BOOK REVIEW: Bobby Derie, Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos, Hippocampus Press, 2014. Oversize paperback of 314 pages. Index. Cover by Gahan Wilson.
“A man named Lovecraft, a cold fish? Surely not!” We tend to splutter or titter at H.P. Lovecraft’s claims to have been blessed with a chaste and fundamentally asexual nature. A nature that had little desire to realise itself, other than in briefly “adequate” marital duties or in a deeply sublimated fictional form. We have been trained by the salacious media to deeply suspect the private gentleman, the bachelor recluse, the daydreaming aesthete/puritan. We murmur: “Impossible! There must be more to it!” Partly this is because our culture can no longer conceive of any desire that is not ravenous for expression and satisfaction. Our current lack of historical and intellectual context is also an impediment to understanding, especially to a clear understanding of the sort of cultural/erotic lives that it was possible to live between 1895 and 1945. Lovecraft was deeply antiquated in many ways, and he certainly quarried the darker and more perverse corners of that antiquity, and yet in other ways he straddled the ground zero of modernity and our modern mediated identity. Sadly we are usually limited in our understanding of either context, forced to burrow through Google Books to unearth his classical allusions and the cultural contexts of the 1920s and 30s. Add to this the confusions created by some of the early scholars and memoirists, when they projected onto Lovecraft the man some aspect of their own personalities or the mood of the particularly permissive 1970s. This projection caused an early muddying of the waters on the topic, while sometimes also serving to pollute mainstream academic interpretations for decades to come. Such intertwining confusions have made the modern exploration of Lovecraft’s sexuality all the more difficult.
Enter Bobby Derie with his excellent new book-length survey. Derie’s book is intended as an initial “guidepost”, to use his own word, to the subject of Lovecraft and sex. His well researched book mostly fulfils this aim, and does so in the form of a nicely presented oversize paperback containing a wealth of fairly short survey essays. There is also an excellent index and a handy list of suggested further reading. One of the book’s most valuable aspects seems to be its access to certain rare and obscure works, both in terms of contemporary erotica and also choice nuggets of Lovecraftian scholarship from the 1970s. The collector, the connoisseur and the bibliophile will all find this book to be a most useful survey, although scholars of Lovecraft’s life and letters should be aware that there are certain crucial gaps — Derie’s sympathies clearly lie with what he calls the ‘heteronormative’ aspects of the topic.
Derie writes well and clearly, and — like leading Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi — he benefits from eschewing the clotted jargon and antiquated leftist frameworks of contemporary literary theory. Nor are the pages cluttered with spiralling genuflections to various 20th century psychoanalysts. The intelligent lay reader will thus enjoy an admirably plain-spoken book. However, I did feel that Derie could have benefited from wider reading in the theories of sexuality, especially those arising from subtle cultural and historical studies rather than political dogma. I don’t mean to say that Derie should have strapped himself into a sweaty embrace with the latest hot French theorist. I mean that he might have found useful a few structuring and suitable appropriated ideas from thinkers such as those of the 1990s British school, exemplified by Jeffrey Weeks and Neil Bartlett, and perhaps from certain sections of early queer theory.
Derie opens by highlighting Winfield Townley Scott’s early 1943 observation that Lovecraft was intensely ‘homosocial’, as we would term it today. There is an introductory discussion of the Lovecraft family background. Missing here, I thought, was some acknowledgement of the mental stress placed on the adolescent Lovecraft, arising primarily from living in a cramped apartment with a mad mother.
Derie briefly surveys the other possible candidates for Lovecraft’s affections, in the brief period between the death of his mother and Sonia turning up — literally — on the doorstep (“[she is about to] descend upon Providence” — Lovecraft letter of 31st August 1921). Oddly, Derie omits the beautiful Myrta Alice Little from Lovecraft’s possible marriage choices.
There is a short survey of where Lovecraft might have gleaned his practical sex knowledge: the family library (and, I would add, relatives who were enlightened medical men); the Kalems such as Kirk, Morton and others, able to supply educational sex books prior to Lovecraft’s marriage; and also his revision client Bush, an occasional purveyor of marital advice manuals.
