“Taste of the Snake’s Honey” (2005) by Rio Matsudono (松殿理央)

“Taste of the Snake’s Honey” (2005) by Rio Matsudono (松殿理央) was published in the second volume in the Lairs of the Hidden Gods series from Kurodahan Press, edited by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健). It is the English-language translation of the 2002 novella 蛇蜜 (Hebi Mitsu); the translator was Erin S. Brodhead.

Sexuality is a fundamental aspect of Yig. In “The Curse of Yig” (1929) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft, this nature is implicit: the curse of Yig is that Aubrey Davis bears children with snake-like characteristics. While at least one critic claimed this was a story of maternal impression, the impression usually given was that Yig raped her, presaging to some degree the connection between Yog-Sothoth and Lavinia Whateley in “The Dunwich Horror.” The aspect of Yig as a sexual deity was affirmed in “The Mound” (1940) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft as “the principle of life symbolised as the Father of all Serpents.”

In writing that, Lovecraft might have been inspired by contemporary ideas that ancient serpent deities represented phallic cults, as discussed in O. A. Wall’s Sex and Sex Worship (1922); this was a book that Robert E. Howard owned, and Howard mentioned phallic worship in at least one letter to Lovecraft (A Means to Freedom 1.87). A few later authors have taken the general idea of the Father of Serpents as a masculine deity of virility and run with it; occultists like Kenneth Grant have incorporated Yig into their system as an aspect of masculine sexual power, representing the “Ophidian Current” in his Typhonian Trilogies.

Sex presents certain difficulties for translation; the language of sex is usually either dryly technical (penis, vagina, anus, etc.) or extremely idiomatic or euphemistic (rod, Johnson, 69, French letter, salad tossing, etc.), and sexual slang varies by region, language, culture, and period—compare the language in The Merry Order of St. Bridget (1857) to something like Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy, and it’s easy to see that while it covers some of the same thematic ground, the language and cultural syntax have shifted drastically. Trying to write period-appropriate sexual language is tricky enough, translating it in such a way that it retains the essence of its meaning for an audience doubly so…and that’s before you try to work the Mythos into it.

This is all necessary ground to cover because “Taste of the Snake’s Honey” is one of the relatively scarce Mythos works which contains a great deal of sexual matter, but isn’t really erotic in any significant sense. The best comparable work is probably Robert M. Price’s “A Thousand Young” (1989), which follows a young libertine seeking admission into a Mythos cult through increasingly deviant sexual acts, but both that story and this one are ultimately a more explicit version of the decadent pleasure-seekers in Lovecraft’s “The Hound”—the idea being that libido sciendi, the desire to know, the quest for forbidden knowledge applies equally well to sexual knowledge as it does to, say, advanced mathematics and occultism (cf. “The Dreams in the Witch-House”).

Sometimes this is very explicitly the case, such as in “Under the Keeper of the Key” (2015) by Jaap Boekestein, but in the case of Rio Matsudono, it’s more of a barometer to let readers know that the ambient sexual morality of the tale is falling fast, and as the Lovecraftian protagonist slides from receiving fellatio from women who had had all their teeth removed to necrophilia, the novella is really just getting started.

Which is all on purpose: the acts given are almost dry in their description, which might be a translation issue (see above; imagine trying to write 1930s-period sexual decadence to a 2000s-contemporary Japanese audience, and then imagine trying to translate that into English for a completely different audience) but likely also because the purpose of the acts is not to titillate or tantalize but to transgress, to provoke a degree of rejection and outrage at the breaking of taboos. The actual acts themselves aren’t dwelt on until we get to the literal climax of the story, because the author isn’t trying to get you off, or go into horrorporn territory with microscopic detail a la Edward Lee’s Hardcore Lovecraft novels like Going Monstering.

For “The Taste of the Snake’s Honey,” sex isn’t the revelation, it’s the initiation.

What the reader and the protagonist are initiated into is another question. Rio Matsudono’s novella is a direct expansion on the lore of Yig, and the straightforward lore dumps are maybe at the expense of the story itself. Like with The Queen of K’n-yan (2008) by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健), there’s an effort to at least draw parallels between an aspect of Lovecraft’s Mythos with Chinese folklore…and the parallels work fine; the exposition is a little heavy at points, but that’s pretty common in Lovecraftian pastiches. What the story lacks, aside from a certain prosody, is a direct explanation for what drove the sexual decadence of the protagonist in the first place…unless you understand and appreciate Yig’s role as a fundamentally sexual entity to begin with.

So much of this novella is stated bluntly or outright that some of the subtextual implications and assumptions can be easily lost. The protagonist’s sexual activities aren’t portrayed as mental illness or learned practices; they’re the result of natural inclinations—or, maybe, supernatural ones. Nature winning out over nurture. At the same time those sexual desires and activities appear to have nothing to do with the final resolution of the plot: they led the narrator protagonist to the point of revelation, but aside from plot fiat there was no reason that these specific revelations had to happen in this way. A surface read of this story might suggest that Rio Matsudono wanted to deliberately shock the reader, but the apparent conflict can be resolved by thinking of Yig and his children as driven by inhuman appetites.

