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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978) by Richard Lupoff & “The Cry in the Darkness” (2011) by Richard Baron

The only persons who saw Wilbur during the first month of his life were old Zechariah Whateley, of the undecayed Whateleys, and Earl Sawyer’s common-law wife, Mamie Bishop. Mamie’s visit was frankly one of curiosity, and her subsequent tales did justice to her observations […]

Through all the years Wilbur had treated his half-deformed albino mother with a growing contempt, finally forbidding her to go to the hills with him on May-Eve and Hallowmass; and in 1926 the poor creature complained to Mamie Bishop of being afraid of him.

“They’s more abaout him as I knows than I kin tell ye, Mamie,” she said, “an’ naowadays they’s more nor what I know myself. I vaow afur Gawd, I dun’t know what he wants nor what he’s a-tryin’ to dew.”
H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”

Mamie Bishop is one of the minor supporting characters in “The Dunwich Horror,” the closest thing to a friend that Lavinia Whateley has in the story and a source for information into the reclusive Whateleys. Her character development is minimal, not even rating a physical description, but her name places her among the old families of Dunwich (probably the “decayed” Bishops), and with her position as Earl Sawyer’s common-law wife defines as much of her backstory and connections as needed: cohabitating in a prolonged relationship but never formalized by a priest or clerk of the court, no great Dunwich scandal that. Still, raw material to hang a story on…and at least two authors have done just that.

“The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978) is at once a sequel to and something of a pastiche of “The Dunwich Horror.” A decade following the destruction of Wilbur Whateley and his unnamed twin, Mamie Bishop and Earl Sawyer split up:

It was therefore a source of much local gossip and a delight to the scandal-mongers when Earl Sawyer abandoned Mamie Bishop, his common-law wife of twenty years’ standing, and took up instead with Zenia Whateley. […] The loafers and gossips at Osborn’s General Store in Dunwich were hard put to understand Earl Sawyer’s motives in abandoning Mamie Bishop for Zenia Whateley. Not that Mamie was noted for her great beauty or scintillating personality; on the contrary, she was known as a meddler and a snoop, and her sharp tongue had stung many a denizen hoping to see some misdemeanor pass unnoted. Still, Mamie had within her that spark of vitality so seldom found in the folk of the upper Miskatonic, that trait of personality known in the rural argot as gumption, so that it was puzzling to see her perched beside Earl on the front seat of his rattling Model T Ford, her few belongings tied in slovenly bundles behind her, as Sawyer drove her to the dust-blowing turnpike to Aylesbury, where she took quarters in the town’s sole, dilapidated rooming house.
—Richard Lupoff, “The Devil’s Hop Yard” in The Dunwich Cycle 178-179

This quiet expansion of Bishop’s character and history is a preliminary to the plot of the story, as the local cult repeat the cosmic impregnation with Zenia Whateley in place of Lavinia. Once again, Bishop herself serves as a primary source of information at a few key points, through her penchant for gossip. Zenia did not survive the childbirth, and Mamie Bishop was fetched back to Dunwich shortly thereafter, to once again take on her position in the Sawyer household—only this time also as nursemaid and guardian to young Hester Sawyer.

Whether “The Devil’s Hop Yard” could be written today without charges of pedophilia being leveled at the author is arguable, though Lupoff’s intentions seem perfectly innocent: Hester was in many ways an inversion of Wilbur Whateley. Where “Lavinny’s black brat” was dark, hulking, and inhuman, the “white brat” Hester was fair, tiny, and unusually beautiful—but taken to the same extremes as Wilbur’s, the effect is no less monstrous:

Hester was astonishingly small for a child of four. She was hardly taller than a normal infant. It was as if she had remained the same size in the four years since her birth, not increasing an inch in stature. But that was only half the strangeness of Hester’s appearance, for while her size was the same as a new-born infant’s her development was that of a fully mature and breathtakingly beautiful woman! […] Her face was mature, her lips full and sensual. And when a sudden gust of wind pressed her baggy dress against her torso this showed the configuration of a Grecian eidolon.
Richard Lupoff, “The Devil’s Hop Yard” in The Dunwich Cycle 186

Mamie Bishop, in taking on something of Lavinia’s role in the care and raising of an unnatural child, ends up with a similar fate: locked in the house as the cultists take Hester Sawyer up to the Devil’s Hop Yard, afraid of what they are doing. State police interrupt the ceremony, and when Mamie is discovered hiding in Earl Sawyer’s house, her hair has turned as white as Lavinia’s…and ends up, in cliche fashion, in a mental hospital. Lupoff may not have invented the idea that all Mythos tales end with those involved becoming dead or mad, but he certainly played to it.

