251

I can loan you The Green Round and the new Not at Night, if you have not yet seen them.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, Mar 1934, DS 537

The new Not at Night sounds good, although “The Chadbourne Episode” is by no means good Canevin’s best. I don’t believe I’ll bother you to lend that, since I’ve probably read everything in it that’s any good. Your “Isle of the Torturers” & Two-Gun Bob’s “Worms of the Earth” are undoubtedly the headliners.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 9 Mar 1934, DS 538-539

Where do you get your Not at Night anthologies? I’ve been trying to locate a firm that handles them, but without success.
—Robert E. Howard to Clark Ashton Smith, Mar 1934, CL3.199

Glad you’ve got ahead of Lavell with the 1934 Not at Night. Is the 1933 one any good? I believe it contains Klarkash-Ton’s “Isle of the Torturers”.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 11 Mar 1934, ES2.626

Thanks very much for the tip on the Argus House. I ordered the Not at Night books I wanted, but they were out of them, and had to send to England for them. I haven’t yet received them.
—Robert E. Howard to Clark Ashton Smith, 21 May 1934, CL3.208

As a note, the list of books in Robert E. Howard’s library at the time of his death does not include any of the Not At Night series, so presumably he was unable to acquire them by mail order.

Terror By Night (1934)

TBN

The Horror in the Museum” was another of Lovecraft’s revision tales, ghostwritten for Hazel Heald, who became much-lauded in Weird Tales; it became the second of Lovecraft’s revisions to see print in a Not At Night volume. The other notable stories from the Lovecraft circle were Robert E. Howard’s Conan story “Rogues in the House”—the first Conan story to see publication in book form—and August Derleth’s “The Metronome.”

Yes—a number of tales nominally by others have had my hand behind them “the Curse of Yig” was reprinted in the S & B (London) “Not at Night” anthology some years ago, & “The Horror in the Museum” is scheduled for such reprinting this year.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 13 Apr 1934, LFLB 167

And, before I forget to mention it, Wright did another of his right-about-faces and took The Metronome, English rights to which you will remember I previously sold to the Not at Night series.
—August Derleth to H. P. Lovecraft, 15 Jun 1934, ES2.644

I haven’t yet gotten a copy of the Terror by Night, but intend to shortly.
—Robert E. Howard to August Derleth, Oct 1934, CL3.255

I liked your story in the Not at Night Anthology. I was rather surprized that the book didn’t include one of Lovecraft’s stories. Any anthology of weird fiction should include his work
—Robert E. Howard to August Derleth, 11 Dec 1934, CL3.258

Nightmare By Daylight (1936)

NBD

The eleventh and last of the regular series holds nothing of particular interest for fans of the Mythos; like Grusome Cargoes, the contents are mostly original rather than drawn from Weird Tales, with the exception of the reprint of David H. Keller’s “The Dead Woman.”

For example—it develops that he turned down Keller’s splendidly realistic story of insanity, “The Dead Woman”, which Schwartz later used & which has been reprinted in the latest British “Not at Night”.—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 22 Dec 1934, LFLB 242

We can only guess at why Christine Campbell Thomson chose to go with original stories over more Weird Tales reprints once again; the pulp fiction had been a staple of the series since the beginning and probably contributed to its overall success. Even Lovecraft noted that inclusion had almost become a tradition:

I have never made efforts to market stories in England, but several have been reprinted in anthologies there. There is a weird anthology series—”Not at Night”—appearing every year in London, & several of my tales have been in that.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Henry Kuttner, 12 Mar 1936, Letters to C. L. Moore 235

Not At Night Omnibus (1937)

NANO

The end of the Not At Night era came in a massive, somewhat more expensive omnibus edition. Here at last Thomson broke her usual editorial silence to offer an introduction, and our only real insight into her editorial process:

Choosing the stories for this and the previous eleven volumes had been a fascinating business, and has not dulled one’s appreciation of the macabre. It has been interesting, too, to see how the horror-story, as such, has developed during the last ten years. From the first, I set myself against “literature”; the story was the thing, and no amount of style could persuade me to select a story that lacked genuine, unadulterated horror. For those who wanted something more high-brow there was plenty. And I think our courage in meeting a requirement of this sort has done much towards getting rid of the politely watered “thriller.”