He was not wholly evil, and was usually quite well-disposed toward those who gave proper respect to him and his children, the serpents; but in the autumn he became abnormally ravenous, and had to be driven away by means of suitable rites.
—H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Bishop, “The Curse of Yig”

Suppose these appetites are analogous to the strange hankerings of a pregnant woman? Suppose the hungers for strange flesh, and blood, and wild venturings way over the borders of sane sexuality are a reaching out for ultramundane fare, the pickles and ice cream of the alien soul coming to birth within the confines of a human life that is only a womb for that which gestates inside, increasingly making its presence known?
—introduction to “Taste of the Snake’s Honey” in Inverted Kingdom 113-114

The introduction to “The Taste of Snake’s Honey” spotlights the issue for reader, although like all good warnings to the curious, the full implications aren’t necessarily clear until after the novella is finished. Then the story can be seen in the theme of “Paedomorphosis” (1998) by Caitlín R. Kiernan—a changeling or puberty story, where the old self is shed to make way for the new, adult form.

If read from this angle, the sexual deviations from the beginning of the story are not just there to shock the reader, but as deliberate steps in a process of development. The sexual pleasures being sought are increasingly strange and terrible by human standards because what the protagonist is being prepared to mate with is nothing human. It’s a rationalization which resolves some of the apparent conflicts in the story, such as why the narrator feels their behaviors are different from those of decadent humans who engage in the same or similar practices like teratophilia or necrophilia.

A point of view which potentially has interesting implications if applied to some of the other entities in the Cthulhu Mythos, especially those that pass for human, or whose cults engage in proscribed sexual practices.

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

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Zealia Brown Reed Bishop

Dear Mr. Lovecraft :—

Your letter of the 20th just arrived. I shall be only too glad to have your friend have The Mound for sale or to see—especially that since it offers an opportunity to partially discharge my already disgracefully lengthened debt to you— (You are so patient about money—especially when you need it so very much.)
—Zealia Brown Bishop to H. P. Lovecraft, 26 May 1934, The Spirit of Revision 177

In 1927, Zealia Margaret Caroline Brown Reed turned 30 years old. She had been married at seventeen to James P. Reed (1891-1935); a son (James Reed, Jr.) was born seven months after the wedding. The state of her marriage in 1927 is unknown, but three years later she would be listed on the U.S. Census as “divorced.” Living at the time in Cleveland, Ohio, Zealia Brown Reed worked as a court reporter and sold stories and articles to support herself and her son, but was looking to improve her writing. Via Samuel Loveman, she got in touch with a friend of his that did revision work and dispensed writing advice: H. P. Lovecraft.

I wrote to Lovecraft and he replied immediately that he would be glad to examine any of my work I cared to send and offer what assistance he could.

Thereafter I became an established recipient of the famous Lovecraft letters. He wrote regularly, sometimes fifty and sixty page letters, in a fine spidery script which often counted five hundred words to the page. These letters were filled with the strictest rules of rhetoric and meaty literary advice.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 254

The correspondence of Zealia and Howard would last for the final decade of Lovecraft’s life. It would result in three weird tales: “The Curse of Yig” (written 1928, published 1929), “The Mound” (written 1929, published 1940), and “Medusa’s Coil” (written 1930, published 1939). Lovecraft also had a hand in revising a number of Zealia’s non-weird manuscripts, none of which are known to have been published or survive. As with some of his other revision clients, Lovecraft’s correspondence goes much beyond the simple “business” side of things. Writing apparently every week or two, his letters would be filled with advice on writing, suggested readings, remarks on articles or newspaper cuttings that Zealia had sent. One letter from Lovecraft to her son James survives, showing how friendly and familiar that the two had gotten, although Lovecraft never failed to address his letters as “Dear Mrs. Reed,” or “Dear Mrs. R”—at least until 1930, when Zealia remarried to Dauthard William Bishop, Sr. and the letters were sent to “Dear Mrs. Bishop.”

As is the case with many of Lovecraft’s correspondents, the bulk of the surviving correspondence are his letters to Zealia, which makes it difficult to get a read on the woman herself. What is apparent from Lovecraft’s responses to her is that she was not primarily interested in weird fiction, being more focused on stories of relationships, real life, and human interest—and apparently sold at least one story “One-Man Girl” the confession pulp Cupid’s Diary (26 Dec 1928). While Lovecraft was always polite to Zealia in his letters to her, to his other correspondents he would occasionally gripe:

And the light diversion wherewith I’m paying it off is the most deodamnate piece of unending Bushwork I’ve ever tackled since the apogee of the immortal Davidius himself—the sappy, half-baked Woman’s Home Companion stuff of a female denizen of once illustrious Cleveland whose pencil has hopelessly outdistanc’d her imagination. Gawd bless the money-orders, but Pete sink the manuscripts!
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 23 May 1927, Letters to James F. Morton 138

David Van Bush was a prolific early revision client of Lovecraft’s who specialized in mediocre poetry and pop-psychology essays; any revision work that that was especially tedious became “Bushwork.” While that might well be the case for some of Zealia’s more romantic fiction, it’s difficult to say that the same should apply to their weird fiction—Lovecraft himself noted that “The Curse of Yig”: “gave me quite an opportunity to practice up on my old creative processes” (Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja 206); and the extensive narrative of “The Mound” stands as one of Lovecraft’s longest stories, based on a very bare premise, so he could hardly have had no interest in it. There is a lacunae in the extent Lovecraft/Bishop correspondence around the time “Medusa’s Coil” was written, and because it was never published almost no references in Lovecraft’s other letters, so it is unclear what his feelings were toward that work.

Zealia herself, however, seemed overall very grateful for the long friendship in letters. When August Derleth contacted Bishop after Lovecraft’s death, looking for his letters and any unpublished stories, she noted:

You see when I first began writing I was prone to be too schoolgirlishly romanticHPL snapped me out of that & made me infinitely ashamed of myself. My sister has a ranch in Okla & while visiting her over a period of many years I have studied & learned much of Indian folklore. The Mound & Yig are both based on actual stories throughout the locality of my sister’s ranchMedusa’s Coil might also interest you?

