“Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” (2003) by Ann K. Schwader

Most interesting of all was a glancing reference to the strange jewellery vaguely associated with Innsmouth. It had evidently impressed the whole countryside more than a little, for mention was made of specimens in the museum of Miskatonic University at Arkham, and in the display room of the Newburyport Historical Society. The fragmentary descriptions of these things were bald and prosaic, but they hinted to me an undercurrent of persistent strangeness.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

The story takes place in a desert town, far from the ocean. A lonely businessman traveling far from home, steps into an art museum to relieve a moment’s boredom. What follows is an exercise in titillation. “Gillman-Waite” is the hook; “Iä, Hydra Mother!” is the sinker, and in between is the line, reeling the reader in slowly, paragraph by paragraph.

Ann K. Schwader is a poet laureate of the Mythos, but her fiction receives relatively little attention. In stories like “Mail Order Bride” (1999) and “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” (2003) she offers a quiet, but distinct, embellishment on the Deep Ones. Both stories focus on the oft-neglected feminine side of their life and worship, but both are also written so that the narrative viewpoint is that of a male human, and this point-of-view character’s relationship with the Mythos in the story is complicated by their relationship with women. The alien nature of the Deep One hybrids is never apparent on the surface, because they find women themselves alien and incomprehensible. Yet chauvinism is far from their only or worst sin, as the protagonist of  “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” recalls:

The strain and twist of muscles under slick cold skin, almost slipping from his grasp as she struggled…

A past episode of sexual violence tends to evaporate any good will the reader has toward a protagonist, but even this is a cue that Schwader plays with. Rape is an act of domination, a show of power and physical strength against someone weaker rather than an expression of lust—and the protagonist even recalls “he did what he’d done in anger”—but his victim’s response emasculates him (figuratively), and there hovers over the story the question of who, exactly was (and is) in control. That anxiety as much as anything drives the mood of story.

Mechanically, Schwader astutely utilizes several familiar devices from Lovecraftian storytelling. The structure of the story thus takes on two parallel narratives: the nameless protagonist viewing the exhibit in the museum, and the flashbacks of the same protagonist to a drunken night in a college town in Massachusetts and the secret shame of what he did there. This is a common track in much Lovecraftian fiction, where the events of the current day are one level of the narrative, and the uncovered history (biographical, genealogical, etc.) forms a secondary narrative, both progressing toward a common conclusion; compare to “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” where present-day exploration of the town is juxtaposed with the story of how it came to its current condition, and the author’s own story and that of his family are intertwined in the narrative of both.

The story sets a steady pace: marked not by the number of the exhibits but by the protagonist’s growing sense of dread, and the completeness of the memory of the night he wants to forget. In many Mythos stories the climax of the plot or action, and the climactic revelation are often two separate events—the latter typically occurring, in Lovecraft, at the very end of the story, sometimes as the final line of the story. In “The Shadow over Innsmouth” for example the climax is the raid on Innsmouth by federal authorities and the torpedoing of Devil’s Reef, but the climactic revelation is when the protagonist discovers their own Innsmouth heritage—and embraces it. In this story however, the climax and revelation occur essentially simultaneously, coming together naturally at the end of the tour with the final exhibit, past memory merging with terrifying present. Schwader also uses a familiar trick of Lovecraft’s where an aesthetic element slowly grows throughout the piece to set the pace; in this case, the humidity grows steadily throughout, a marked contrast from the dry desert air of the opening that takes on sinister connotations by the time the protagonist reaches the final exhibit.

To call “Objects in the Gilman-Waite Collection”  an embellishment is to recognize that the story, while it can stand on its own, is really building off of something larger than itself. Schwader doesn’t recap the whole history of Innsmouth here; she doesn’t need to. No explanation is ever given regarding Cthulhu, Mother Hydra, or the Deep Ones, and the author does not try to cram in any new Mythos entity or large chunk of exposition explaining some aspect of Mythos lore or carving out some unique corner of Lovecraft Country. What it does do is successfully gild the lily.

All in the band of the faithful—Order o’ Dagon—an’ the children shud never die, but go back to the Mother Hydra an’ Father Dagon what we all come from onct—Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah-nagl fhtagn—”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

Mother Hydra is mentioned only once in Lovecraft’s fiction: a single throwaway line in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” as a sort of Eve figure or mother-goddess, her character, worship, and cult are never explored or expanded upon by the Providence gentleman. It’s not much to work with, but rather than writing paragraphs of exposition to expand on Mother Hydra, Schwader does it subtly. The little expansion on Mother Hydra during the climax and revelation at the end of the story serves the plot, not the other way around…and in the end, there are still things left unexplained, mysteries for the reader to make up their own mind about, and perhaps explore.

