“The Black Brat of Dunwich” (1997) by Stanley C. Sargent

The next January gossips were mildly interested in the fact that “Lavinny’s black brat” had commenced to talk, and at the age of only eleven months.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”

In many ways a spiritual precursor to “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle and “Herbert West in Love” (2012) by Molly Tanzer, “The Black Brat of Dunwich” is one of Stanley C. Sargent’s most reprinted stories—and one of his most radical. It is a story which emerged from many of the ideas of Lovecraft scholarship at the time of its writing: Donald Burleson’s characterization of the Whateley twins fulfilling Joseph Campbell’s heroic monomyth, as detailed in Disturbing The Universe (1990); the tracing of autobiographical elements from Lovecraft’s life in “The Dunwich Horror” which Sargent would later expand on in the essay “Howard Phillips Whateley, An Observation” (1999, rev. 2002).

“The Black Brat of Dunwich” is a deliberate subversion of Lovecraft’s original narrative, a sort of critical reading re-cast as fiction, a different point of view where the real antagonist of the original story is not Wilbur Whateley. It is the kind of story that reflects the reality of biographical research, where scholars have to sift through different anecdotes and memoirs, trying to reconcile contradictory accounts and arrive at the truth—and the same game can be played by fans of the Mythos, as they attempt to reconcile different stories written by different authors, to arrive at some coherent understanding of the shared artificial mythology.

Part of the story is thus a very deliberate attempt to confirm certain long-held fan-theories, even while recasting the traditional Lovecraftian narrative. For example:

“Did Wilbur explain how Lavinia had a child by this non-material being?” Jeffrey asked.

Gavin chuckled. “I’d of thought you boys would be smart enough to figure that one out for yourselves! Seems self-evident to me that Wizard Whateley allowed himself to be possessed for an incestuous encounter with his daughter. You’ve read Armitage’s account, don’t you recall that Curtis Whateley described the giant face on top of the monster as being the unmistable likeness to Wizard Whateley?
—Stanley C. Sargent, “The Black Brat of Dunwich” in The Taint of Lovecraft 54

This was probably the inspiration for the scene regarding the conception of the Whateley twins in Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows’ graphic novel Providence.

While writers like Sargent & LaValle have played free with the interpretation of events and characters in Lovecraft’s stories, they have still largely bound themselves to the general sequence of those events and their outcomes—so in “The Black Brat of Dunwich” Lavinia Whateley still gets shut out from her pagan celebrations on Sentinel Hill, and still comes to the same end, just as in “The Dunwich Horror.” The difference in Sargent’s recension is the more sympathetic take on her as a character, showing her as more simple-minded than Lovecraft had and with Wilbur showing real affection for his mother, and going into more detail about her inevitable death.

Inadvertently, this treatment of Lavinia Whateley as a lonely, uneducated woman who is the mere pawn of the men in her life gives her even less agency as a character, but that is a common issue with many re-tellings of “The Dunwich Horror.” Lovecraft’s narrative doesn’t provide much of a role for Lavinia beyond mother and victim, and any narrative that sticks close to the events of that story will have trouble expanding her story much beyond that. The death of Lavinia becomes not an ominous mystery, but a tragedy unfolding.

One open question left by the story involves a particular scene which blurs the line between homosocial and homosexual. The narrator is aware that Wilbur Whateley is self-conscious of his appearance, and:

“I tried to get him over it, show him it didn’t matter to me. I even kept talking to him on a couple occasions to keep him in the room while I took a bath, figuring he’d eventually loosen up, seeing as how I was no Adonis myself, but it didn’t work. He just sat there staring at me all over, like he was studying me as an example of how folks are supposed to look. I just wanted him to accept himself for who he was and stop worrying about what anyone else thought.” He stared directly at James. “You’d best get that disgusted look off your face damn quick, young man, or I’m done talking.”
—Stanley C. Sargent, “The Black Brat of Dunwich” in The Taint of Lovecraft 50

Keeping in mind that while appearing full-grown, Wilbur Whateley was only about six years old in this scene, which makes this feel more than a little like indecent exposure, and recalls some of the problematic issues with “The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978) by Richard Lupoff. The whole tone of Sargent’s appeal likely echoes strongly with those who have had difficulties coming to grips with either their sexuality or body image, with it being remembered that Stanley C. Sargent put forth one of the most elegant arguments for why Lovecraft may have been a closeted homosexual in an interview with Peter A. Worthy (1998). Wilbur, like Lovecraft, is presented in this story as an outsider.

It is perhaps appropriate then that Sargent dedicated this story to his friend Wilum H. Pugmire, a Mythos author who also identified with the Outsider—but had embraced that identity and relished it.

“The Black Brat of Dunwich” was first published in the Esoteric Order of Dagon amateur press association mailing #97 and Cthulhu Codex #10 (1997); it has subsequently been reprinted many times, in The Ancient Track (Oct 1998), The Taint of Lovecraft (2002), The Black Book #2 (2002), Tales Out of Dunwich (2005), The Book of Cthulhu II (2012), and A Mountain Walked (2014).