I am sending you a few letters which cover minutely Howard’s principles of revision instructions–one is the first letter ever received from him in ’27 on this subject. Yes he helped me on nearly everything I’ve done in some mannerthe storiesYigThe MoundMedusa’s Coilwere my first real stories of their kindthe novelThe Adopted Sonwas carefully corrected by HPL & revised where he felt necessaryhe suggested the method of rhythmwhich I endeavored to carry out& which you will catch when you have time to read it.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 14 Apr 1937, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

For all that the correspondence between Zealia and Howard seems to have run for about a decade, and is mentioned in her memoir “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View”, surprisingly little of it survives. In part, this appears to be a factor in Zealia’s re-marriage and moves. When Derleth contacted her about the Lovecraft letters project, she apparently sent some of the letters in her possession. Eighteen of these became part of the Arkham House Transcripts; fourteen of them appear in Selected Letters II (1968). In her correspondence with Derleth, she hinted at other surviving letters:

My yet unfinished tale is one with Aztec mythology woven through it and I think Howard was well pleased with the progress I made without his supervision…even as he was with three of my novels. Sometimes I shall send you the letters he wrote about them…telling me how I had progressed with structure and the choice of words.
Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 13 Jan 1950, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

These letters appear to have never made it to Derleth, but some of it did survive; in 2014, it came to light that 36 letters (including the letter from Lovecraft to her son Jim, and one surviving letter from Zealia to Lovecraft) had been in the possession of Zealia’s great niece. This, combined with the letters that Arkham House transcribed and biographical materials on Zealia’s life and her correspondence with Lovcraft, were annotated and published as The Spirit of Revision (2015) by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

The correspondence is still very incomplete; the fifty-four published letters covers a period of 1927-1930, 1934, and 1936. In addition to this, there is one letter which Zealia quoted from in writing to August Derleth, which has not been published:

But I do want you to know that under H.P.L. I most certainly had the finest fundamental training one could ever receive in years at any university.

Thus as example: “I am genuinely astonished by Wright’s attitude toward your last story. It only confirms my opinion of his capriciousness and lack of all objective standards in judging stories. This tale was not so long as the one he accepted the week beforeand I don’t see where it could be any less “convincing”. But Wright’s Wrighthe will have his self-important ex-cathedra personal reactions. I give him up! In fact I gave him up long ago. It would take some superhuman and veteran behaviourist like Thomas H. Uzzell to fathom the intricacies of his psychology.”
Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 6 Apr 1949, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

This would presumably be a reference to Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright rejecting either “The Mound” or “The Curse of Yig.”

One aspect of Zealia’s letters to Lovecraft that has mostly gone unremarked are the dealings she had with the other authors in Lovecraft’s circle. Samuel Loveman has already been mentioned; the two do not appear to have any lengthy correspondence. At the time she began to engage Lovecraft’s revision services, he was in partnership with Frank Belknap Long. “Sonny” Long may have revised and/or typed some of her manuscripts, and acted as literary agent in trying to get “The Mound” published after it was rejected by Weird Tales. In addition to Long, Zealia got in touch with Robert H. Barlow, the avid fan who later became Lovecraft’s literary executor, in 1934.

Dear Mr Barlow:-

After so long a time I generally get around to accomplishing the thing I’m supposed to. Today I am expressing The Mound to you and am also enclosing a copy of Medusa’s Coil for you to read, then I wish you would please send it on to Mr Frank B. Long of New York (230 West 97th Street) as I’m going to give him a chance to dispose of it unless you would particularly like to have it. Anyway, you may advise me. I have no idea what the Londodn [sic] Publishers will offer. They have asked to see it and are the publishers who made a reprint of The Curse of Yig. […]

Mr Lovecraft must have had a marvelous time at your home and on his trip. Isn’t he a wonderful person? I feel deeply indebted to him for anything I have and may ever accomplish. His letters are always sources of great inspiration to me.

My fingers are getting buttery so shall stop, but wanted you to know that the manuscripts go forth today. Sorry I’ve been so negligent.
Zealia Bishop to R. H. Barlow, 11 Jul 1934, MSS. John Hay Library

Barlow collected manuscripts from pulp writers, and eventually had an eye toward publishing them in his amateur journals The Dragon-Fly and Leaves. Her correspondence with Barlow would be relatively brief, but Barlow would form an important link in the chain to eventually getting all of her weird revisions published in Weird Talesand eventually by Arkham Housealthough this involved a bit of miscommunication and misunderstanding:

Am glad you liked The Moundaltho’ I wonder if you saw Medusa’s Coil after HPL revised it? The partial copy I sent you was the original before his revision? I was shocked at young Barlow’s claim–for it was untruthful from the starkas I believe one of Lovecraft’s to me proved. HPL wrote me of a “young chap in Florida” who was interested in printing on “his own machine some weird stories” & asked me if I would let Barlow “use” my stories for his “private collection”or something like thatlater Barlow wrote me asking my permission & even asking me to let him use the pictures used by Wright in the Curse of Yig!I hope I’ve proved that the stories are mine? Barlow never found the stories in Lovecraft’s effects& has no claim on them. Every one of the three talesThe Curse of YigThe Mound & Medusa’s Coilis based on material acquired on my travels around my sister’s ranch in Oklatho Medusa’s Coil was written around another location. Tell Barlow for mehe’s a poor sport!