In choosing the stories for the present omnibus I have been guided by three things: first, that no author should be represented more than twice, in fairness to others; second, that the stories should as far as possible be evenly picked from the eleven preceding volumes of the Series, and third, that the type of story should be both mixed and representative.

This Not at Night Omnibus has been a dream of my own for some time now, but it could not come true until there were a certain number of individual volumes from which to select material. I only hope that most readers will like at least a large proportion of what I have chosen, and that no one will imagine that non-inclusion is any disparagement of quality. And if you like this collection and have not yet read the previous volumes, may I add that they are all still available for those who want them?
—Christine Campbell Thomson, introduction to Not At Night Omnibus 10

As it happens, Thomson knowingly or unknowingly broke her own rule, because she included three stories by Lovecraft: “Pickman’s Model” under his own name, “The Curse of Yig” as by Zealia Brown Reed, and “The Horror in the Museum” as by Hazel Heald. Lovecraft did not live to enjoy the irony; he died on 15 March 1937, and never saw the book in print.

My “Pickman’s Model” is going to be reprinted again—in England, in a “Not at Night” omnibus.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 4 Dec 1936, LRBO 406

“Pickman’s Model” is to be reprinted again—this time in a “Not at Night Omnibus” to be published in London next spring.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Wilson Shepherd, 15 Dec 1936, LRBO 366

“Pickman’s Model” is to be printed again—this time in a “Not at Night” omnibus to be published in London next spring.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 20 Dec 1936, LFLB 341

One small item to the good (the modest extent of precisely £1 sterling) is the prospective reprinting of “Pickman’s Model” in British “Not at Night Omnibus” to be issued next spring. I hope they use the real text, & not the emasculated one with the “Oh, gracious me!” ending which Wright put over on me in the recent reprint.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 5 Feb 1937, DS 663

Wright informs me that Pickman’s Model is about to be reprinted again—in a Special coronation Omnibus of the Not at Night series. The material reward will be only £1 sterling—but it will gratify me to be connected in any way with the enthronement of our new Sovereign. God Save the King!
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, March 1937, LJFM 400, SL5.432

Christine Campbell Thomson divorced Oscar Cook in 1937 or 1938; whether this is coincidental to the ending of the series or if the end of the personal relationship carried over into the business side of publishing, or if as she maintained the beginning of World War II in 1939 is responsible, is unknowable. All we can say is that while Thomson and Lovecraft’s views on weird fiction were polar opposites, there is no doubt that her inclusion of Lovecraft & other Weird Tales writers in the popular series brought them to the attention of a wider and more appreciative audience:

Osmond Robb writes from Edinburgh, Scotland: “Just a short appreciation of your magazine, which has given me many hours of delightfully blood-curling enjoyment. My first acquaintance with the work of your star authors was made not through the medium of WT itself but via the famous Not at Night series of carefully selected reprint shockers, published in England, many of which were from your magazine. Eli Colter—Seabury Quinn—H. P. Lovecraft—these names were strange to me when I encountered them in the pages of the little red books with the gruesome titles, By Daylight Only, Not at Night, Grim Death, etc. I must confess that then, as now, the unvarnished blood-and-thunders which sought to revolt the reader by nauseous details of putrefaction and slimy abomination left me cold. I wanted other-worldly horror, the chill dread of what may lie beyond the farthest outposts of our cognizance, not the cheap revulsion of rotting cadavers. This eery, authentic thrill the late lamented H. P. L. provided, and the first story I ever read by this exquisite literary craftsman established me as one of his fans. The Horror at Red Hook, with its muttering crones, its vile incantations and its final glimpse into the shadows of an all-too-realistic inferno sent shivers up and down my spine. Since that date I have never been disappointed by a Lovecraft story.
Weird Tales, Nov 1938

Not At Night (1960), More Not At Night (1961), & Still Not At Night (1962)