“Objects from the Gilman-Waite Collection” first appeared in Ann K. Schwader’s collection Strange Stars & Alien Shadows: the Dark Fiction of Ann K. Schwader (2003) and the limited edition (100 copies) Cthulhu’s Creatures (2007), and was reprinted in Ross E. Lockhart’s anthology The Book of Cthulhu II (2012). Why the story hasn’t been reprinted more broadly is hard to say—there’s been no shortage of Innsmouth-themed anthologies since 2003—and what little critical appraisal it has received is in the brief notes in Strange Stars & Alien Shadows.  Editor Kevin O’Brien notes a “feminist tone” in her story “Mail Order Bride,” expanding:

Though the protagonist is male, the agents of the Deep Ones are female and their patron is not Dagon but Hydra. The tone was obvious throughout, yet it wasn’t blatant. The story was not a diatribe against men, and it even managed to make me sympathize with the otherwise unsympathetic male caricature. Yet almost from the beginning it was clear that the women were in control, and their control only became stronger with time.
—Kevin O’Brien, introduction to Strange Stars & Alien Shadows ix-x

The same basic observation can be applied to “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection”—but there’s a weird assumption there. Why would a feminist Cthulhu Mythos story be “a diatribe against men?” Joanna Russ, more noted for her feminist fiction, didn’t exactly write a “diatribe” in “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964); Irvin Rubin is a caricature of a certain type of socially awkward male fan, but not all men. The answer might be supplied in part by Robert M. Price’s notes to the story:

Perhaps because of the patriarchal nature of the Mythos, we rarely see women involved in cultic activities, except as sacrificial victims. They are almost certainly involved, among the nameless and faceless crowd of worshippers, but we almost never see them. […] In this story Ann gives us a glimpse of an exclusively female cult dedicated to Mother Hydra, one in which the only service a man might provide is as the sacrifice. Disturbing perhaps; after all, it’s based on the radical feminist idea that, aside from fathering children, men are practically worthless in a society dominated by women. But what’s sauce for the goose….
—Robert M. Price, Strange Shadows & Alien Stars 199

There’s a political angle to both O’Brien and Price’s interpretations of Schwader, and a subcurrent of that is, for all their praise of her work, a negative association of feminism. The implicit idea that female empowerment is somehow a threat to the power, authority, or position of men: that there is a balance of power between the sexes, and if women gain power men must lose power.

As Price notes, the treatment of women in the Cthulhu Mythos is not very pretty. Lovecraft never employed the “virgin sacrifice,” but there are female rape victims in “The Horror at Red Hook,” “The Curse of Yig,” and hinted at in the notes to “The Shadow over Innsmouth”; the ape princess in “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” ends up stuffed and mounted, Lavinia Whateley births two monstrous children in “The Dunwich Horror,” for which willing or unwilling service she is blocked from the rites and eventually disappeared. Aside from pregnancy and implied sexual violence, this is no worse than the fates of Lovecraft’s male characters—who often end up dead or occasionally worse—but in the wider Mythos, the female sacrifice is a not uncommon trope. Molly Tanzer even invoked it in “ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” (2012) by Molly Tanzer.

The idea of this negative drawback to female empowerment or emphasis is a real part of the horror of the stories—to male readers, at least. Just as Tina L. Jens played with uniquely female horrors of reproduction in “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens, here Schwader may be playing on a uniquely male horror: the loss of privilege afforded by their gender…or maybe that horror is just the natural result of Schwader following her own voice, as an independent female Mythos writer:

Women in the Mythos—why there aren’t more of us, why there are as many of us as there are, or even why we’re here to begin with—have become quite a topic in Lovecraftian circles. […] After spending the last couple of years trying to formulate answers, I’ve come to only one conclusion. One little secret to share about women in the Lovecraftian Mythos.

We were there from the start.

[…] Like all Lovecraftians, I’m interested in the past. In traditions. Women have their own literary tradition to reclaim in the Mythos, and I hope to see more of us doing so in future anthologies and collections.
—Ann K. Schwader, “Reclaiming the Tradition” vii-viii


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

“Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1942) by Virginia Anderson & “The Woods of Averoigne” (1934) by Grace Stillman

Joanna Russ may have been the first woman to write prose set in the Cthulhu Mythos…but she was preceded by at least two female poets who tackled the Mythos as their subject, and while often neglected, their work stands among the first verse contributions to the burgeoning Mythos.