The revision prices on all stories were duly noted when HPL had finished, tho’ I owed him either 18.00 or 21.00 at the time of his death on some work done last yearWhatever Wright or anyone else will pay for either or both tales please arrange that half (regardless of the indebtedness) be paid to Mrs. Gamwellin appreciation for all HPL did for me.
Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 11 May 1937, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

H. P. Lovecraft mentioned Zealia in several letters to his various other friends and correspondents, usually in relation to “The Curse of Yig” or to the other stories her revised for her, but it doesn’t appear that many of them attempted to actually get in touch with her. Besides Derleth, who contacted Zealia after Lovecraft’s death and seems to have remained in touch with her off-and-on for most of the rest of her life. The only other possible contact she had was with Lovecraft’s friend and fellow pulpster E. Hoffmann Price:

It was just before Bill’s and my brother’s tragic deaths, that H. Hoffman Price (maybe I have that first initial wrong) turned me over to his agent August Lenniger. At that point when he was advising me my heart and mind seemed suddenly to stand still. […]
Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 24 Apr 1949, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

August Lenniger was Price’s literary agent; it’s not entirely clear when they got in contact, if it was in the 1930s, there is no reference to any correspondence in Price’s letters with Lovecraft, nor in Price’s memoirs of other pulp writers.

As a writer, Zealia Brown Reed Bishop seems to have found little professional success in terms of sales—her “confession” pulp stories are long forgotten, her novels remained unpublished—except for those stories revised, to the point of being ghost-written, by H. P. Lovecraft. This work is not without distinction: The Curse of Yig (1953, Arkham House) is the first volume of Mythos fiction published under a woman’s name, and the weird fruit of Zealia’s correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft continues to be published and re-published. While many fans may find The Spirit of Revision principally of interest because of the light it sheds on Lovecraft’s revision practices, it should be noted that their correspondence covered much more ground than just that—and Zealia’s letters may yet prove more valuable as a record of their personal and professional relationship.


I could mention one thing more, however, which can hardly be considered of minor importance. Mrs. Bishop was a woman of great charm and quite exceptional beauty.
—Frank Belknap Long,
Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside xiv

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

The Curse of Yig (1953) by Zealia Bishop

After the death of H. P. Lovecraft in 1937, his friends August Derleth and Donald Wandrei (founders of Arkham House), and R. H. Barlow (Lovecraft’s literary executor) began a concerted effort to get his fiction, poetry, and letters into print. This process took decades, publication being relatively slow and expensive, and the audience being mostly restricted to hardcore fans. Among all the legendary Arkham House publications, Zealia Bishop’s The Curse of Yig (1953) stands out as the first Mythos collection attributed to a woman—and would remain the sole such book for some decades. The contents are fairly succinct:

Like many books, The Curse of Yig didn’t just happen. At the time of Lovecraft’s death, only “The Curse of Yig” (1929) was published; both “The Mound” and “Medusa’s Coil” had been rejected by Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, and apparently failed to find a home elsewhere. One of the first jobs that Derleth & co. faced was finding out what revision-work and collaborations that Lovecraft had actually done and obtaining manuscripts and permission to publish them.

H. P. wrote stories for a half dozen, some of which I can prove by documents. Bloch (Don’t quote me—there are amenities to be preserved), Heald, Reed, Lumley, had outright jobs done, Rimel & others his enormous tinkering resulting in a wholly re-written ms. These things are—some of them worth collecting–but not in his own books. He said many times he would not permit a collaboration in his collected stories, so certainly he’d resent these things. We’re going to have a hamper full as it is.

Mrs. Reed had him do 3 stories,

  1928 – YIG – pub. – written outright for her
*1929 – THE MOUND – novelette – ditto
*      ”  – Medusa’s Coil – embodying a notion of hers, but all HPL nonetheless

* I have only the ms. of these

[…] Perhaps the works he ghosted could be called “collaborations” without scaring off the ghostees, & made another book. There’s years of work to be sorted & printed.
R. H. Barlow to August Derleth, 31 Mar n.d. [1937], MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Derleth managed to get in contact with Zealia Bishop in 1937, and they discussed Lovecraft’s letters and revisions. In an early letter, Zealia promised:

I shall prepare an article or—data—on what I think may be of general interest in regard to Howard’s revision work—and send you within the next week—but shall await your reply and if I have anything which you can use I shall compile it for you—and do all in my power to assist you in every way.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 8 Apr 1937, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

The article didn’t come. What did happen is that Derleth apparently edited these stories and then apparently acted as Bishop’s agent to sell them to Weird Tales. The timeline on how exactly this happened is a little unclear, but over a year later in the January 1939 issue of Weird TalesDerleth’s version of “Medusa’s Coil” was published. Fan response was positive, and ‘The Eyrie’ for March 1939 reveals it was voted the second-favorite story in the issue. The success of “Medusa’s Coil” might explain why Bishop’s “The Curse of Yig” was included as a “Classic Reprint” in the April 1939 issue of Weird Talesand it was also positively received in “The Eyrie.” “The Mound” did not see print until the November 1940 issue of Weird Tales, possibly due to its length. None of these stories were presented with any mention of Lovecraft’s authorship in Weird Tales.

Following Barlow’s suggestion, Arkham House initially focused on publishing H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction on its own: The Outsider and Others (1939) and Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943) collects nearly all of his fiction. The latter book, however, also included some of his “collaborations,” including “The Curse of Yig” and “The Mound”—this would have been the first time Lovecraft’s hand in Zealia Bishop’s stories was publicly acknowledged. “Medusa’s Coil” was republished in Marginalia (1944), alongside other revisions and collaborations; these Arkham House texts both used Derleth’s edited versions of “The Mound” and “Medusa’s Coil,” rather than the original Lovecraft/Bishop version.