In the 1960s, the Not at Night series received a brief resurrection in the form of three paperbacks. The contents of the three volumes were not identical to the 1925 and 1926 books of the same title, but selected from the corpus of Not At Night stories, with the addition of brief introductions by Thomson, who wrote:

Now the publishers of Arrow Books have had the brilliant idea of staging a ‘comeback’ with an ‘Arrow’ Not at Night; the stories in it have again been selected by the original editor, Christine Campbell Thomson, and she confidently believes that they will be as popular now as then. It is illuminating and comforting to find how many stories that might have been considered old-fashioned have stood the test of approximately thirty years—more than a generation—and read as well now as they did then. In this collection an attempt has been made to cover all types of the stories used from the scientific experimental to the period ghost and the plain horror.

To re-read the old books has been wonderful and in some ways a sentimental experience akin to having a grandchild and this little volume foes to the world with the belief that the modern readers will be as pleasantly terrified as were those who originally bought each issue.
—Christine Campbell Thomson, introduction to Not At Night (1960)

Among the old favorites was “The Curse of Yig” by Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop.

Before the first volume of the Arrow ‘Not at Night’ was officially on sale, the publishers were asking for a second. Nothing, of course, could be a more fitting tribute to the quality of the good old stories nor more pleasing to the editor.

Here, then, is the second collection from those long-ago favourites. Again, it has been a selection that proved difficult owing to the quality and claims of so many rivals. But the choice has been made on a basis of trying to find something for everyone; from the supernatural to the natural; from the realms of the gorgeous East to the modest homes of the Middle West of America. Here you have a collection which is honestly believed to be as good as the first one.
—Christine Campbell Thomson, introduction to More Not At Night (1961)

This second volume had nothing by Lovecraft in it, though it included Robert E. Howard’s “Rogues in the House.” Still Not At Night contains no material from Lovecraft. It is tempting to think the reason for the exclusion may have more to do with Arkham House’s effective control of the Lovecraft estate and copyrights and efforts to reprint Lovecraft in paperback than Thomson deciding, after so many years, that she simply didn’t care to reprint any more of his stories.

The series had one final revival, in the form of two reprints under different titles and covers: More Not At Night (1961) was republished as Never At Night (1972), and Still Not At Night (1962) was reprinted as Only By Daylight (1972). Horror writer Ramsey Campbell, who was a young teenager when the Arrow reprints first hit the stands, later recalled:

It was in my very early teens, perhaps even earlier, that I bought a paperback of one of Christine Campbell Thomson’s Not at Night anthologies and found it dismally unsatisfactory, not in lacking gruesomeness—the book was a trough of that—but in the utter absence of good prose. I later encountered Thomson’s boast ‘From the first, I set my face against literature’ but believe me, I didn’t need to be told. Her influence was apparent in the increasingly pornographic and decreasingly literate Pan Books of Horror Stories before Steve Jones and David Sutton rescued them from their downward trend, and her regrettable tradition may be seen in a more recent teeming of writers bent on outdoing each other in disgustingness.
Ramsey Campbell and Modern Horror Fiction 4

Which brings us around, finally, to the weird editorial legacy of Christine Campbell Thomson. As an anthologist, there is no doubt that she was a sound businessperson, and her literary instincts were aimed squarely at providing the public with cheap collections of gore and grue, as affordably as she could. The covers were garish and eye-catching, the construction of the books often relatively shabby, though at least some of the printings used good paper. She constructed a product, and did so as economically as possible; of the 178 stories in the Not At Night series, 100 were reprints from Weird Tales, several were written by Thomson or her husband, and others still were reprints from other pulps or British magazines. Very little of the contents were original, and those were the books which appeared at the two points the series floundered, in 1928 and 1936.

We never get a sense of Thomson’s appreciation or lack thereof for individual writers: she had no direct contact with them and does not appear to have played favorites, publishing women as well as men, tales of supernatural fiction as well as weird terror or science fiction. Even the Weird Tales authors never really mention her: their focus is entirely on the product, seeing their name in print in hardcover was a kind of magic, the thing that happened so seldom in the pulps.

