“The Mound” (1940) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft

I found Lovecraft diffident but very gallant, with a gallantry of an era we only read about in mid-Victorian literature. In our conversation we discusses among things my short novel, “The Mound”—an outgrowth of another tale told by the Comptons from their recollections of two old Indians living near Binger, Oklahoma […]
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 259

After the successful sale of “The Curse of Yig,” Zealia Brown Reed appeared eager, and Lovecraft willing, to pursue a second ghost-writing job, in between his other revision work—Zealia still pursuing other stories and submitting them to, among other places, Weird Tales and Cupid’s Diary. The extent of her involvement in “The Mound” was apparently substantially less than in “The Curse of Yig,” at least according to Lovecraft:

I hade hoped to be able to send along the weird Indian tale when replying to yours of the 11th, but once more the Fates were against me. It is fortunate that you are in no haste for it, & I surely hope I can produce a good piece of work when I am at last able to undertake the construction. No—There is not any other story-nucleus in my possession. The only one is the cryptic Oklahoma mound & its taciturn guardians.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 28 Oct 1928, The Spirit of Revision 135

My next real bill will come when I deliver the Indian ghost story, a thing I intend to do as soon as I recover enough mental & nervous energy to resume creative work.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 22 Jan 1929, The Spirit of Revision 138

As soon as I finish my current De Castro quota I shall tackle another incident-germ (“plot-germ” would be too flattering a designation!” of Mrs. Reed’s producing a story which will be virtually my own. I hope (mildly, because I’ll get my $20.00 anyhow!) Wright will take it when he’s done.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 21 Oct 1929, Essential Solitude 1.225

My chief—& sufficiently submerging—occupation is concocting what will pass as a tale by the author of “Yig”, though it will really be altogether my own, as woven around the merest non-plot suggestion. It is getting to be almost a novelette—& I’ll be curious to see how you like it if it ever gets into print. The provisional name is “The Mound.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 1 Dec 1929, Essential Solitude 1.231

That St. Louis mound item is of especial interest to me just now, insomuch as my current job is the weaving of a tale around a similar thing in Oklahoma. The alleged author intended to let the story go as a simple tale of a haunted mound, with a couple of Indian ghosts around it; but I decided at once that such a thing would be insufferable tame & flat. Accordingly I am having the mound turn out to be the gateway of a primordial & forgotten subterranean world—the home of a fearsomely ancient & decadent race cut off from the outer earth since the prehistoric sinking of fabulous Atlantis & Lemuria. In the course of the tale I introduce a man who descends into the abyss—a Spaniard of Coronado’s expedition of 1541—& another, in the present age who begins a descent but very hastily returns to the upper air after seeing a certain thing.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 29 Dec 1929, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge & Anne Tillery Renshaw 118

The gist of Lovecraft’s comments on the story as it was being written in 1929 suggest a very simple premise. R. H. Barlow, who re-typed the story in 1934, records the original plot-germ on the typescript as:

There is an Indian mound near here, which is haunted by a headless ghost. Sometimes it is a woman.

In Caddo County, Oklahoma there are a group of rocky hills—actual hills, not earthen mounds such as Cahokia Mounds in Illinois—known as the Caddo Mounds, near the small towns of Binger and Hydro. Two of these in particular have been suggested as the ultimate source for Zealia’s transmitted legend: Ghost Mound and Dead Woman’s Mound. Original accounts are sparse, but newspaper articles provide some insight into what she may have heard from the Comptons:

ghostmound-page-001
“The Legend of Ghost Mound” by Ferdie J. Deering, The Daily Oklahoman, 4 Apr 1965
GhostMound
The Daily Oklahoman, 29 Oct 1987

Less has been recorded in print about Dead Woman Mound or Dead Woman’s Mound, although there is an account from resident Laura Cox Brand in the 1930s which may give the flavor of local legends. John Biggs has some photographs of the mounds, for those eager to see what they look like. Lovecraft’s own account of the inspiration as “tame & flat” is apparent in the story when he writes:

I had gone into Oklahoma to track down and correlate one of the many ghost tales which were current among the white settlers, but which had strong Indian corroboration, and—I felt sure—an ultimate Indian source. They were very curious, these open-air ghost tales; and though they sounded flat and prosaic in the mouths of the white people, they had earmarks of linkage with some of the richest and obscurest phases of native mythology. All of them were woven around the vast, lonely, artificial-looking mounds in the western part of the state, and all of them involved apparitions of exceedingly strange aspect and equipment.
—Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft, “The Mound”

Lovecraft supplemented Zealia’s legend with his own research—the description of John Willis, U.S. Marshal and his phantom riders, was taken from Myths and Legends of Our Own Land (1896) or another contemporary source.

As a ghost-writer, working in the same Oklahoma setting as “The Curse of Yig,” Lovecraft was at pains to be consistent with the previous tale—Yig reappears (he had previously been mentioned as “Niguratl-Yig!” in “The Electric Executioner,” written in-between “The Curse of Yig” and “The Mound”), as does Grandma Compton and Grey Eagle, who gets a much-expanded role as a source of local lore and legend. The first two Zealia Bishop/Lovecraft stories thus form a kind of mini-mythos of their own—although Lovecraft would take the opportunity afforded by this revision to write something much more expansive and weird than Zealia Bishop probably intended.

Therein lies a problem.

In her memoir of Lovecraft, Zealia asserted:

At Lovecraft’s gentle insistence, I left “The Mound” with Frank Belknap Long, and it was Long who advised and worked with me on that short novel. Lovecraft’s instructions were negligible; he merely advised both Belknap and myself when we felt we were not following his guidance. Yet the short novel has the same Lovecraftian mood and flavor as the other horror stories, because Belknap himself had long been a protégé of Lovecraft, and had himself absorbed much of the Lovecraft manner in tales of the macabre.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 260

In terms of polite fictions and little white lies, this is a load of horseshit. Zealia’s memoir was published in 1953, in a book published under her own name, and while it’s possible that in the intervening 25 years she had convinced herself this was the truth, it is clear from Lovecraft’s letters that he wrote the whole story. What may have begun or been intended as a folksy ghost story of the West—something like Robert E. Howard’s later tale “The Horror from the Mound”—became a substantial Lovecraftian epic, a major work in Lovecraft’s developing artificial mythology. Which makes it rather difficult to say much about Zealia’s own influence on this tale, since it appears to be almost pure Lovecraft from start to finish.

So what is there to talk about in terms of her own contribution to the story?