Was it your intention to make them appear as his stories?
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 28 Jan 1949, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Zealia Bishop’s letters with Derleth in the mid-to-late 1940s defend her authorship of the three weird stories, other evidence of Lovecraft writing them from synopses notwithstanding. She also continued to promise him an article on her relationship with Lovecraft:

I hope you won’t find too many things wrong with the Lovecraft article. If that passes, then I shall not worry about the others, for he is not an altogether easy subject about whom one can write, yet a very interesting one.
Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 13 Jan 1950, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Arkham House was slowing down publication in the late 1940s and early 50s. Derleth had repeatedly cited low sales, with books selling out only very slowly despite the relatively small print runs. By the 1950s most of the weird fiction pulps had folded, and even the venerable Weird Tales was on its last few years of existence. So it is somewhat surprising that around 1952, Zealia’s letters start to discuss a print collection of her fiction…and she was also working on not just the long-promised article on Lovecraft, but another on Derleth himself:

You’re wrong, fellow, I haven’t fallen down on the job about the articles on you and H. P. L. I finished them two years ago, but kept rewriting them, unable to throw off that damnable self-consciousness instilled in me by Lovecraft. Now, however, I’ve developed more positiveness and will send them to you for approval and corrections where you feel necessary.

I plan to use both of them in the story collection but if, after reading them, you wish to suggest a market, it might be well to have them previously published.

After you read them and also see the assembled collection, how about writing a “Foreword”? You know I worked and studied hard before I began studying under Lovecraft and Long. Considering that it was during the darkest years of the depression, I paid them both well for their instructions, criticism and any revision. My record at Columbia University will bear out my years of studying and ambition. What shall I do about reprints of stories published in magazines now out of print? […]

What about the reprinting of stories once published in stories now out of business or publications discontinued by a publisher tho’ still in business? What of those published in Confessions?
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 12 Aug 1952, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Derleth’s reaction to this had to be a bit mixed. The time and place for Zealia’s memoir of Lovecraft would ideally have been earlier—in Marginalia maybe, or The Arkham Sampler (1948-1949)—and it didn’t seem that Zealia Bishop had anything genuinely weird to offer besides the three Lovecraft revisions, and those had already been published and re-published. “The Curse of Yig” in particular had been published twice in Weird Tales, three times in hardcover, and most recently in the paperback Avon’s Fantasy Reader No. 14 (1950).

At last here is the article. I hope that it does not fall far short of my opinion of you and that you will see some improvement in my writing. Feel free to augment and delete as you see fit. […] At the time I began the article on you I started one on Lovecraft this should be finished for your approval before I get there—you understand I will need photographs for both? […] In the event my short stories are published as a collection I plan to include both articles. Does that meet with your approval? If only the weird are selected for one book then both articles—DERLETH-LOVECRAFT—would be most appropos—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 15 Oct 1952, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Will have some time to redo my DERLETH and LOVECRAFT articles. If they meet with your approval do you have a market for them or will you suggest one to me, though later they will go in the book with the weird short? Why don’t you quote me a price for publication (by ARKHAM HOUSE) for such a volume? I would like to have such a book done well, such as ARKHAM HOUSE does.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 18 Nov 1952, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

The discussion with Derleth now takes on a more business-like tone. The moment that Derleth might have been dreading arrived: Zealia had fixated on Derleth as a possible publisher for her collection. Vanity publishing was a skeleton in Arkham House’s closet: not a service that was widely advertised or ever publicly acknowledged, but a circumstance occasionally resorted to, at least with old Weird Tales authors that Derleth was familiar with and presumably whose material was not vastly divergent from Arkham House’s core focus. Given the relatively expensive costs of publishing, the high cost of the resulting books, the small print numbers, and the slow sales, it also wasn’t likely to be a strong financial investment—and that’s before you consider that most of the volume’s contents would be reprints. Derleth presumably expressed at least some of these risks to Zealia Bishop:

What you say about the publishing of the stories interests me. In the event we come to an agreement, how must this money be paid your company? You say you must get $2.50 for you to break even—then what of the author?

I would like to do this, followed by at least three other books, if you could pass on the work, but I would not want the weird tales published if you feel more credit should go to LOVECRAFT. After all, August, he was the teacher and I  the pupil and he was polishing my efforts, trying to direct me, but he did not do any more than you and Frank Long did. While erratic and always in need of money, Frank was an excellent and driving tutor even though we could not always see “eye-to-eye”. I was always pulling between the two teachers trying to write as I wished, not as they were determined I should, but I gained much from both of them as well as from your own kind interest and advice. Yet I would not want to publish the stories as my own efforts if you do not feel I am justified in claiming them. So be perfectly frank and we shall proceed from there.

Am re submitting the articles with the one on H. P. L. Maybe this time you will like the Derleth one better.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 14 Dec 1952, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

I would like very much to work out a plan with you for the publishing of not only the one volume but possibly several more. I feel after your editing, they will all be good and should have reasonable sales. […] My reason for asking how the money is to be paid is that under the circumstances, I cannot draw from a personal fund. I have talked to our banker who has told me “if the contract warrants it” I may borrow the sum.

It is now up to you about the contract. […] I will have the weird tales and articles to you immediately after Christmas. What you choose and assemble will be, of course, entirely up to you.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 22 Dec 1952, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

It isn’t clear what Zealia means by “editing” here—that is, whether she means the usual services of copy-editing by removing typos and grammatical errors and checking for factual accuracy, or editing that was more along the lines of wholesale revision, as Lovecraft would have done. Possibly she didn’t know herself. At the very least, he seemed to have convinced her that the volume should consist solely of the three weird tales revised by Lovecraft, plus her articles (if she ever finished them). The issue of cost and “breaking even” is another key issue: assuming that Zealia Bishop was paying for the printing, who was getting what percentage of the cover cost? Without the actual contracts or the Arkham House business records it is difficult to assess, but we get further hints as their correspondence addresses more details of the project.