Yet as materialistic as Thomson’s aims might have been, and as pointed as her focus was in providing a product for the masses, whatever else she accomplished with the Not At Night series she succeeded in two things: bringing Lovecraft & co. to the attention of a wider audience than Weird Tales, and helping to establish the financial viability of the pulp reprint and standalone horror anthology. While these things might have happened on their own, Thomson’s editorial success at Not At Night is undeniable, if only for the number of “firsts” she managed to publish over those eleven books in the initial series.


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

“Love’s Eldritch Ichor” (1990) by Esther M. Friesner

If you had not used Ms. Lovecraft’s text as the basis for our novel, Fires on the Sea would have languished as unknown as its first authoress. What a loss to us all that would have been!
—Esther M. Friesner, “Love’s Eldritch Ichor” in Cthulhu 2000 (1991) 244

The initial premise of “Love’s Eldritch Ichor” is designed to knock the steadfast and serious fan of H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos off their rocker: what if one of H. P. Lovecraft’s manuscripts was being re-written and published as a contemporary romance novel, trashy cover and sex scenes and all? For a writer whom many fans had raised up on a pedestal, both in real life and in fiction, the juxtaposition of tone and genres is designed to raise hackles. Then when the knife is firmly inserted, Esther M. Friesner starts to twist it just enough to tickle the funnybone…

There is a fine line between a reference and an in-joke. Readers intimately familiar with the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft recognize the reference in the title to “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ, and that recognition preps the reader for the story: it helps to establish the world. In-jokes are similar in that they are never explained to the reader; either they get them or they do not. The elaborate riffing on Gnophkehs in “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996) by Peter Cannon & Robert M. Price is an in-joke, only really comprehensible to someone aware of the fan-scholar debate on the subject. While it contains a lot of clever wordplay and humorous imagery and characterization, “Love’s Eldritch Ichor” is built on Mythos in-jokes, from by-the-way references to various Mythos stories to a groaner of a knock-knock joke from a gang of shoggoths. Yet there is a lot more at work in the story.

“Love’s Eldritch Ichor” blends fiction and reality: set in a contemporary (1990) world of cappucino machines and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), but one where both Lovecraft and his literary creations such as Arkham both coexist. While the former is uncommon, the latter is very typical of a certain type of Mythos fiction. Lovecraft himself would drop references to Arthur Machen and Clark Ashton Smith into stories like “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Call of Cthulhu”; August Derleth would go Lovecraft one better by dropping in references to Lovecraft and the Arkham House collection of his tales next to the Necronomicon. Derleth was not doing this tongue-in-cheek, he was building an idea that Lovecraft had based some of his tales on reality—an idea revisited by later authors such as Robert Bloch in his novel Strange Aeons (1978) and Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence (2015-2017). Where other authors use that as a jumping-off point to reflect on, revisit, or revise Lovecraft’s fiction, Friesner does it to underline the silliness of the premise, to take off the kid gloves and show nothing is off-limits.

If the gloves are off for Lovecraft, Friesner also isn’t worried about bloodying her knuckles against the cut-throat world of book contracts, agents, and editors, and the whole innate silliness of the romance industry. Most of the jokes made are at the expense of Robin Pennyworth, the sole male reader in a female-dominated book publisher. His awareness of his failure to meet up to 1980s expectations of masculine attitude and behavior, reminiscent (if not so focused on homophobia) of “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986) by Robert Silverberg, is meat for his domineering boss Marybeth Conran, who is quick with a cutting remark like:

If everything Chuckie Ward tells me is true, she’s led a life of such isolation that when you stumbled into her life, no wonder she mistook you for a man.

Sarah Pickman, the object of Robin’s amour and the co-author of Fires of the Sea, is portrayed far more positively than Conranwhose only goal is to rule her department with an iron fist and bind the writers with the worst possible contracts. In many subtle ways, Friesner plays up her parallels with her supposed ancestor H. P. Lovecraftreclusive nature, thriftiness, and the invitation by a romantic partner to New York City all being obvious homages to Lovecraft’s nature and biography.