Poetry has always been an important aspect of the Mythos. Many of the principal writers of the early Mythos—H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, Frank Belknap Long, etc.—were poets, and bits of poetry are embedded in their fiction, or like Lovecraft’s “Fungi from Yuggoth” (1930-1943) cycle or Robert E. Howard’s “Arkham” (1931) can be viewed as a part of the fabric of the Mythos itself. This poetic tendency in part reflects the tradition of the fantastic verse such as “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1834), which was sometimes made a part of weird fiction, as in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia,” which was revised to contain “The Conqueror Worm” (1845).
Of course, another large part of the poetic tradition of the Mythos is that Weird Tales was unusually in the amount of poetry it published—including several of Lovecraft’s “Fungi” and works from other authors. What might surprise readers is the amount of poetry in WT that was written by women. According to Partners in Wonder: Women in Science Fiction, 1926-1965, 63 female poets were featured in the pulp magazine during the period of the Unique Magazine’s heyday—including Alice I’Anson, whose “Teotihuacan” (WT Nov 1930) so inspired Robert E. Howard. Amateur poets also existed among the early fandom, writing verse to contribute to fanzines, such as Virginia Kidd’s “Science and Knowledge” (The Fantasy Fan, Dec 1933).
It was rare for anyone not among the circle of Lovecraft & his fellow Mythos writers to craft Mythos poetry in that early period, but at least two did—Virginia “Nanek” Anderson and Grace Stillman.
Shadow Over Innsmouth
by Virginia Anderson
(Dedicated to H. P. Lovecraft by Nanek)
We have forgotten some of mankind’s ways:
The art of dying, or say … Meroy’s gift.
So when age grows upon us and our days
By span of man are numbered, the seas rift
And take us in. Then in the rites of old
We pledge allegiance where the strange pale gold
Of obscene Gods dispense eternal life
Wherein to glory, savour and renew. …
Free from the world’s alarms and strife
In ocean palaces of colalous hue,
Shedding the shape of man and doubling back
In form at least on evolution’s track.

Virginia Combs came of age in the small town of Crandon, Wisconsin during the tale end of the Great Depression; bought her first pulp magazine (Planet Stories) in 1938 or ’39, and soon was a prolific writer of fan-letters to several pulp magazines, most especially The Spider. She took the pen-name “Nanek,” borrowing the term from the Sikh religion of the Spider’s associate Ram Singh (Guru Nanak was the founder of Sikhism, the name was sometimes rendered in English as “Nanek”). Her correspondents included Norvell Page, A. Merritt, Isaac Aasimov, and Hannes Bok. At a time when fandom was primarily male, she stood out; Page even wrote her into the Spider series as “Jinnie Combs” in “Volunteer Corpse Brigade” (The Spider Nov 1941). In 1942, she married and became Virginia Anderson—but to her pulp friends and fandom, she was always Nanek.

I guess it never occurred to me that there were things you didn’t do because you were male or female.
— Virginia Anderson, XENOPHILE #40 (5)

The pulps and fandom were not just an escape, but an outlet for her creative energies—she wrote poems based on the works of the pulp authors she admired, which were published in Famous Fantastic Mysteries and fanzines. In 1942, Francis T. Laney, a prominent member of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society wrote, asking for a poem for his fanzine The Acolyte, which was mainly dedicated to H. P. Lovecraft. Nanek responded with “Shadow Over Innsmouth” which appeared in the second issue (Winter 1942).

“Shadow Over Innsmouth” is an homage to H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (WT Apr 1936), but where Lovecraft focuses on the human character discovering (and eventually embracing) their Deep One heritage, Nanek gives us the alien perspective of someone who has already completed the transition. Rather than simply revisit Lovecraft’s tale, she moves beyond it, taking her cue from Lovecraft’s final line “[…] in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.”

The tone of the poem is one of escapism—though not within an element of horror, involving as it does rites of allegiance to “obscene Gods,” and the “doubling back […] along evolution’s track.” Immortality still has its price, physical and spiritual; to shed human constraint means to become something other than human. Contemporary readers might see in this foreshadows of posthumanism, but there is also an echo of Christian mythos here: “[…] our days By span of Man are numbered” is almost Biblical language, and as many Christians expect their souls to be taken into heaven, so to do “the seas rift And take us in.” This does not necessarily imply any blasphemous intent on Nanek’s part, but it does help to contrast the “life everlasting” beneath the waves to the “life everlasting” in Heaven—both involve leaving behind earthly life.