First, though, Zealia had to finish her articles on Lovecraft and Derleth.

In three days I wrote exactly four words on the revision of the DERLETH article. Howarver [sic], after your letter I set up all night finishing it as well as the ESCHUTECHEON [sic]—so go over them both with a “curry comb”—streamline them where necessary-especially with newspaper publication in mind for DERLETH—and elaborate upon the “HOUSE OF GHOSTS” as I have no details on that other than behind it is: that ARKHAM HOUSE was founded on the memory of LOVECRAFT and his fictious [sic] name of ARKHAM – Incorporate that as you see fit.

I do not think, however, that for the book the real meaty stuff should be deleted.

But revise both article and story as necessary and have both retyped and send me a statement. Do please send the ESCHUTCHEON to your editor friend if it passes your approval. I will work on the LOVECRAFT article tonight and tomorrow night and it will follow as quickly as typed to be handled the same as the DERLETH one. If you find these two articles and the three Weird stories adequate for publication in book form, then let’s get down to figures, publicity plan etc;.

You know I told you I would have to know how muchwhen the bills had to be met and so on. After all, I have to plan ahead for any unusual expense or it would not pass D. W.’s approval—certainly not for writing. He loathes publicity and does not encourage my writing—maybe I should use my little granddaughter’s name—LESLIE S. REED—and become an individual-new-unknown-etc.-and after the successful publication of several things bring out a good personality story—?
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 14 Apr 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

This was a little over a week after August Derleth’s marriage; one can imagine that it had begun to dawn on him that for the monies to get the book published, she apparently wanted him to put her articles into printable shape as well as every other task involved with assembling a manuscript. D. W. Bishop was Zealia’s husband, and at that time was essentially an invalid, although he apparently still largely controlled the couple’s finances. The idea of using a pseudonym was probably vetoed by Derleth: one of Zealia’s most bankable assets was likely name recognition from Weird Tales fans from over a decade prior.

Evidently you misunderstood me that day at lunch in Madison. I thought I was very explicit—as well as Helen—that I told you “everything was ready to go except I wanted to rewrite the DERLETH and LOVECRAFT articles. And that I would positively have to rewrite the LOVECRAFT article entirely.”

I have done what I could on it and am sending it as is, “but I am not in the slightest pleased with it and feel that I should be the one to rewrite it.”

The material is here and could be redone beautifully but it would take me at least another two weeks so I am sending it so that you may pass judgement edit it and then if you think I should rewrite it return or bring it.

I will do the foreword as quickly as possible.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 25 Apr 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

The Lovecraft article is finished—but you’ll have to have it retypedHelen cannot type fast enough & my secretary has had a baby, has to stay home—etc—etc—so—take it as is—but it must be slicked up & retyped.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, n.d. (after Apr 1953), MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Ultimately The Curse of Yig was published without a foreword, so presumably it was either cut or never finished.

In the correspondence, there are suggestions that Derleth may have been trying to agent the Lovecraft and Derleth essays to magazines or fanzines before the book was published. If this was the case, no record of a prior publication has been found. It’s reasonable to assume that the original manuscripts for the two profiles “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” and “A Wisconsin Balzac: A Profile of August Derleth” required more than a little copy-editing, and possibly wholesale re-writing, including lengthy bibliographical lists in Derleth’s profile, which elicited a comment:

Approve manuscript-with exceptions: some typographical errors and suggest Derleth profile be cut to eliminate so much commercialism and cataloging which should be in a separate pamphlet. Suggest I proof read—What about contract? We should settle on that before printer begins work—
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 29 Jun 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

The contracts arrived—but you do not mention in your letter that the DERLETH & LOVECRAFT articles are included in THE CURSE OF YIG. Without them the publications would be of little, if any, value to me. I merely mentioned that I thought the article about you included too much listing of your works and killed the interest about the writer and man. […] Your prices do not correspond with those in the printers’ letter. I shall send a check to the artist. Also, watch for proofs from photographers.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 19 Jul 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Before desktop publishing, print costs would be a bit vague: the printer’s letter would have included the quote for costs for an approximate number of books at so many pages; the addition of photographs, large changes in the text, etc. could require substantial rework in terms of layout and raise the cost of the final product. Which is apparently about what happened with The Curse of Yig.

I am going to ask that you proofread this manuscript—particularly the Lovecraft. It needs some smoothing—it seems a little jerky—Maybe you will not think so—. […] I’m much too anxious about publicity, August—that can come with my new name—But I do wish the picture of Derleth & Lovecraft included in the Curse of Yig.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 16 Sep 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

You should add that I have done journalism or writing for several newspapers including an historical series around Clay County Missouri—That I am a member of the National Federation of Press Women & the Missouri Womens Press Club. These women hold pretty well together & would feel slighted if mention were not mad on the blurb.

It would be better if the book dd not come out too soon or at least that the printers bill does not come before Dec if you can so arrange it.

Our Dispersion sale is Oct 21—Final settlement & especially in the case of a dispersal, if normally takes from 60 to 90 days—
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, n.d. (Sep 1953?)

The “dispersion sale” refers to the selling off of the livestock of Highland View Farms, which the Bishops owned; presumably with D. W. Bishop incapacitated they were no longer able to manage the rigorous cattle business. The blurb on the inside rear flap of her book jacket does include all of the points she wished included in the above letter.