So too, Friesner has put some effort into the references to the romance novel itself, alluding to characters and scenes that would be appropriate if Lovecraft himself had written an Innsmouth-based romance novel…which does beg the question of whether or not she was aware of previous efforts in this direction. Robert M. Price, writing as “Sally Theobald” (a play on one of Lovecraft’s pseudonyms) published an eldritch confessional-style yarn titled “I Wore The Brassiere of Doom” (1986); Brian McNaughton, writing as “Sheena Clayton” had written an Innsmouth-based erotic/romance novel titled Tides of Desire (1983). Price, like Friesner, focused on the silliness of the serious and asexual Lovecraft trying his hand at such an unfamiliar genre; McNaughton was aiming less at humor and more at a serious erotic paranormal romance work (although he was a couple decades early for that particular genre). Both ideas have bones: Edward Lee would revisit the idea of Lovecraft maintaining a sideline in erotic fiction with Trolley No. 1852 (2009)while Friesner was playing the idea for laughs, in the long run it looks like there’s at least some market for those kind of materials.

The topicality of the story might make it something less than classic; its references to late-80s American culture are already dated nearly three decades after its original publication, such as the final whopper:

[…] while I looked and looked for mention of a pace-name you use, consulting the Britannica and the geographical listings in the Unabridged, it only shows up a an adjective. It sounds so familiar. I think I may have heard of a Trump resort located there, but correct me if I’m wrong.

Where is Stygia?

This is at least a more subtle insertion of a Trump reference into Lovecraftiana than Trump Vs. Cthulhu: Two Small Hands, One Big Problem (2018), and is actually a very clever final in-joke referencing the works of Robert E. Howard (who, along with Clark Ashton Smith, get nods in the story). Lovecraft had written in a letter:

There is no such name as Stygia … the adjective Stygian being derived from the name Styx—the River of the Dead. Two-Gun Bob misuses the word-root when he speaks of a country called “Stygia”. Indeed, he takes frequent & unwarranted liberties with classical names ( or variants of names) in devising a nomenclature for his prehistoric world. Price & I have laboured with him in vain on that point.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 28 Sep 1935, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 290

This is Friesner showing her homework and giving the knife one last little twist, this time to Robert E. Howard fans, although her subtle references to Red Sonja owe more to the Marvel comic books or the 1985 film than anything Ms. Cromwell (er, Robert E. Howard) ever wrote.

“Love’s Eldritch Ichor” was first published in World Fantasy Convention 1990: An H.P. Lovecraft Centenary Celebration (1990), and reprinted in Friesner’s collection It’s Been Fun (1991), the anthologies Cthulhu 2000 (1995) and Cthulhu and the Coeds, or, Kids & Squids (2000); it has also been translated into French as “L’amour est une indicible purulence” and published in Fées & gestes (1998). Her story “The Shunned Trailer” was published in The Cackle of Cthulhu (2018).


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

“Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986) by Robert Silverberg

The two of them had been journeying across the interminable parched wastes of the Outback for many days now—how many, not even the Elder Gods could tell. They were ambassadors, these two: Their Excellencies Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft of the Kingdom of New Holy His Diabolic England, envoys of his Britannic Majesty Henry VIII to the court of Prester John.
—Robert Silverberg, “Gilgamesh in the Outback” in Rebels in Hell (1986) 79

Even before he was dead and could not offer any protest, H. P. Lovecraft was represented as a fictionalized version of himself in Robert Bloch’s “The Shambler from the Stars” (Weird Tales Sep 1935). Lovecraft even gave his friend permission to kill him off in the story, and returned the favor by killing off a fictional Bloch in “The Haunter of the Dark” (Weird Tales Dec 1935). This began a literary tradition of using Lovecraft and his friends and contemporaries a fictional characters, which continues to this day.