For starters, the description of Binger and its inhabitants certainly seems to owe a great deal to Lovecraft’s client rather than his own research. When we read:

Binger is a modest cluster of frame houses and stores in the midst of a flat windy region full of clouds of red dust. There are about 500 inhabitants besides the Indians on a neighbouring reservation; the principal occupation seeming to be agriculture. The soil is decently fertile, and the oil boom has not reached this part of the state. My train drew in at twilight, and I felt rather lost and uneasy—cut off from wholesome and every-day things—as it puffed away to the southward without me. The station platform was filled with curious loafers, all of whom seemed eager to direct me when I asked for the man to whom I had letters of introduction. I was ushered along a commonplace main street whose rutted surface was red with the sandstone soil of the country, and finally delivered at the door of my prospective host. Those who had arranged things for me had done well; for Mr. Compton was a man of high intelligence and local responsibility, while his mother—who lived with him and was familiarly known as “Grandma Compton”—was one of the first pioneer generation, and a veritable mine of anecdote and folklore.
     That evening the Comptons summed up for me all the legends current among the villagers, proving that the phenomenon I had come to study was indeed a baffling and important one. The ghosts, it seems, were accepted almost as a matter of course by everyone in Binger. Two generations had been born and grown up within sight of that queer, lone tumulus and its restless figures. The neighbourhood of the mound was naturally feared and shunned, so that the village and the farms had not spread toward it in all four decades of settlement; yet venturesome individuals had several times visited it. Some had come back to report that they saw no ghosts at all when they neared the dreaded hill; that somehow the lone sentinel had stepped out of sight before they reached the spot, leaving them free to climb the steep slope and explore the flat summit. There was nothing up there, they said—merely a rough expanse of underbrush.
—Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft, “The Mound”

It seems likely that the bulk of this description likely came from Zealia, though Lovecraft put it into his own words and worked it into the story in his own fashion.

“The Mound” touches on a number of points of interest—too many to go into any great level of detail on them all. For example, the people of K’n-Yan are a permutation of the idea of the “Mound-Builders,” a race that preceded the Native Americans on the North American continent and was displaced and eradicated by them. While this idea has no archaeological merit, Henry Shetrone’s The Mound-Builders (1930) firmly established that Native Americans had built mounds such as Cahokia and Fort Ancient, it provided plentiful room for fantasy—Manly Wade Wellman’s Shonokins, which appeared some decades later in Weird Tales as adversaries of occult detective John Thunstone are another example—and yet, the idea of the “Mound-Builders” was essentially a racialist one, used to downplay the achievements and capacities of the indigenous peoples of the Americas by arguing that they did not have the capacity to build such structures or complicated polities. This is similar today to how arguments of “ancient Aliens” being responsible for the building of pyramids denigrate the legacy of the actual human builders of pyramids.

Lovecraft and Bishop almost certainly weren’t thinking things through quite so thoroughly. The treatment of Grey Eagle in this regard may be taken as singular: he is the most prominent Native American character in the entire corpus of Lovecraft’s work. That he is also a dime-novel stereotype is perhaps unfortunate, but the depiction may well have arisen more out of ignorance than malice: Lovecraft had never yet met a Native American. As much as contemporary readers may wince when reading his dialogue…

You let um ’lone, white man. No good—those people. All under here, all under there, them old ones. Yig, big father of snakes, he there. Yig is Yig. Tiráwa, big father of men, he there. Tiráwa is Tiráwa. No die. No get old. Just same like air. Just live and wait. One time they come out here, live and fight. Build um dirt tepee. Bring up gold—they got plenty. Go off and make new lodges. Me them. You them. Then big waters come. All change. Nobody come out, let nobody in. Get in, no get out. You let um ’lone, you have no bad medicine. Red man know, he no get catch. White man meddle, he no come back. Keep ’way little hills. No good. Grey Eagle say this. (ibid.)

…it’s important to remember that Lovecraft was working within an established tradition of depiction Native Americans that lasted from at least the late 19th century through to the westerns of the 1960s and 70s. That Lovecraft did not transcend the limitations of the stereotype regarding Native Americans is unfortunate, but not terribly surprising.

The culture of K’n-Yan itself is the most developed alien civilization that Lovecraft would depict until At the Mountains of Madness, written in early 1931. Critics have seen influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar novels and Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, and the arguments for both are not difficult to make. The K’n-Yan are portrayed as near-human, but wise, powerful, and decadent. Their “affection-groups”—essentially polyamorous relationships—recall the free love group of which Lovecraft’s friend James Ferdinand Morton was a member. They are insular yet imperialistic; given to necromancies and slavery, cruel and worshipping strange alien gods—the parallels to Michael Moorcock’s Melniboné are uncanny but probably coincidental; both writers were drawing off of similar ideas of an exceedingly ancient, powerful, and decadent culture approaching the end of its natural lifespan (in Spenglerian terms). Rome, as depicted by Gibbons in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, might be another good data point for comparison.

Fantasy racism, which Lovecraft had toyed with in stories since “Polaris,” reaches a kind of peak here. The K’n-yans had fought, conquered, and subjugated the intelligent race in the red-litten caverns of Yoth, who had been bred over generations into beasts of burden…and a food source, recalling the revelations of “The Rats in the Walls”:

The beasts or gyaa-yothn, they explained, surely were curious things; but were really very harmless. The flesh they ate was not that of intelligent people of the master-race, but merely that of a special slave-class which had for the most part ceased to be thoroughly human, and which indeed was the principal meat stock of K’n-yan. They—or their principal ancestral element—had first been found in a wild state amidst the Cyclopean ruins of the deserted red-litten world of Yoth which lay below the blue-litten world of K’n-yan. That part of them was human, seemed quite clear; but men of science could never decide whether they were actually the descendants of the bygone entities who had lived and reigned in the strange ruins. The chief ground for such a supposition was the well-known fact that the vanished inhabitants of Yoth had been quadrupedal. This much was known from the very few manuscripts and carvings found in the vaults of Zin, beneath the largest ruined city of Yoth. But it was also known from these manuscripts that the beings of Yoth had possessed the art of synthetically creating life, and had made and destroyed several efficiently designed races of industrial and transportational animals in the course of their history—to say nothing of concocting all manner of fantastic living shapes for the sake of amusement and new sensations during the long period of decadence. The beings of Yoth had undoubtedly been reptilian in affiliations, and most physiologists of Tsath agreed that the present beasts had been very much inclined toward reptilianism before they had been crossed with the mammal slave-class of K’n-yan. (ibid.)

The use of “master-race” in this context is likely derived more from American slavery rhetoric than scientific racialism—and the Nazis had not yet risen to power. Burroughs led the way in scientific romance in applying Colonialist fiction tropes of race and racial relationships to aliens and fantasy races; African and Asian peoples became various-colored Martians. Lovecraft makes a point to that effect:

The average interplanetary tale is just a camouflaged “Western” with the pioneers & soldiers called “space-explorers”, & the Indians called “Martians” or “lunarians” or something like that.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Wilson Shepherd, 29 May 1936, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 250

Of all the characters in the novel, one of the most tragic is T’la-yub:

In the year 1545, as he reckoned it, Zamacona began what may well be accepted as his final series of attempts to leave K’n-yan. His fresh opportunity came from an unexpected source—a female of his affection-group who conceived for him a curious individual infatuation based on some hereditary memory of the days of monogamous wedlock in Tsath. Over this female—a noblewoman of moderate beauty and of at least average intelligence named T’la-yub—Zamacona acquired the most extraordinary influence; finally inducing her to help him in an escape, under the promise that he would let her accompany him.
—Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft, “The Mound”

Her introduction, in some form or another, was apparently necessary for Lovecraft to subscribe to at least the general appearance of keeping with Zealia’s initial idea: “Sometimes it is a woman.” The tragedy of her appearance is underscored almost immediately by Zamacona’s immediate desire for infidelity: whatever affection she held for him, he does not love her in return:

T’la-yub he would perhaps allow to share his fortunes, for she was by no means unattractive; though possibly he would arrange for her sojourn amongst the plains Indians, since he was not overanxious to preserve links with the manner of life in Tsath. For a wife, of course, he would choose a lady of Spain—or at worst, an Indian princess of normal outer-world descent and a regular and approved past. But for the present T’la-yub must be used as a guide. (ibid.)