We have not yet had the bill from Banta, but it will be coming along in a week or ten days, and it will be due thirty days from its date. I will send you a copy of it promptly, but I will not notify you how much you will have to pay until some time later, since we will want to wait at least until November 10th to give payments and orders time to come in. We have had 27 advance orders to date, and of course we have about 100 standing orders with the shops, though their payments will very probably not come through at once, and you will have to be remitted to you after you have met the bill.  Our shipment indicates that somewhere between 1200 and 1220 copies of THE CURSE OF YIG were printed; the book itself is very handsome, I feel.
—August Derleth to Zealia Bishop, 20 Oct 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

I enclose a copy of the bill from the printing company for THE CURSE OF YIG. This is due November 15. You will note its details, please, and then return it to me in the envelope enclosed for that purpose. You will see that 1217 copies of the book came to $1,698.23, or a cost over all of approximately $1.40 per book. The deduction of $14.45 is listed as “150 copies of last section” which I had printed for lecture platform use, and it is thus my personal expense, and is included here only because it is part of the “job” of printing for Banta.

Now, then, as of today, the book has actually brought is, with the per copy deduction for our handling charge already taken off, a total of $127.40, which, deducted from $1698.25, would leave you—as of today, that is—the sum of $1,5580.73 to send to me. However, this sum will be further reduced by still further orders to come in and to be paid for. $127.50 represents only 50 copies of the book at $3 the copy, less .45$ handling charge […] We have, however, sold 157 copies of the book thus far, and there are thus manifestly more payments due to us. I do not know how many of those payments will come in before the bill must be paid, but it seems certain that the total amount you will have to pay will be not less than $1,400.00, judging by previous experience with payments to us.

A study of the bill will show you some interesting things. For instance, the inclusion of the two photographs, which you wanted inserted, added a total of $55.78 to the cost of production. Alterations in text and jacket, at $5.50 an hour, added a further total of $73.60. These were potentially avoidable expenses, of course; to offset them I could arrange only for an $11.58 deduction as indicated in the final credit entry. On the other hand, the 200 extra copies I added to the print order, cost only another hundred dollars, which, it seems to me, is well worth the additional expense, since we have just 200 copies more with which to come into the black from the red on this title. We should come out all right; happily, we are discovering that patrons who do already have your stories in our earlier collections are still ordering this title because they want a complete Arkham House collection. […] Do now please arrange to send the required sum as soon as I let you know; figure on paying at least $1,400.00 […]
John Stanton to Zealia Bishop, 27 Oct 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Arkham House contracted with George Banta Publishing Company of Wisconsin for the physical publication of the books; John Stanton was an Arkham House employee that handled some of the business matters. Copies of the “lecture platform” edition of “A Wisconsin Balzac” appear to be extremely rare ephemera.


As the bill comes due, the question of reimbursement and profits comes up again. The stock price of the book was $3, and the “handling fee” was $0.45/book, so the gross value of each book was $2.55. At 1217 books, that left a potential gross of $3103.35—but how much of that would Zealia be getting? How many copies would have to sell for her to recoup the cost of printing? There’s no doubt that Derleth had to be getting at least a portion of the cover price to keep the lights on at Arkham House. Nevertheless, the terms must have been acceptable enough, because Zealia footed the printer’s bill.

Herewith is check on account for 300.00—leaving a balance of 1100.00 which you shall have not later than November 14th. I may be in Madison on that day or before—but you may depend on the check on that day in any eventuality. This has been a little difficult to handle as you told me that the bill would come in on Nov 10th & be payable in thirty days—If this is the fact let me know as it would be easier for me & I would not have to borrow any money—as I will have checks coming in to cover the amount early in Dec—Write me about this at once. It means a great deal to me—as previously explained. […]

I’m not interested in publicity–merely that sales pay the amount used to publish it—
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, n.d. (c. late Oct 1953), MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Herewith is the 1100.00 balance on the printing bill etc.—in three checks. I would like, if possible, for you to deposit them a few days intervals. The money is on deposit—but we have a devil of a banker—who is just as apt as not to call me out of a sound sleep & say “why are this….”  knowing that D. W. would know nothing of the deal & that I would be called upon to explain. Things will not always be like this—at present, however, to antagonize anyone could be disastrous. Since you can be assured that the money is in the bank I know you will arrange to handle the amount with your usual diplomacy.

It is impossible to say now how “Yig” is going or will go over. I’m receiving “fan” mail, of course—but that’s all happened before— […]

D. W. took one fleeting glance at the book. He did not so much as touch  it & has never mentioned it. That has cut me deeply—the girls, too, are wounded over his attitude—but it has only made me more determined to continue on—to do something more as often as I can—I cannot be destroyed—so many & so much depend upon me & my well being. […]

I hope “Yig” is successful enough to offset the printer’s bill & that we may publish one or two more under this plan then perhaps the other things will sell outright.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, n.d. (c. Nov 1953), MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

If Zealia Bishop hoped that the book would sell quickly, she had either deluded herself or else Derleth hadn’t been entirely forthright about the economics of the situation. As it was, it was not many months later when he was forced to write the kind of letter a writer hates to get.

I’m afraid you haven’t read your contract with Arkham House. There is no money due you by February 10th, I am sorry to say. The very earliest that any payment would be earned, would be in June, and I am not sure that there will be a payment then. The contract specifies that royalty reports on earnings shall be made after every half year, and that payments shall be made thereon not later than June and December respectively, following. Thus your first royalty reportwhich I shall try to have made up and enclose for youcarries you up to 1 January 1954, and covers the sale of only 250 books. And we have sold just 20 books since then, for a total of 270 books so far.