The genre varies from weird fiction like Fritz Leiber’s “To Arkham and the Stars” (1966) to historical fiction such as Peter Cannon’s The Lovecraft Chronicles (2004) to erotic horror including Edward Lee’s Trolley No. 1852 (2009), but what all of these stories have in common is that the characterization of Lovecraft is informed by what is known of his life and thought, and the same is true for the other historical personages. Robert E. Howard, for example, appears in both Richard Lupoff’s novel Lovecraft’s Book (1985), Rick McCollum’s Ashley Dust (1994), David Barbour’s Shadow’s Bend (2000), and Robert Silverberg’s novella “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986).

The story takes place in the Heroes in Hell shared universe; a series of anthologies such as the Man-Kzin Wars and Thieves’ World where multiple authors write stories in a common setting, usually sticking to their own characters but collaborating to a degree on the development of the common background, and possibly referencing each other’s additions and the events in their stories. The whole concept is similar to how comic book shared universes work, and of course is a somewhat more structured and organized version of how the Cthulhu Mythos came to be. In Heroes in Hell, all the great figures of history go to their infernal rest—so that Cleopatra, Machiavelli, Benito Mussolini, Che Guevara, et al. can all interact. The device which allows the meeting of disparate historical figures is the crucial attraction of the setting, and Silverberg takes advantage of this in his story by having Gilgamesh meet H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.

The attraction of placing Lovecraft and Howard together is in large part because they were friends during the 1930s, and experienced a publication boom in the 60s and 70s as their work was printed and reprinted in affordable paperbacks. Though they never met, they carried on an extensive correspondence, much of which has survived and which saw publication, starting with some of Lovecraft’s letters to Howard in the Selected Letters from Arkham House during the 1960s and then more in fanzines, small scholarly journals, and other publications until the full correspondence was finally published as A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard in 2009.

In addition to their published letters and fiction, both Lovecraft and Howard received scholarly attention which was largely lacking for their fellow pulp writers—at the time Silverberg was writing “Gilgamesh in the Outback,” he could draw on two biographies written by L. Sprague de Camp: Lovecraft: A Biography (1975) and Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard (1983, written with Catherine Crook de Camp and Jane Whittington Griffin). While these biographies were often the standard work on their subjects for several years, both books faced considerable criticism for de Camp’s treatment of his subjects, which often involved a kind of post mortem psychoanalysis. Nor was de Camp alone in such questionable assessments of his subjects:

The article [“The Psychological Conan” by John Strnad] goes in for all the superficial, mechanical application of static psychoanalytic labels, without any dynamic clinical evidence: Conan’s broadsword is, of course, a “standard phallic symbol”, his armor is “an extensive erogenous zone”, he is alleged to suffer from an unconscious “not resolved castration complex”, his attitude towards his companions and women shows “tendencies toward homosexuality”. his investigating and exploring of tombs and secret passages shows a “desire for heterosexual relations.”

Psychoanalysis of living people and of literary figures requires not the labeling with Freudian terms but an interpretation based on concrete data. This article represents a misunderstanding of both psychoanalysis and Conan. Howard and Conan deserves better.
—Frederic Wertham, Amra vol. 2, no. 58 (1973), 12

Other writers did not mince words; Harry Harrison in Great Balls of Fire! An Illustrated History of Sex and Science Fiction (1977) included an entire chapter titled “Is Conan Dating Clark Kent?” and states boldly:

Howard did identify with his hero, Conan, and admitted as much many times. […] I find it hard to agree when [Wertham] insists that this was all done consciously by the author. Conan is a crypto-homosexual and the entire school of sword-and-sorcery reflects this fact. (85)

These particular impressions of Robert E. Howard and his creation Conan, often seen as an alter ego, are important because they provide the context within which Silverberg operated and would have understood the basis for the character he was creating. So as the two pulpsters-turned-ambassadors drive through Hell in a Land Rover, they stop and encounter Gilgamesh—to who Howard has a peculiar reaction:

“By Crom,” he muttered, staring at the giant. “Surely this is Conan of Aquilonia and none other!” He was trembling. He took a lurching step toward the huge man, holding out both his hands in a strange gesture—submission, was it? “Lord Conan?” Howard murmured. “Great king, is it you? Conan? Conan?” And before Lovecraft’s astounded eyes Howard fell to his knees next to the dying beast, and looked up with awe and something like rapture in his eyes at the towering huntsman.
—Robert Silverberg, “Gilgamesh in the Outback” in Rebels in Hell 84