The “Indian princess” is another stub of stereotype wedged into the mix…but Lovecraft had little concern for romantic relationships. His major interest in the story was for primal weirdness, and he achieves that in large part by working in references to his friend Clark Ashton Smith’s creation Tsathoggua:

[…] the “revision” job I’m doing now is the composition of an original tale from a single paragraph of locale & subject orders—not even a plot germ. The only reason I do this kind of thing is that the pay is absolutely certain, whereas on signed original work one has to take one’s chances of acceptance or rejection. […] My present job is a Reed yarn to be entitled “The Mound”—with the Oklahoma locale of “Yig,” but with ramifications extending to blasphemously elder worlds, & a race of beings that came down from the stars with great Cthulhu. I also bring in a Spaniard who deserted from Coronado’s party in 1541. This job—& the two De Castro jobs preceding it—will tend to limber up my fictional pen for the spontaneous effusions to follow!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 3 Dec 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 187-188

As for me—Tsathoggua made such an impression on my fancy that I am using him in the “revision” (i.e.—”ghost-writing”) job I am now doing—telling of some things connected with his worship before he appeared on the earth’s surface. As you know my tale concerns a nether world of unbelievable antiquity below the mound-&-pueblo region of the American southwest, & the visit thereto in 1541-45 by one of Coronado’s men—Panfilio de Zamacona y Nuñez. It is a place litten by a blue radiance due to magnetic force & radio-activity, & is peopled by the primal proto-humans brought down from the stars by Great Cthulhu—a forgotten, decadent race who cut themselves off from the upper world when Atlantis & Lemuria sank. But there was a race of beings in the earth infinitely older than they—the saurian quadrupeds of the red-litten caverns of Yoth which yawn underneath the blue-litten caverns of K’n-yan. When the first men came to K’n-Yan they found the archaeological reliques of Yoth, & speculated curiously upon them. At the point where I introduce our friend Tsathoggua, the Spanish explorer has entered K’n-yan, has encountered a party of friendly natives led by one Gll’-Hthaa-Ynn, & is being escorted to the great city of Tsath—mounted on a monstrous horned & half-human quadruped.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 19 Dec 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 192

Shall be interested to know what you think of “The Mound” when you get around to it. You will learn therein—back to a certain point—where Klarkash-Ton’s nighted Tsathoggua cam from.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Farnsworth Wright, Jan 1930, Lovecraft Annual #8 (21)

Tsathoggua introduced in Smith’s story “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros,” which was submitted to Weird Tales and rejected, but the manuscript was shared by Lovecraft who was so taken with the entity that he included references to him in “The Mound.” Smith would later go on to include references to Tsathoggua in several tales, though he was first mentioned in print in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (Weird Tales Aug 1931).

The manuscript of “The Mound” was completed by Lovecraft in December 1929, and sent to his friend and revision collaborator Frank Belknap Long, to be sent off to Zealia for approval. Unfortunately, there was a snag.

I have just learned to my surprise & dismay that Little Belknap has, through a misunderstanding, not yet forwarded to you the completed MS. of “The Mound” which I sent him late in December to read & pass onward.  […] He thought you might wish to see it first in rough draught, so that you can order any needed changes concerning Binger local colour &c. […] If Wright takes the tale—as he is very likely to do—you will make a very handsome profit. Sonny seems to think it is very good—I can’t resist enclosing his note regarding it—& is inclined to spoof Grandpa for doing it for $20.00; but I never raise a figure I have quoted in advance. That is why I can’t make revision pay!

I hope you will like the story.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 14 Jan 1930, The Spirit of Revision 168

At around 29,000 words, “The Mound” would have netted $145 dollars if sold at half-a-cent per word—Weird Tales‘ lowest rate—so Lovecraft had every right to be optimistic, not least because Zealia still owed him money from previous revision work. The manuscript was still untyped, and Lovecraft suggested it be typed up by his friend and sometime collaborator C. M. Eddy, Jr., who was in a bad way financially. Zealia agreed.

[C. M. Eddy, Jr.] was prodigiously grateful for the “Mound” MS., & promises a good typed copy & carbon in something like a week’s time. I furnished him with all the needed supplies, gave him warning about all the difficult & artificial words in the MS., & in general did what I could to make the job less formidable for him. I think he will have no difficulty, & believe the resulting text will be very neat & accurate. I am telling him not to bother about the diacritical marks on the Spanish & artificial words, since I can easily supply these with pen & ink when I go over the MS. in the end. Wright will have a very legible & prepossessing MS. to survey when the time comes for him to pass judgment upon it.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 29 Jan 1930, The Spirit of Revision 173

The story was duly submitted to Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales…who promptly bounced it.

The damned fool has just turned down the story I ‘ghost-wrote’ for my Kansas City client, on the ground that it was too long for single publication, yet structurally unadapted to division. I’m not worrying, because I’ve got my cash; but it does sicken me to watch the caprices of that editorial jackass!
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, Feb 1930, Essential Solitude 251

Confound that unutterable Chicago dunce! The fool could have divided the story as well as not—but he was evidently in the same dense mood which afflicted him when he rejected Smith’s “Satampra Zeiros.”

If I were you I would try the tale on the following magazine in the following order:
Astounding Stories
Amazing Stories
Science Wonder Stories

[…] If these three markets prove closed, you might ask Wright whether he would consider a condensation of the story. With plenty of time, I might manage to pare the thing down here & there—although it would be a monstrous task. You could ask Wright his maximum word-limit of acceptance. Not long ago he accepted a tale of Smith’s on condition of its abridgment.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, Feb 1930, The Spirit of Revision 176

Lovecraft was essentially listing all the pulps in early 1930 that might accept weird or science fiction stories, including Science Wonder Stories, which was owned by Hugo Gernsback and Lovecraft knew from painful experience was difficult to collect money from. His exasperation must have been high to have even suggested abridging the story—a practice he was normally loathe to do—and eventually Frank Belknap Long abridged it by removing some pages of the original typescript (O Fortunate Floridian 145n2).

Even abridged, the story remained unsold.