“The Cry in the Darkness” (2011) by Richard Baron comes from an identical starting point: a sequel to “The Dunwich Horror” which re-visits the plot of a cosmic impregnation and birth, with Mamie Bishop in a more prominent role. Where Lupoff’s efforts of pastiche re-iterated elements of Lovecraft’s style in the presentation of the piece, and make constant reference to or expansion of elements from the original story, Baron gives the narrative from Earl Sawyer’s point of view…and could probably have stood to read the story again to refresh his memory.

Mamie Bishop and I had been courting for a number of years before I proposed. […] She became withdrawn, her skin affecting a sickly pallor. More than once she was found walking alone in the hills at night, her head tilted up to the sky as though she was searching for some sign or movement in the clouds. naturally, I became concerned, and after ushering her back to her parents’ home following one of those midnight jaunts, I sat her down and poured out my heart.
—Richard Baron, “The Cry in the Darkness” in Cthulhurotica 57

It is difficult to reconcile the Earl Sawyer and Mamie Bishop of “The Dunwich Horror” with “The Cry in the Darkness”: Lovecraft presents Sawyer and Bishop as common law man-and-wife, Baron presents them as courting, with Sawyer afraid to give her the child she craves without the sacrament of marriage, and apparently the two living apart. None of Bishop’s talent for gossip is evident, though Baron includes some gossip that Bishop herself played a more intimate role in “The Dunwich Horror” than seen on the page. If the characterization of Mamie Bishop is off, however, it is nothing compared to the characterization of Dunwich itself:

Our courtship was no secret but a swell in her belly would inevitably raise questions in town. Unbetrothed women bearing children were not only frowned upon in Dunwich, but shown the kind of disgust usually reserved for the diseased and the mad. Through the years I had seen young girls, barely budding into womanhood, removed from their place amongst our population, sometimes by physical force. Confused and tearful, these unwanted mothers were forced to walk shamefacedly past as their neighbors, and sometimes their own flesh and blood, poured scornful epithets upon them.  Those who did not leave peacefully were dragged from their homes and pushed out toward the hills in the middle of the night. I know not what befalls these poor creatures […]
—Richard Baron, “The Cry in the Darkness” in Cthulhurotica 58-59

Strange words regarding a town where “The Great God Pan” would be regarded as “a common Dunwich scandal!”—especially considering that this story is nominally set in 1928; an illegitimate child might be cause for social ostracism, but no bodily expulsion was practiced against Lavinia Whateley.

The marriage of Mamie Bishop and Earl Sawyer here serves the same purpose as the marriage of Zenia Whateley and Earl Sawyer: a polite social cover for the conception and birth of yet another monstrous hybrid like Wilbur Whateley. Aside from the slight shuffling-around of characters in the plot, the difference is that this time Mamie Bishop is the force behind the plot, with Sawyer an ignorant dupe—and perhaps earning the dubious distinction of being cuckolded by Yog-Sothoth. Likewise deviating from Lovecraft, Baron does not turn a blind eye to the impregnation of Mamie Bishop atop Sentinel Hill, as witnessed by a peeping Earl Sawyer, but lets the narrative trail off with the confirmation of her successful conception.

Both stories take as their launching point the sole female contact of Lavinia Whateley; and from that association they spin tales which are essentially retellings or variations on “The Dunwich Horror,” only with a slight shift in focus. The degree to which both Lupoff and Baron strive to make Mamie Bishop a substitute for Lavinia, both in terms of narrative device and literally within the context of the story, is telling: in both stories, Bishop becomes initiated (somehow) into the local cult, takes on some attributes of Lavinia’s behavior or appearance, and assumes a mother-like position regarding the new hybrid. Why?