Gilgamesh is, as the title suggests, the main protagonist and focus of Silverberg’s novella. In choosing the most ancient hero in literature, Silverberg can set Gilgamesh in contrast to all the more recent dead celebrities, letting the king of Uruk express a very different take on death, damnation…and homosocial attitudes. Gilgamesh greatly misses the company of his “brother” Enkidu, a relationship which is presented as strictly non-sexual but also fundamental to both men. It is paralleled, in a way, with the friendship of Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard—but the latter’s response to Gilgamesh reveals a strange twist in Silverberg’s characterization of Conan’s creator.

Howard’s initial mistake of Gilgamesh for Howard’s own fictional creation Conan the Cimmerian, and the continuing response of Howard to Gilgamesh, highlight some of the sexual interpretations of the Texas pulpster as they existed at the time—and give Silverberg the opportunity to expressly state that Gilgamesh of Uruk is not a homosexual:

And that glow in the fellow’s eyes—what sort of look was that? A look of adoration, almost the sort of look a woman might give a man when she has decided to yield herself utterly to his will.

Gilgamesh had seen such looks aplenty in his day, from women and men both; and he had welcomed them from women, but never from a man. He scowled. What does he think I am? Does he think, as so many have wrongly thought, that because I loved Enkidu with so great a love that I am a man who will embrace a man in the fashion of men and women? Because it was not so. Not even here in Hell is it so, said Gilgamesh to himself. Nor will it ever be. (92)

As Robert E. Howard’s comes face-to-face with an individual that is in many ways the archetype of his most famous hero, he reacts as a fanboy might—and Gilgamesh completely fails to understand the hero-worship for what it is, mistaking it for sexual interest. The strenuousness of the denial, and Gilgamesh’s gauging of Howard’s reaction, both speak to the sexual psychology of the day. Gilgamesh is expressing an attitude of 80s machismo, and the subject of his objections is the creator of a genre of American fantasy which Harry Harrison accused of “crypto-homosexuality” because it commonly glorified the male form—as exemplified by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s casting in the lead of Conan the Barbarian (1982) and the half-naked, muscled figures that dominated Frank Frazetta’s covers of the Conan paperbacks.

Lovecraft, by contrast, plays the straight man (except when he in is turn is allowed a few moments of exuberance). Gilgamesh’s analysis of him, expressed later, jives strongly with interpretations of Lovecraft in the 80s:

[…] he is weirdly remote and austere, is apparently quite as crazy, but he too give the impression of being at war with himself, int error of allowing any sort of real human feeling to break through the elaborate facade of his mannerisms. The poor fools must have been scared silly when the serving -girls started tripping them and pouring warm milk over them and stroking their bodies. (122)

The creator of Cthulhu’s composure balances out Howard’s burst of eccentricity, and within a few pages everyone is set straight regarding the small error of identity. This does, however, give Howard time for a bit of introspection:

But this other business—this sudden bewildering urge to throw himself at the giant’s feet, to be wept up in his arms, to be crushed in a fierce embrace—

What was that? Where had that come from? By the blazing Heart of Ahriman, what could it mean? (98)

If Gilgamesh’s reaction to the idea of being the subject of homosexual attraction is an expression of 80s masculinity; Howard’s own confusion at feeling homosexual attraction is in turn an expression of a kind of crisis of masculinity verging on homosexual panic. Silverberg’s interpretation of Howard’s character was reinforced by borrowing an episode from Robert E. Howard’s 5 Sep 1928 letter to his friend Harold Preece, as well as referencing other details from Howard’s published correspondence and the sometimes erroneous scholarship. When Silverberg writes:

The desire of men for men was a mark of decadence, of the decline of civilization. He was a man of the frontier, not some feeble limp-wristed sodomite who reveled in filth and wanton evil. If he had never in his short life known a woman’s love, it was for lack of opportunity, not out of a preference for that other shameful kind. (99)