On 22 July 1930, Zealia Brown Reed married D. W. Bishop, and was known thereafter as Zealia B. Bishop. In 1934, Lovecraft was visiting R. H. Barlow in DeLand, Florida. A collector of pulp manuscripts, the issue of “The Mound” arose, and he inquired about purchasing or making a copy of it, as he was working to systemize the Mythosian lore within it:

You perhaps did not remember that I sent The Mound to Sonny Belknap over two years ago—in fact immediately after the old Boston lady—I’m grieved to learn of her death—returned it.) I wired him just now to send the unabridged copy to Mr. Barlow at once—If he decides to buy it—is it for publication or just to keep the Mss.? You did not make that part clear and I should like to know. Do you suppose Mr. Barlow would be interested in reading Medusa’s Coil? I have it and a carbon copy of The Mound except the first three pages—Have you time to recall them were you to see it?
—Zealia Bishop to H. P. Lovecraft, 26 May 1934, The Spirit of Revision 177

As I am pointing out to Ar-e’ch-Bei, Pnom’s account of Ts. can be reconciled with the legendry told to Zamarcona (sic) in The Mound. The myth, through aeons, was varied in the usual mythopoeic fashion by the cavern-dwellers, who came at last to believe that merely the images of Tsathoggua, and not the god himself, had emerged in former cycles from the inner gulf. Ts., travelling fourthdimensionally from Saturn, first entered the Earth through the lightless abyss of N’kai; and, not unnaturally, the Yothians regarded N’kai as his place of origin.
—Clark Ashton Smith, c. 16 Jun 1934, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 560

Ar-E’ch-Bei, with his mania for systematisation, will be infinitely grateful to you for your transcripts from the parchments of Pnom. I am mostly interested to know that Pnom’s account can be reconciled with the rambling lore gathered in subterrene K’nyan by Panfilo de Zamacona, & am especially impressed by the knowledge of Tsathoggua’s present whereabouts. Suppose an expedition were to be sent to unearth It? What would ensue?
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 25 Jun 1934, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 563

I see that CAS is linking up his own Tsathogguan data with the legends in “The Mound”, to that a minimum of discrepancies will exist.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 25 Jun 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 142

As to this matter of the Bishop MSS.—of course, it’s only fair to Mrs. B—in view of what she’s paid for ghosting or revision—to let her try the stuff on any possible markets. I assumed that Sonny Belknap, as her main literary agent, had done so; & am astonished to find that any stone was left unturned. Now as to the correct procedure—of course, “Medusa’s Coil” is a matter wholly separate from “the Mound”. […] Now as to “The Mound”—probably there’ll be only three pages missing from the complete version; so that if you’ll type duplicates of these, you’ll have both copies in good shape. You can then let Mrs. B. do what she likes with the abridged version, or offer to try to place it for her if she’ll tell you the place to send it. I hardly think she’ll insist on retaining a copy of the original if you’ll assure her of its safety, & guarantee to let her see it or copy it if she ever wishes o do so. This is especially true if you let her have the abridged copy. After all, typing three double-spaced pages isn’t so bad a job—especially when it solves a problem so neatly. I’m writing Mrs. B. now, & urging that she does not insist on keeping a copy of the unabridged version. Enclosed—incidentally—is her epistle, for which I have no further use.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 26 Jun 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 143-144

Zealia’s letter to Barlow of 11 July 1934, shows she intended to have Long shop around the fresh typescript to the pulps once again, but it remained unsold. Nevertheless, the personal and professional relationship remained.

Glad the unabridged “Mound” wasn’t an extreme disappointment. Mrs. B. has begun to pay up her debt in weekly dollar installments—because she wants more revision done.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, Aug 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 157

As late as 1936, Lovecraft claimed that Zealia Bishop owed Long $43, himself $26, and Maurice W. Moe (a friend and associate) $11 (O Fortunate Floridian! 370). The sum to Lovecraft was outstanding at the time of his death in 1937. Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, was fired from his position and died in 1940. He was replaced as editor by Dorothy McIlwraith…and in the November 1940 issue of Weird Tales, an abridged version of “The Mound” finally appeared, as by Z. B. Bishop.

This abridgment was made by August Derleth, based on existing annotated typescripts from Long & Barlow. Derleth appears to have actively been working with McIlwraith to get previously unpublished Lovecraftiana into Weird Tales, and eventually into Arkham House volumes. “The Curse of Yig” had been reprinted by Wright in the April 1939 Weird Tales (under the byline Z. B. Bishop), so regular readers of the magazine would have been familiar when the quasi-sequel appeared. “The Eyrie,” the letters-column of Weird Tales, was much-shrunken from Wright’s days, but “The Mound” was still praised by a couple of fans as one of the better stories in the issue.

The “unabridged” version of “The Mound” (based on Long’s altered typescript0 was published in Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943, Arkham House)—where it was finally acknowledged as one of Lovecraft’s collaborations, although the principal authorship was still credited to Bishop. Smith, on reading it, wrote to Derleth:

Such revisions as “Out of the Aeons,” “The Mound,” and “The Diary of Alonzo Typer” are genuine Lovecraftian masterpieces.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 30 Nov 1943, Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 342

In 1953, Arkham House released The Curse of Yig, containing all three of the Zealia Bishop/Lovecraft stories, as well as her memoir “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View.” She would recall there about their relationship:

But in this rather specialized field, undoubtedly Lovecraft’s own attitudes about sex and love (capably discussed in H. P. L: A Memoir, by August Derleth) got in his way when he revised the work of his pupils. These were experiences not entirely within his ken. And in me, Lovecraft had a pupil who could have been encouraged to write for the contemporary love story magazines instead of led away from them, for, after his untimely death, I found the editors of confession and love pulp magazines to be ruthless yet most helpful critics, and managed to sell stories to them at far better prices than I was paid for those weird tales I had written under Lovecraft’s tutelage.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 263

There is some truth to what Zealia wrote; Lovecraft’s interests did not lie in the confession pulps, and she probably would have had more luck with an agent that had experience in that line. The three Bishop/Lovecraft tales were not successful enterprises. While “The Curse of Yig” did finally sell, and was even anthologized, “Medusa’s Coil” only sold in 1939 and “The Mound” remained unsold until 1940. Her other stories that Lovecraft had a hand in revising or correcting which are mentioned in her letters, such as “The Unchaining,” appear to have not sold and are now apparently lost.

In 1989, a corrected text for “The Mound” was made by S. T. Joshi, based on the original typescripts, and published unabridged in The Horror in the Museum & Other Revisions (1989). It may be read online for free.


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

With thanks and appreciation to Dave Goudsward for his help on this one.

“The Curse of Yig” (1929) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft

ZEALIA BISHOP is not primarily a writer of supernatural tales; her preference is for romantic fiction, of which she has written and published far more than she has in the genre of the weird. Her fantasties have appeared only in Weird Tales, and in two book collections bearing the name of her mentor in the genre—Beyond the Wall of Sleep and Marginalia.

In private life she is the wife of D. W. Bishop,—to whose faith in her, with that of her son, Jim, she credits her first book—and mistress if Highland View Farm not far out of Kansas City. As an active member of the National Federation of Press Women, the D.A.R., the New England HIstoric Genealogical Society, and the Missouri Women’s press CLub, Mrs. BIshop’s interests range far beyond the boundaries of the attractive Bishop estate, where the Bishop family lives in keeping with its character, simply, and with inherent ease in an atmosphere of true old Southern hospitality.