The neatest answer is probably because Mamie Bishop was one of the few female characters mentioned by name in “The Dunwich Horror,” the others being Sally Sawyer and Selina Frye, who were both killed in the course of events, and Mrs. Corey; that Mamie had a personal connection with Lavinia Whateley, and also an intimate relationship with Earl Sawyer, who is another prominent supporting character for local color and events.  Mamie Bishop was, to put a point on it, a convenient womb, ideally placed if one were to pick up a game using the pieces on the board. Baron certainly appears to have used this approach:

What inspired your story? I’ve always liked stories in which the female has the upper hand so when thinking about what to write for Cthulhurotica this was my starting point. I had just read ‘The Dunwich Horror’ and remember thinking to myself ‘How did these events effect the people there?’ The story grew naturally out of that.
Interview: Richard Baron

Yet that raises another question: why does Lupoff introduce a new character in Zenia Whateley, instead of doing as Baron did and have Bishop conceive the child herself? The whole affair of Sawyer dismissing Bishop and then fetching her back is something of a needless complication to the whole plot of “The Devil’s Hop Yard.” There is a certain narrative logic to it: a pregnant Mamie Bishop would not raise as much comment if she was the common-law wife of Earl Sawyer, and Lupoff’s story, following Lovecraft’s, was built around rumors and recollections; likewise the introduction of a hitherto unknown Whateley would strengthen parallels with Lovecraft’s story.

Another, more interesting possibility occurs though: perhaps Mamie Bishop did not agree to go through with it.

The focus on impregnation of female characters has been noted as a theme in Mythos fiction, especially pastiche, and features in stories such as “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens and “Prey of the Goat” (1994) by Margaret L. Carter; these authors riff off of Lovecraft’s focus on cosmic miscegenation and hybridity, and Lovecraft himself was paying homage to and in the tradition of works like Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” (1894) and Algernon Blackwood’s Julius LaVallon (1916). In earlier works, the horror is not focused on the pregnancy and circumstances of conception (which probably couldn’t have been printed), but in the “monstrous aftermath,” focusing as Lovecraft does on the children birthed of the strange unions. It is only relatively recently that authors would have a free hand to depict impregnation, and to focus on the potential terrors, dangers, and emotional trauma of childbirth.

Impregnation in Lovecraft’s work is usually accomplished by force or coercion; the circumstances of Lavinia’s conception are left unspecified, but she seems exceptional in that it is implied she was a willing participant, as are Baron’s version of Mamie Bishop and Lupoff’s Zenia Whateley. Whether they could actually be said to have consented, since all three seem to have been mentally unwell to some degree, is an issue not addressed. Yet the method of conception, whatever it is, is not without its dangers: Zenia Whateley dies during childbirth, and Lavinia’s travail was accompanied by “a hideous screaming which echoed above even the hill noises[.]”

Lupoff’s Mamie Bishop, though was sane at the beginning of “The Devil’s Hop Yard.” What if she simply chose not to participate? It would not necessarily have been out of character: there is no indication that Bishop and Sawyer have any previous children despite their cohabitation, perhaps implying one of them was sterile or they used contraception, although this is “reading in” quite a bit to the few references in Lovecraft’s story. Still, Mamie Bishop among all other women would have some idea of what the birth was like for Lavinia Whateley; she may have had good personal reasons not to put her body and mind through such an ordeal.

“The Devil’s Hop Yard” and “The Cry in the Darkness” make for interesting comparison simply because of their shared source, and for the different paths the authors took from there. They are incompatible paths from the same fork in the road. Yet at the crux of both stories is the characterization of Mamie Bishop: a minor character who served her brief purpose well, and found second and third life in pastiches. It is understandable but perhaps somewhat unfortunate that both authors chose to develop her as a kind of stand-in for the missing Lavinia Whateley, rather than investigate what the Dunwich Horror and its aftermath looked like from her point of view.

“The Devil’s Hop Yard” was first published in Chrysalis, vol. 2 (1978), and has been reprinted in Chaosium’s The Dunwich Cycle (1994) and several of Lupoff’s collections: Claremont Tales II (2002), Terrors (2005), and The Doom That Came to Dunwich (2017), which collects some of Lupoff’s Mythos fiction. His other Mythos work includes “Discovery of the Ghooric Zone — March 15, 2337” (1977), “Documents in the Case of Elizabeth Akeley” (1982), “The Turret” (1995), “Lights! Camera! Shub-Niggurath!” (1996), “The Doom That Came to Dunwich” (1996), “The Adventure of the Voorish Sign” (2003), “The Peltonville Horror” (2004), “Brackish Waters” (2005), “The Secret of the Sahara” (2005), and “Nothing Personal” (2010).

“The Cry in the Darkness” was first published in Cthulhurotica (2011). It has not been reprinted.

 


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