He is not directly quoting any particular passage from Howard’s writings; though the pulpster would write of “decadence,” he never spoke directly of male homosexuality in his published letters. The idea that Howard died a virgin is an idea promoted in de Camp’s biography:

While it is not impossible that, on some unaccompanied visit to Brownwood, his friends there took him to “Sal’s House,” as one of the the three local whorehouses was called, the weight of such evidence as we have makes it more than likely that he died without ever having enjoyed the pleasures of sex.
Dark Valley Destiny 140

While Howard never explicitly mentions any sexual encounter in his letters (and why would he?), there is circumstantial evidence to suggest he did in fact make use of prostitutes, so the de Camps were likely wrong on that score—but the facts of the matter are less important than the context: Silverberg, based on the then-current scholarship, was trying his best to build the character of Howard for his story.

Between Gilgamesh’s reaction and Howard’s, the portrayal of homosexuality in the story is not a positive one. It is rather the spectre of homosexuality which haunts the characters in this story, and Gilgamesh and Howard alternately deny and deride it in their internal monologues. For men so concerned with their masculine identities, the prospect of not being or being perceived as strictly heterosexual is a considerably upsetting prospect to both men—and Howard for his part immediately works to suppress these unfamiliar emotions, falling straight into the Kübler-Ross model.

While the characterization of homosexuality and masculinity might strike many contemporary readers as awkward or regressive, it is probably more accurate to say that it was period-appropriate. Silverberg has, throughout a long career in science fiction, addressed issues of gender and homosexuality in many different stories, notably Son of Man (1971), and popular attitudes on homosexuality have shifted dramatically over the course of his writing career. “Gilgamesh in the Outback” is an artifact of how homosexuality and masculinity were viewed in the 1980s, and this is very much expressed in the finale:

She-it, Howard though. A man don’t cry. Especially in front of other men.

He turned away, into the wind, so Lovecraft could not see his face.

“Bob? Bob?”

She-it, Howard thought again. And he let the tears come.  (137)

The fragile masculinity expressed by the statement that “a man don’t cry” is as close to the the fundamental philosophy of Silverberg’s story as anything else. Is Howard-the-character not a man just because he lets out a few tears? Is he less of a man for having felt an homoerotic attraction to Gilgamesh?

To say that this is a story about men and of men is accurate: aside from a few unnamed handmaidens, there are no female characters that appear on the page, though Queen Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn are mentioned, they are not present. All of the major and minor characters are men, and this story is about their relationships with each other. It is a story fundamentally steeped in men desiring the friendship of other men, but profoundly uncomfortable and unwilling to consider the implications of a sexual dimension to that friendship—not for any pressing religious reason (they’re already in hell), or any social more (nobody besides Gilgamesh or Howard ever bring homosexuality up), but simply as an internal struggle.

Readers might reflect on how the characters of Lovecraft, Howard, and the rest reflect on the real men that inspired them. As detailed in “Great Phallic Monoliths Lovecraft and Sexuality”, literary interpretations may be valid even if the facts don’t support them—readers upset that the Robert E. Howard of “Gilgamesh in the Outback” is a 1 instead of a 0 on the Kinsey Scale can be reassured that this is just fiction, and at that fiction based upon “scholarship” from 30-40 years ago which misapplied Freudian analysis. Readers that are open to the a less unilaterally heterosexual Howard are free to run with it. As far as the literary game goes, the characterization of historical persons is free game, so long as they remain identifiable to the audience and fit the needs of the story.

“Gilgamesh in the Outback” was first published in Rebels in Hell (1986) and Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (July 1986); Silverberg won the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 1987. It was reprinted in The New Hugo Winners, Volume II (1992), Novel Ideas: Fantasy (2006), and The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Six: Multiples 1983-1987 (2011). Silverberg wrote two sequels, “The Fascination of the Abomination” in Angels in Hell (1987) and “Gilgamesh in Uruk” in War in Hell (1988), which were later stripped of the Heroes in Hell-specific setting material combined into the novel To The Land of the Living (1989). Lovecraft and Howard do not appear in the later stories.

 


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