In addition to Weird Tales, Mrs. Bishop has contributed to Life Story, The Kansas Magazine, and other newspapers and magazines. She is the author of an historical series about Clay County, Missouri, and of two as yet unpublished novels.
—Dustjacket bio of Zealia Bishop on The Curse of Yig (1953, Arkham House)

In 1928, she was Zealia Brown Reed, a divorced single mother to her young son Jim, working as a journalist and court reporter, and taking correspondence courses from Columbia University. A year earlier, she had begun a correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft, who offered revision services and guidance to writers, but their letters took on a friendly character that went beyond the strictly professional, in the way of most of Lovecraft’s letters. Now they were entering a new stage of their relationship, the creation of “The Curse of Yig.”

Zealia’s account of the writing of what would become “The Curse of Yig” is as follows:

There in Oklahoma, doubting more and more that I would ever become a writer, let alone a successful one, I sat one evening with a group of old Oklahoma settlers who had driven out to my sister’s ranch. We sat around the kitchen fire and talked. Finally the conversation rambled on to folklore. Grandma Compton, my sister’s mother-in-law, told a horror story about a couple who pioneered in Oklahoma not far from where we were. the story was a spark to me. I wrote a tale called “The Curse of Yig,” in which snakes figured, wove it around some of my Aztec knowledge instilled in me by Lovecraft, and sent it off to him. He was delighted with this trend toward realism and horror, and fairly showered me with letters and instructions.

Now at last I really went to work. I rewrote the story and together we revised and injected erudition into it abut the Aztec Snake God, Yig. Finally, under his careful direction, I had a decent and I felt salable weird-horror story. I was not too happy about the story and was fearful for any of my family to read it, lest they ostracize me for making such a tale out of the story Grandma Compton had told. But it was really fixed with imagination and reality, and Lovecraft urged that it be sent out immediately.

Hesitantly I followed his advice. Out it went, not once but many times—until finally I shelved it with all the rejection slips, refusing to write anything else and wondering how many ditors had shuddered over that story. Yet the gnawing urge within me kept on. But I wanted to write about things I knew—not drive myself to create tales of a fantastic world and people of which I knew nothing.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” (1953) in Ave Atque Vale 257-258

Zealia’s account has a few discrepancies from the evidence of Lovecraft’s letters. Written for the book publication of the three tales Lovecraft had ghostwritten for her, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” maintains the polite fiction that Zealia was the primary author of “The Curse of Yig,” “The Mound,” and “Medusa’s Coil.” In his own letters, Lovecraft had a different version of events:

I just fixed a weird story for a client in Kansas City, so if you ever see a tale in print called “The Curse of Yig”, you’ll know that I came damn close to writing the whole thing.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 11 Mar 1928, Essential Solitude 1.137

Of late revision has absolutely annihilated me, but I got one job (writing a weird tale from synoptic notes) which gave me quite an opportunity to practice up on my old creative processes. As a result, if you see a story in W.T. called “The Curse of Yig”, you will know that all of the writing & most of the plot are mine.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 16 Mar 1928, Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja 206

By the way—if you want to see a new story which is practically mine, read “The Curse of Yig” in the new W.T., next your verses. The “authoress”, Mrs. Reed, is a client for whom Long & I have done lots of work, & this specimen is well-nigh a piece of original composition on my part, since all I had to go by was a synopsis of notes describing a pioneer couple, the attack on the husband by snakes, the bursting of his corpse in the dark, & the subsequent madness of the wife. All the plot & motivation in the present tale are my own—I invented the snake-god, the curse, the prologue & epilogue, the point about the identity of the corpse, & the monstrously suggestive aftermath. To all intents & purposes it’s my story—though not my latest, for I wrote “The Dunwich Horror” afterward.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, Oct 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 181

By the way—if you want to see a new story which is practically mine, read “The Curse of Yig” in the current W.T. Mrs. Reed is a client for whom Long & I have done oceans of work, & this story is about 75% mine. All I had to work on was a synopsis describing a couple of pioneers in a cabin with a nest of rattlesnakes beneath, the killing of the husband by snakes, the bursting of the corpse, & the madness of the wife, who was an eye-witness to the horror. There was no plot or motivation—no prologue or aftermath to the incident—so that one might say the story, as a story, is wholly my own. I invented the snake-god & the curse, the tragic wielding of the ace by the wife, the matter of the snake-victim’s identity, & the asylum epilogue. Also, I worked up the geographic & other incidental colour—getting some data from the alleged authroress, who knows Oklahoma, but more from books As it stands, the tale isn’t bad according to W.T. standards; though of course it is absurdly mechanical and artificial. I have no regrets at not being the avowed author. I got $20.00 for the job, & Wright paid Mrs. Reed $45.00 for the completed MS.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 6 Oct 1929, Essential Solitude 1.222

For decades, much of the Lovecraft-Bishop correspondence were not available, but in 2015 the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society published The Spirit of Revision: Lovecraft’s Letters to Zealia Brown Reed Bishop, which includes many never-before-seen letters. In particular, we find that Zealia sent Lovecraft a synopsis around February 1928:

Her mind filled with ophidian images, she now falls to the floor & expresses the only thing she knows how to express. She hisses & hisses & hisses… Thus the man has died—in a way—from snakes, as he felt fated he would do. And upon the woman who killed the snakelets has been visited the long-legended curse of the snake-devil. She has been—mentally, at least—’turned into a snake’ (in actual linkage—see preceding) of what she did that bygone day with the musket-butt!

In this plot you will note a completely connected chain of motivation. the denouement has the quality of inevitability, which editors generally seek with much avidity. The pioneer atmosphere sugests some of the tales of Ambrose Bierce, [cf. “The Boarded Window” in “In the Midst of Life”] & I believe the tale out to have a style not unlike the dry, metallic, paragraphs he was so fond of. If you decide to have me do the story this way, you might send back the sheets of this letter containing the plot outline; (IV & V) although I fancy I have most of the essentials either in my head or jotted down on your note pages. It will not be necesary for you to write out any more than the notes—I like plenty of latitude in working up a story—but you might send me some more notes on points of local colour. I seek accuracy & realism above all things […] & even though I may not use any of the colour I get, I want it at the back of my head just the same. […]

Such then, is the case (a) I’ll need the additional notes whatever plan I follow. (b) I’ll write up the anecdote literally for $2.00 per page, total not to exceed $20.00 & (c) I’ll prepare & try to place a story written from the above amended plot for half the proceeds, no advance fee. Let me know at your leisure which plan you prefer to have followed.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 13 Feb 1928, Spirit of Revision 107-108

The plan was apparently approved, and Lovecraft commenced research & writing, while carrying on other revision-work. An undated note, possibly 23 Feb 1928, adds:

Your Okla. notes are just what was needed. The Indian tom-tom element is splendid—it will furnish an atmosphere dominating the story. (ibid, 110)

From the above, a rough outline of how the story was conceived, and Zealia’s part in it, can be guessed at. There is no reason to doubt the gist of her account that it began as a pioneer folk tale; her sister was Grace Compton (née Brown), whose mother-in-law would have been the original Grandma Compton. Shorn of the Mythos elements added by Lovecraft, it does sound like a psychological survival story a la Ambrose Bierce or Jack London, with possibly the slightly weird element of some kind of precognition or belief in a fated doom.