You will recall, too, that the total bill was $1,712.68, of which $14.45 was my personal responsibility—see my letter of 27 October 1953—leaving the actual cost of THE CURSE OF YIG—not counting other expenses incurred here which I did not put on the bill—at $1,698.23. Of this sum, you were asked to pay only $1,400.00, in the hope that the remaining figure would be earned by the time the bill was met. It was not quite earned; so you do not begin to receive monies until some months after (the first June to December) our royalty reports show that your book has earned the full $298.23. That is to say, form the first report of earnings, we must deduct no less than $298.23 plus a .45¢ per title handling charge, as per contract. If my estimate, purely off the cuff, is correct, the payment to you in June will be approximately $150.00, $20 more or less. My rough estimate puts it at just short of $150.00, but if I can have Alice make up the royalty statement in time to enclose it in this letter, than you will know for certain just what is due you in June; following which, the next payment will be made to you in December of this year, and on the same basis, at the same intervals, thereafter.

I am sorry that THE CURSE OF YIG has not sold faster; we are now just under 25% of the edition sold, and I know we will sell all the books, but they are just not moving fast, and none of our titles do so move. It took us 10 years to sell 1200 copies of THE OUTSIDER & OTHERS; yet, on the other hand, we sold 4,000 copies of SLAN in short of 4 years. But you will recall that I told you in advance not to expect any miracle sales, but a slow, steady accretion of sales. An initial payment of $150 or slightly less does represent 10% of your investment, and that is not too bad for two months’ sales, considering. […] We published Seabury Quinn’s ROADS in a 2000 copy edition in 1948 under a similar arrangement; it took him 4 years to recoup his $900 investment, and he is still earning his royalties now. We published David Keller’s TALES FROM UNDERWOOD in 1951 under a similar arrangement; he invested $1725, and still has $1450 to be earned for him.
—August Derleth to Zealia Bishop, 22 Jan 1954, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

25% would equate to about ~300 books sold in only two months (or a bit longer, counting advance sales); that should have grossed $900, or $765 minus the handling charges. If Zealia still owed ~$300 on the printing and might still expect $150 in June, that suggests her share or 300 books sold amounted to $450 net, so she was getting something like $1.50 per book (and remember that the printing cost was $1.40 per book). That leaves a full dollar of the cover cost unaccounted for, so either Derleth’s math is fuzzy, or (hopefully) there is a large piece of the accounting picture missing, because at $1.50 a copy Zealia would have to sell almost the entire run to earn out her initial investment ($1,698.23 / $1.50 per book = 1133 books), much less expect to see a profit.

We can compare these estimates with the one extant earnings statement:

Screenshot 2020-12-20 at 6.52.30 PM

$627.75 / 384 books = $1.63 per book, which isn’t far off from the estimate (presumably Derleth is rounding somewhere), but the basic picture is the same: to actually earn back her money, much less make a profit, The Curse of Yig would need to sell most of the edition. Just to break even, Arkham House would need to sell ($1,070.48 / $1.63 per book = 657 books), and there were only 833 left in the edition—and some of those might probably be author’s copies, archival copies, etc. At the current rate (384 books/year) the book wouldn’t be expected to show a real profit until 1956.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Instead of sales remaining steady, they appear to have decreased:

Our Bishop book, done in October 1953, has sold only 450 copies so far; and our Metcalfe, done in April 54, only 400. The one was largely reprint material, true, but the other was new work, though by a British author.
—August Derleth to Clark Ashton Smith, 26 May 1955, Eccentric, Impracticable Devils 451

Several of Zealia’s later letters to Derleth, tracking her economic decline, include requests for checks ahead of the agreed-upon schedule, no matter how small. In at least some cases, Derleth appears to have done his best to comply…but any hopes of actual profit, much less further publication, probably vanished quickly.

Certainly there seems to be an even interest in Yig—What do you think about a paperback for it—& in Airports etc?
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, n.d., MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

The reason it’s called vanity publishing is because it is vain.

At the end of the day, The Curse of Yig would seem to largely be a book for Arkham House collectors more than general fantasy or horror readers. One contemporary review probably said it best:

Zealia B. Bishop’s The Curse of Yig (Arkham House, $3) contains three negligible stories from Weird Tales, plus two first-rate biographical profiles: one plausibly presenting H. P. Lovecraft in a somewhat less favorable light than that in which he is shown by his idolaters, and one which comes close to doing justice to the fabulous career of August Derleth.
—”Recommended Reading” in Fantasy and Science Fiction, vol. 6, no.2 (Feb 1954) 95

Much of the enduring legacy of The Curse of Yig lies not with the stories themselves—these were the Derleth-edited texts, later superseded by corrected texts compiled and edited by S. T. Joshi in The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions (1989, Arkham House). “A Wisconsin Balzac” has never been reprinted, and may well have been written entirely by Derleth himself.

What has been reprinted, and is perhaps the most remembered inclusion to The Curse of Yig is “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View”—Zealia’s long-simmering, often re-written memoir of being Lovecraft’s student-cum-revision client. While not without its flaws, this was until the publication of their letters the only account of Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop’s professional and personal relationship available.

Which in its own way is what The Curse of Yig is: a testament to the lasting impact of these two human beings on one another, and through their fiction on the world. No other woman would be so associated with Lovecraft for decades afterwards; no other woman would have her own Mythos anthology until after the death of August Derleth in 1971. The Curse of Yig might have been a commercial failure, but those books still exist, and are purchased and read today. While every writer might hope for profit during their own lifetime, what more could a writer hope for, after they’re dead and gone, but to be read and remembered?

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

“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:

“The Legend of Ghost Mound” by Ferdie J. Deering, The Daily Oklahoman, 4 Apr 1965
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 of 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 expanded 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).