Nanek’s “Shadow Over Innsmouth” was only reprinted once, in The Innsmouth Cycle (1998), the text is reproduced from that copy; “Meroy” and “colalous” are probably transcription errors (for “Mercy” and “coralous”), made when originally setting the type for The Acolyte. Given the obscurity of that ‘zine, it is unfortunate that Nanek’s poem did not receive wider distribution.

The Woods of Averoigne
(Inspired by the Clark Ashton Smith’s stories)

By Grace Stillman

Deep in the woods of Averoigne,
Goblin and satyr, loup-garou,
Devil and vampire hold their feasts:
Forces of wizardry imbue
Even the foliage of the oak;
Beeches and pines in drear decay
Uplift their bony branches wan
Under a sky of corpse-like gray.
Evil is there in Averoigne:
Evil I should not see at all;
Evil whose very presence seems
Holding me in curious thrall:
Knowing it well, my feet still grope
Nearer this force malign, withdrawn;
In dread, against my will I creep
Deep in the woods of Averoigne.

Grace Stillman is a cipher; “The Woods of Averoigne” is her only publication in Weird Tales, nor does she have credits in any other pulp index. The published letters of Clark Ashton Smith, H. P. Lovecraft, etc. contain no reference to her or the poem, so we have no idea what they thought of it—but we know what inspired it.

Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne is a fictional medieval French province sometimes compared to James Branch Cabell’s Poictesme, and was one of his own original settings—much as the Miskatonic River valley and its towns of Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth, and Kingsport are “Lovecraft Country,” and Robert E. Howard had his stories of the Hyborian Age and Thurian Age. Averoigne was introduced to the readers of Weird Tales with “The End of the Story” (May 1930), and continued on with “A Rendezvous in Averoigne” (Apr-May 1931), “The Maker of Gargoyles” (Aug 1932), “The Mandrakes” (Feb 1933), “The Beast of Averoigne” (May 1933), and “The Holiness of Azédarac” (Nov 1933). Her poem itself would appear in the same issue of Weird Tales as another of Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne tales, “The Colossus of Ylourgne” (Jun 1934).

Stillman’s poem evokes the witch- and fiend-haunted forests of Averoigne, which form a common element in many of Smith’s tales. Plant life was one of Smith’s foci in life, and it shows in his fiction:

[…] the gnarled and immemorial wood possessed an ill-repute among the peasantry. Somewhere in this wood there was the ruinous and haunted Château des Faussesflammes; and, also, there was a double tomb, within which the Sieur Hugh du Mainbois and his chatelaine, who were notorious for sorcery in their time, had lain unconsecrated for more than two hundred years. Of these, and their phantoms, there were grisly tales; and there were stories of loup-garous and goblins, of fays and devils and vampires that infested Averoigne.
(“A Rendezvous in Averoigne”)

Much of Stillman’s imagery is taken directly from Smith’s descriptions of the setting, right down to the types of trees he mentions in the stories. It is, like Nanek’s later piece, a derivative work that seeks to capture something of the essential idea and feel of the original, and succeeds not so much in the first few opening lines with their talk of familiar horrors, but for the fact that despite the dark legends of Averoigne people are still drawn there—as many readers, including Grace Stillman herself, were. Again, we see a writer who has struck at a point essential to the Mythos: the point of attraction, for lovers of the weird, to these terrible and remote regions, even though they are warned away from it. By entering these areas, the protagonist—and by extension the reader—cross a threshold, pass through a limnal space or boundary, break a taboo. What is more, the nameless narrator in Stillman’s poem knows that they are doing this, but are unable to help themselves, as something draws them deeper into the darkness.

As far as I can determine “The Woods of Averoigne” has never been republished. Like Nanek’s “Shadow Over Innsmouth” it represents something of a lost start. Like many early contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos, they failed to gain enough audience to influence subsequent writers and fans. They were a part of the movement that eventually exploded into the sprawling shared universe of the Mythos, but were largely overlooked and ignored. It isn’t enough to simply write something good, or even to have it published; if it is not referenced, reprinted, or revisited…it becomes forgotten, unless someone finally resurrects and remembers it.

†††

With thanks and appreciation to Dave Goudsward for his help.


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