While Zealia’s claim of multiple revisions or submissions is not impossible, or even uncharacteristic of working with Lovecraft, the next letter which mentions the story suggests that he turned in a completed manuscript:

Enclosed—as you may see—is the completed snake-tale, which I have decided to call “The Curse of Yig”. The deity in question is entirely a product of my own imaginative theogony—for like Dunsany, I love to invent gods & deivls & kindred marvellous things. However, the Indians certainly had snake-god; for as everyone knows, the great fabulous teacher & civiliser of the prehistoric Mexican cultures (called Quetzalcoatl by the Incan-Aztec groups & Kukulan by the Mayas) was a feathered serpent. In working up the plot you will notice I have added another “twist”—which I think increases the effectiveness of the impression. […] For geographical atmosphere & colour I had of course to rely wholly on your answers to my questionnaire, plus such printed descriptions of oklahoma as I could find. […]

As for the price—on account of the congeniality of the theme I said I would make a cut rate & promised not to exceed $20.00 typed. By the same arithmetical process the untyped job ought to cost $17.50, at which figure it may be considered to stand. […] Needless to say, the existing rate provides fro as many further changes & re-revisions as you may think desirable inorder to make the story thoroughly convincing & true to its geographical locale.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 9 Mar 1928, ibid. 112

Lovecraft makes an error here—the Incans never had an equivalent to Queztalcoatl—and the “twist” appears by inference to be the suggestion that the hissing creature in the prologue and epilogue is not the pioneer woman herself, but what was “born to her three-quarters of a year afterward.” The implicit element of inhuman rape and hybrid children is certainly shuddersome, and may be considered a “dry run” for the theme of cosmic miscegenation in “The Dunwich Horror,” also written in 1928. This is especially the case when readers consider this passage:

Then Hallowe’en drew near, and the settlers planned another frolic—this time, had they but known it, of a lineage older than even agriculture; the dread Witch-Sabbath of the primal pre-Aryans, kept alive through ages in the midnight blackness of secret woods, and still hinting at vague terrors under its latter-day mask of comedy and lightness. Hallowe’en was to fall on a Thursday, and the neighbours agreed to gather for their first revel at the Davis cabin. (The Curse of Yig)

Which borrows from Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), and the importance of the pagan festivals in Lavinia Whateley’s conception in “The Dunwich Horror.”

One particular element which rarely is remarked upon is Lovecraft’s attempt at the characterization of Native Americans—which for the most part are an unseen, their drumming (as suggested by Zealia) forming a recurring motif in the Aubrey Davis narrative. Lovecraft had used Native Americans in passing in some of his earlier stories, but they form a more integral part of “The Curse of Yig,” as it is nominally based on a bit of indigenous folklore. This story would introduce the character of Grey Eagle, who would be expanded on with a speaking role in “The Mound,” albeit in very Western dime-novel dialect, a sample of which Lovecraft experiments with here:

Yig was a great god. He was bad medicine. He did not forget things. In the autumn his children were hungry and wild, and Yig was hungry and wild, too. All the tribes made medicine against Yig when the corn harvest came. They gave him some corn, and danced in proper regalia to the sound of whistle, rattle, and drum. They kept the drums pounding to drive Yig away, and called down the aid of Tiráwa, whose children men are, even as the snakes are Yig’s children. It was bad that the squaw of Davis killed the children of Yig. Let Davis say the charms many times when the corn harvest comes. Yig is Yig. Yig is a great god. (The Curse of Yig)

Lovecraft, who had never seen a Wichita and likely dug Tiráwa out of an encyclopedia, was at best getting elements second- or third-hand, and the result leans extremely heavily on stereotypes—and the most that can be said is that none of the Native Americans depicted are in any way malicious or duplicitous, but uniformly benign, albeit always prone to alcoholism in Lovecraft’s depiction.

Audrey Davis is a part of this, as she is “short and rather dark, with a black straightness of hair suggesting a slight Indian admixture.” It is uncommon for Lovecraft to have mixed-raced characters in his stories, and those often depicted negatively; it may be this is a detail from Zealia’s original synopsis. Lovecraft attempted to “get inside the head” of Audrey, to speak from her viewpoint, a very rare thing in his fiction…and the sequence of her in bed, dreading what was to come, is somewhat reminiscent of the earlier piece “Four O’Clock” with Sonia H. Greene.

While the prose of the resulting story is all Lovecraft’s, the conception and ideas are a peculiar mix. It has the nameless protagonist and artificial mythology of a typical Lovecraft story—but nothing else is quite typical; the setting of Oklahoma is far away from his Lovecraft country, and two women feature prominently in the plot, both taken directly from Zealia’s original conception: Audrey Davis, the main subject for the story-within-the-story, and Sally (later Grandma) Compton, who would re-appear in Zealia and Lovecraft’s next collaboration, “The Mound.” Much of the story concerns a kind of naturalistic and psychological horror, with the only overt supernatural element appearing at the very end, the aforementioned “twist” providing a very Lovecraftian climactic revelation as a flourish.

Lovecraft sent the tale to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales (ibid. 118); it was accepted, but would not be published for another year, there is a letter from Lovecraft to Wright dated 24 Sep 1928 asking about when it might be published on Zealia’s behalf. (Lovecraft Annual #8 18) Given that Weird Tales paid on publication rather than acceptance, such long delays could be quite the source of consternation. In the meantime between acceptance and publication, they continued their correspondence, and Lovecraft continued to revise some of her other work. In her memoir, Zealia admitted:

I needed money, and what I aimed to do was write fiction more to m liking. I began to wonder if Lovecraft’s advice were not directing me away from salable fiction. yet I had so far lost confidence in myself, that I hesitated to send out a manuscript without first having him see it.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” (1953) in Ave Atque Vale 258

“The Curse of Yig” finally saw print in the November 1929 issue of Weird Tales, which hit the newsstands in October. Lovecraft made no secret of his authorship to his friends, though he was careful to maintain the charade in public, advising one young correspondent some years later:

By the same token, don’t for your life mention that I wrote “Yig”, “Electric Executioner”, “Horror in Museum”, &c.! One must never give away a client.
—H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 16 May 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, Duane W. Rimel, and Nils Frome 87

The story was not an immediate hit with the readers, who were more impressed with Robert E. Howard’s Yellow Peril serial “Skull-Face”; but in the March 1930 issue one reader added:

In an earlier issue you had a story (The Curse of Yig) about the curse of some Indian snake-god which very strongly reminds me of an actual occurrence in the district of Helgeland, in the northern part of Norway, three or four decades ago. It was related to me by a woman who had come to the United States from that same district, the daughter of a government official there. The incident shows that at least one of W.T.’s weirdest tales is far from improbable or impossible.