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

“The Insider” (1998) by Stanley C. Sargent

Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness.
H. P. Lovecraft, “The Outsider”

The conceit of “The Insider” is that it is a prequel to Lovecraft’s “The Outsider.” Although both stories stand well enough on their own, once you get the idea the slight aping of Lovecraft’s diction and the general direction of Sargent’s story takes on a new dimension. It’s a solid, well-written Mythos tale, clever without being extravagant or feeling the need to explain everything, with a satisfying ending.

“The Insider” is not one of Sargent’s better-known tales; his claim to fame, if any, probably rests on the story “The Black Brat of Dunwich” (1997) and his essay “Howard Phillips Whateley, An Observation” (1999, rev. 2002), both of which focus on alternative interpretations of Wilbur Whateleywho, like the eponymous Insider/Outsider, is marked from birth as one apart. It’s a subject that Sargent, growing up as a homosexual, could and did empathize with. It was Sargent who has made the strongest, or at least most elegant argument that Lovecraft himself might have been a closeted homosexual:

I read “The Outsider” when I was about 14 and beginning to realize there was something very different about me, my deep dark secret.  We are talking about growing up in the farm country of Ohio in the early ’60s here.  When I read “The Outsider,” I felt convinced the author had gone through the same situation I was going through, the abject horror of recognizing you are gay in a very anti-gay world.

Years later, I tried to find an alternative reason for HPL considering himself such an extreme “outsider,” but I discovered no plausible other reason for such an extreme feeling of being an isolated monster.  I didn’t really care a whit about HPL’s sexual orientation (I am not trying to claim him as one of “us”), so at the time it occurred to me that I might be projecting a bit.

Yet, as I read more about HPL’s life, I began to see that all the ingredients were there.  His upbringing with a dominant, overly protective mother (who dressed him as a girl for the first few years of his life) and the nearly total absence of a father is the classic formula for a male child being gay. Although he declared his distaste for homosexuals, in particular effeminate males, he was often described as effeminate himself.  Plus he was a close friend with Samuel Loveman for many years and Loveman was hardly in the closet about his activities.  Finally, I can come up with no other logical explanation for HPL’s close relationship with the teenage Barlow during the last years of his life, to the point of making Barlow his literary executor.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe HPL was able to cast off the conventions he clung to so desperately enough to actually “come out.”  I think HPL saw in Barlow the self-accepting talented writer he had always wanted to be himself but couldn’t be.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Barlow had discussed his own “outsiderness” with a very understanding HPL, but I doubt HPL could have ever brought himself to own up to his own similar orientation.

It all makes even more sense if you interpret “The Dunwich Horror” as an autobiographical cloaked confession of his dilemma.  Wilbur obviously represents HPL, all the way down to HPL believing his own appearance was “hideous” (again, thanks to mom), and I believe the twin brother was the a symbol of the homosexual desires HPL so desperately tried to suppress.  No one could see the monster and it was essentially so evil that it had to be contained.  Yet it kept growing and even Wilbur feared it would someday break out (read “come out”) and destroy the world (Lovecraft’s little conservative world).  That thought terrified him as being gay went against everything he believed in; it must have been awful for him.  He surely married Sonia, a mother figure, in hope of changing his orientation, a very common and futile mistake.  If he didn’t confess his problem to her, she undoubtedly guessed and was sympathetic.

I suppose I’ll be up for a lynching when die-hard Lovecraftians read this, but I’m convinced I’m right.  Even my friend Wilum Pugmire disagrees with me strongly on this point.  Lovecraft would certainly have equated his unnamable secret with Wilde’s unspeakable love.
Stanley C. Sargent, interview with Peter A. Worthy (1998)

Whether or not readers agree with Sargent’s interpretation as fact, from a literary standpoint the idea has a degree of merit: it is possible to engage with Lovecraft’s creations from that viewpoint…and why not? It’s a fair cop. Robert M. Price engaged with the idea in his essay “Homosexual Panic in ‘The Outsider'” (1982). It was probably not Lovecraft’s intent in this case to provide such an interpretation…but readers are free to interpret an author’s work as they would.

Knowing Sargent’s thoughts on “The Outsider” can in turn influence a reader’s response to “The Insider.” The theme of the lonely, ostracized young man that resorts finally to cutting as a release from the stigma of being different—only to be further punished and set apart for his behaviorresonates. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” is designed to provoke empathy in the readers, and “The Insider” is both a response and an echo to that. “The Insider” need not be an allegory for homosexuality per se, any more than “The Outsider” must be read in such light; both stories focus on both external appearance and the desire for acceptance, aspects of human experience which are adaptable to many different syntaxbecause we all live in a world where discrimination is real, be it based on age, gender, sexuality, physical appearance or ability, race, or faith.

Have we not all been an Insider/Outsider at some point, if only in our own heads?

“The Insider” was published Tales of Lovecraftian Horror #8 (1998), and was republished in Sargent’s collection The Taint of Lovecraft (2002).

 


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