Another curious sequel occurred in the letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, the latter of whom would send Lovecraft a group of rattlesnake rattles for his collection:

By the way—is it a fact that the corpse of a person repeatedly bitten by snakes swells and bursts? A revision client of mine in Kansas City had a plot-germ based on that idea, and I worked up a story from it—”The Curse of Yig”, which you may recall in W.T. It made good fiction, but I have always wondered just how much truth there was in the original notion.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 30 Jan 1931, A Means to Freedom 1.132

I remember the “Yig” story; it was a good one and I thought at the time that I could detect the touch of your master-hand here and there. I should think it quite likely that a rattler-victim might burst if bitten a great many times.
—Robert E. Howard to E. P. Lovecraft, Feb 1931, A Means to Freedom 1.148

Posterity would be kinder to Zealia & Lovecraft’s tale. It was anthologised in the British Not at Night title Switch on the Light (1931), again in the Not at Night Omnibus (1937), and again in the 1960 paperback edition. Farnsworth Wright reprinted it in Weird Tales in Apr 1939 (with more comments in “The Eyrie” than when it first appeared!), and Donald Wollheim in Avon Fantasy Reader #14 (1950), among other places. August Derleth reprinted it in the Arkham House collection Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943), and a decade later it lent its name to The Curse of Yig (1953), the first collection of all the Zealia Bishop-H. P. Lovecraft stories. It is included in the Variorum Edition of Lovecraft’s revisions and collaborations, and can be read for free online.

Aside from reprints, the story formed the introduction of Yig to the Mythos—as picked up by Robert Bloch in “The Mannikin” (Weird Tales Apr 1937)—and with “The Mound,” which Lovecraft ghostwrote for Zealia next, forms a sort of self-contained cycle of its own. Yig would return, along with Grandma Compton and Grey Eagle—and that legacy is due to the inspiration and ideas of Zealia Bishop, as realized by H. P. Lovecraft.


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

“Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft

I shall watch for the tale, “Medusa’s Coil,” you mentioned. Regardless of the author, if you instilled into the tale some of the magic of your own pen, it cannot fail to fascinate the readers.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, Sep 1930, A Means to Freedom 2.43

Zealia Margaret Caroline Brown was born in Asheville, NC in 1897; in 1914 she married James Reed, and the couple had a son James. At some point in the 1920s the couple divorced, and Zealia Brown-Reed supported herself and her son in Cleveland, OH by writing articles and short stories, and working as a court reporter while taking correspondence courses from Colombia University and the Home Correspondence School.

In 1927, Zealia wrote to H. P. Lovecraft, inquiring into his revision services, beginning a correspondence that would see Lovecraft ghost-write three stories for her: “The Curse of Yig” (1928), “The Mound” (1929), and “Medusa’s Coil” (1930). In 1930, she would marry D. W. Bishop, and Zealia’s correspondence with Lovecraft appears to taper off, although it continued through at least 1936.

In her memoir “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” (1953), Zealia is appreciative of Lovecraft’s efforts advice and erudition—although in their letters, published in The Spirit of Revision (2015) it is evident that they had very different interests in terms of writing. Zealia’s interest apparently lay in confession pulps and love stories (“light, domestic fiction in the popular vein”); Lovecraft tried and failed to bend her toward weird fiction. The limit of their meeting-of-the-minds in this regard appears to be their collaborations: Zealia would supply the idea for a story, which Lovecraft would flesh out into a detailed synopsis and then write.

Their first such ghostwriting venture, “The Curse of Yig” was a success, and appeared in the Nov 1929 issue of Weird Tales. The next story however, the lengthy novelette “The Mound,” was rejected by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright, and was rejected again after Frank Belknap Long abridged it to make it more salable to the pulp market. While little correspondence regarding the story survives, this also appears to have been the likely fate of “Medusa’s Coil”—which Lovecraft recalls writing in the summer of 1930:

Have no record of dates of “Mound” & “Medusa’s Coil”, but am tolerably certain the former was written in 1929 & the latter in 1930. Indeed, I know the latter date is right, because I did most of the job in Richmond on one of my trips—afternoon after afternoon in Maymont Park. And 1930 was the only time I ever spent a liberal period—nearly a fortnight—in Richmond.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 24 May 1935, O Fortunate Floridian! 276

In November 1930, Lovecraft mentions the rejection of a revision story in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, which is presumably “Medusa’s Coil.” (Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 280). It was, from all evidence, their final collaborative effort. Zealia Bishop had a bill for Lovecraft’s revision services which she would pay slowly over the next few years, but the two stories he had ghostwritten for her had not sold.

As for the origins of “Medusa’s Coil”:

[…] I had picked up as an idea from a Negress who did some  housecleaning for me and expaned into a story similar in treatment to my earlier horror tale.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 259-260

The letters to and from Lovecraft concerning the tale do not survive, but Lovecraft’s notes for the story do and read in part:

(1.) Son kills wife with hastily seized machete, hacks off hair in savage rage since he dems this the cause of Marsh’s attraction & also connects it with her hideous nature & malignly magical affiliations—also, with her newly discovered racial identity. But the hair* slithers out of the room of its own volition, as if transformed to some monstrous black snake. At this sight son goes half mad. follows hair up to studio, & sees it coil itself around the slowly recovering Marsh. Hair strangles Marsh—the evil voodoo sorceress having recognised M. as an enemy when she saw the manner in which he had painted her. Son, witnessing this, goes wholly mad. Cowers & mutters around room till father enters. Then the shrieking explanation & the struggle. Son either kills himself or is killed by father. (Attempts to kill both father & self because he thinks family blood contaminated by his marriage to negress.) Father left alone with portrait & bodies & hair. Buries victims of tragedy in cellar & settles down to live as hermit. Picture affects him strangely—he cannot break away from it. He fears hair will emerge vampircally from Marsh’s grave. Sophonisba is sullen—continually wanders into cellar & haunts Marsh’s secret grave, though the servants are not supposed to know that anyone has died there. Marsh, son, & wife supposed to have gone away. Later freed hands servants & chauffeur all changed, money wanes, Sophinisba refuses to leave. Finally dies on Marsh’s cellar grave, muttering. […] Symbols of horror—voodoo—black mass—Cthulhu-cult—&c. &c.—Hair alive with independent life—woman revealed as vampire, lamia, &c. &c.—& unmistakably (surprise to reader as in original text) a negress.
—H. P. Lovecraft, notes for “Medusa’s Coil” in Collected Essays 5.243

As with Lovecraft’s previous ghostwriting job for Zealia, “The Mound,” this story contains explicit references to the Mythos that Lovecraft had created in his own fiction, and which he was encouraging writer-friends like Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard to use. It is set in southern Missouri, far away from Lovecraft’s typical haunts, and is a story that deals very directly with the mores regarding interracial sex in Southern culture:

Romantic young devil, too—full of high notions—you’d call ’em Victorian, now—no trouble at all to make him let the nigger wenches alone.
—Bishop & Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”

Shorn of the weird elements, the story boils down to something like a confession-story: the young heir of a Southern plantation goes off to school and returns with a beautiful and vain wife, and a visit by an artist friend sets the stage for what might be a triangular love affair—and it is worth noting what a departure this work was from Lovecraft’s previous fiction. The whole beginning plot is dependant on human relations, love, courtship and marriage; the spectre of infidelity that lingers between Marceline and Marsh is a very human conflict. Even the macabre twist of murder and worries of revenge from beyond the grave is a Poe-esque touch.

Except for the final, culminating revelation.

It would be too hideous if they knew that the one-time heiress of Riverside—the accursed gorgon or lamia whose hateful crinkly coil of serpent-hair must even now be brooding and twining vampirically around an artist’s skeleton in a lime-packed grave beneath a charred foundation—was faintly, subtly, yet to the eyes of genius unmistakably the scion of Zimbabwe’s most primal grovellers. No wonder she owned a link with that old witch-woman Sophonisba—for, though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a negress.
—Bishop & Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”

“Medusa’s Coil” is a horror story about a mixed-race woman passing in white society. As a plot germ, that by itself is not particularly novel in American literature: Mark Twain examined the cultural and personal impact of the “one drop rule” directly in his novel Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894); Eli Colter’s more macabre story “The Last Horror” about a genius black surgeon who flayed white captives and grafted their skin over his own was published in the Jan 1927 issue of Weird Tales. 

Passing is very specifically a horror aimed at a white audience—and “Medusa’s Coil” is not a nuanced or clever take on the subject. The very mundanity of the reveal undercuts whatever weird atmosphere that Lovecraft had built up at this point. Terminal revelations in stories like “The Dunwich Horror” (written 1928) and “The Whisperer in Darkness” (written 1930) add depth to the horror, the last little piece of information that casts the events of the story in a terrible new light. In “Medusa’s Coil” the reveal bombs completely…although not for lack of trying.

When “Medusa’s Coil” is read with foreknowledge of the ending, it becomes clear that Lovecraft attempted to build up to Zealia’s revelation throughout the story. Her reluctance to speak of her origins, ties to the French colony of Martinique in the Caribbean, and association with African religion all hint at her secret without revealing it. Yet for all that Marceline Bedard comes onto the stage as a femme fatale and sorceress or priestess, her real motivations appear to be exceptionally mundane, straight out of a Brontë novel: to marry into wealth and settle into life as a gentlewoman.

The problem is, Marceline is not Keziah Mason or Asenath Waite; she might be a strange young woman in the household and the servants don’t like her, but she doesn’t appear to actively do anything malicious, or have any particular nefarious plot or intentions, aside from possibly designs on infidelity. Conventional romanticism is only undercut by recurrent mention of how subtly disturbing or off her appearance is to the older de Russy—at least until the affair bloodily ends, and a supernatural element finally enters the picture. The ending is reminiscent of both The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and “Pickman’s Model” (1927): in art is truth revealed.

We can only guess at how much of the plot was Lovecraft’s own contribution. Certainly he wrote the actual text, and all the references to Cthulhu, Clark Ashton Smith, and Great Zimbabwe in the story are characteristic of his tastes and such matter from his letters. It could well be that the bulk of the macabre elements of the plot were his conception…and whether or not it was contained in Zealia’s initial idea, the final execution is purely Lovecraft’s prose.

There is, at this late date, no point in assigning fault. Zealia apparently suggested an idea starkly mundane and rooted in cultural fears of miscegenation, Lovecraft apparently was willing to pick up that idea and try to write to it. Neither, apparently, was conscious enough of the realities to consider the story from Marceline’s point of view—or perhaps Lovecraft’s efforts to build her up as a genuine supernatural threat simply fall apart when cosmic horror is married so directly, and effectively dependent upon, racial discrimination…and it is worse, in hindsight, when seeing de Russy’s response:

“‘She thought we couldn’t see through—that the false front would hold till we had bartered away our immortal souls. And she was half right—she’d have got me in the end. She was only—waiting. But Frank—good old Frank—was too much for her. He knew what it all meant, and painted it. I don’t wonder she shrieked and ran off when she saw it. It wasn’t quite done, but God knows enough was there.

“‘Then I knew I’d got to kill her—kill her, and everything connected with her. It was a taint that wholesome human blood couldn’t bear. There was something else, too—but you’ll never know that if you burn the picture without looking.
—Bishop & Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”

The straight reading of this is that there was something more to the revelation than just Marceline being mixed-race; that perhaps is the “something else, too” Denis de Russy refers too. But knowing the end, it’s impossible to draw a clear distinction from where Marceline’s connection to the Mythos ends and the racial discrimination begins.

Lovecraft himself apparently didn’t think much of the result, although the typescript was shared with his young friend and correspondent R. H. Barlow, who was a collector of pulp manuscripts:

Do you suppose Mr. Barlow would be interested in reading Medusa’s Coil?
—Zealia Bishop to H. P. Lovecraft, 26 May 1934, The Spirit of Revision 177

Of course, “Medusa’s Coil” is a matter wholly separate from “The Mound”. It isn’t much of a story anyhow. If I were you I’d read it & send it back to Mrs. B. for the present, so that she can experiment with it as she likes. If she places it, well & good. You can get whatever it appears in. If she doesn’t, you can renew negotiations for the MS.—which she’d probably sell at a reasonable figure….although I wouldn’t give a dime for it myself. As you know, it isn’t a first draught or anything with any associational value.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 26 Jun 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 143

“Medusa’s Coil” was not published during Lovecraft’s lifetime. After his death, Farnsworth Wright made an effort to publish stories and pieces from Lovecraft—even collaborations and ghostwritten works—and in 1939 finally paid Zealia Bishop $120 for the privilege. However, the story that was published was not as Lovecraft had written it.

No wonder she owned a link with the old witch-woman Sophonisba—for, though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a loathsome, bestial thing, and her forebears had come from Africa.
H. P. Lovecraft Collected Fiction A Variorum Edition Vol. 4: Revisions and Collaborations 298

The original manuscript of “Medusa’s Coil” is not extant. The surviving typed manuscript shows evidence of two different hands (presumably Frank Belknap Long and R. H. Barlow), with pencil edits by August Derleth dating to 1937—including the final line of the story. Bishop & Lovecraft’s original ending would not be read by the public until 1989, when the text restored by S. T. Joshi was published in the revised The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions.

It is an interesting edit, if for no other reason than all the other references to race in the story—more than is typical for Lovecraft, including some fairly lengthy bits of what are supposed to be African-American dialect by Sophonisba, and instances of the N-word—are all left intact. At best, it can be seen as a half-hearted amelioration, an effort to retain the substance of the terminal revelation without the specificity. Maybe that level of overt racial discrimination was too much, even by 1939 standards…or maybe it was simply an unsatisfying ending to a weird tale. We will never know.


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