Lovecraft’s wife Sonia is, of course, a prime source of evidence about the mature Lovecraft’s “adequately excellent” approach to his brief marital duties, and Derie takes full advantage of this source. Although I tend to think Sonia’s memory led her astray on a few matters. For instance Derie uncritically allows through, unchallenged and unexplored, Sonia’s apparent assertion about Lovecraft and The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft.
Derie uses Sonia’s recollections as an anchor from which to pivot, as he swings through an initial survey of Lovecraft’s various evolving attitudes to sex and love, eroticism and desire. Lovecraft was unusually enlightened and well read on the topic, by the standards of his time, as well as forthright and eloquent. In this, as in many other matters, he seems to stand out as one of the most extraordinary men of his age. He saw through Victorian prudery and Jazz Age license / Freud-worship alike. He realised that much sexual dissent had, in the 1890s-1920s period, become unhealthily entangled with spiritual rebellion against Christianity. He probably learned much from Morton and Bush about enlightened attitudes to birth control and other practical sexual matters. He read widely, and was on friendly terms with many women. In his letters he was able to make the finest philosophical distinctions on different varieties of love, while remaining always grounded in a clear understanding of the everyday human experience. In introducing the reader to such matters the lucky Derie is able to pluck key rare primary items from his vast library, such as “Lovecraft on Love” (The Arkham Collector, Winter 1971) — this reprinted a 1922 letter on love, sent from Lovecraft to Sonia. Rare, because most of these letters were burned. Later in the book Derie has some fascinating speculations that August Derleth’s bullying about the publication of letters may have been the cause of Sonia burning nearly all her Lovecraft letters. His discussion centres around Dorothy M. Grobe Litersky’s book Derleth : hawk——and dove (1997), a book I was previously unaware of. I don’t know enough about Derleth or that aspect of Lovecraft’s legacy to comment, but it’s a fascinating theory.
Derie then tracks Lovecraft’s opinions on love and sex beyond his marriage, to the long isolated years in Providence. Lovecraft’s letters are not always to be taken as a gospel revelation of his true feelings on any personal matter, since he clearly shaped his responses to the temperament and interests of his correspondents. But by 1934 Lovecraft was to be found professing that sex was just a glandular ‘glue’ that stuck two people together initially, rapidly wearing off as the couple settled into a placid and very probably sexless middle age.
Perceptive as some of Derie’s 1970s sources can be, he shows how others of that time were very misleading. Some of the early academic misinterpretations of Lovecraft clearly confused the work of Derleth and Lovecraft, and the resulting gross mistakes were then parroted by mainstream academics for decades, finding their way into the likes of Allan Lloyd-Smith’s American Gothic Fiction: an introduction as recently as 2004.
Derie investigates another early and popular notion — that Lovecraft could have inherited syphilis from his parents. He tracks the pernicious influence of this falsehood through the decades, finding it alive in a mutated form even as late as 1996 in a work by Victoria Nelson. Like many a Lovecraft character, mainstream academics need to be cautious when browsing the old books in their university libraries.
A curious omission here is Lovecraft’s illuminating reactions to Canada’s Les Mouches, a proto-gay amateur press publication, as evidenced in his journal The Conservative. Why would any book on Lovecraft and sexuality not consider this event, especially since it has been ably covered in Ken Faig, Jr.’s freely available “Lavender Ajays of the Red-Scare Period: 1917-1920“ (The Fossil, No. 329, July 2006). This is one of a number of such lacunae. Why make only the most cursory of references to Lovecraft’s key relationships with Loveman, Barlow, Whitehead, McNeil and others? Loveman seems to have been more or less locked in a closet for the duration of the book, presumably clutching Lovecraft’s written-for-Loveman “Hypnos” and its precursor “The Temple” to his heaving bosom, since neither of these stories is even in the book’s index. Even “The Trap” is barely discussed. Lovecraft’s seemingly endless string of handsome young protégés, and the abundant evidence for his intense platonic enjoyment of them, is not examined.
Derie also looks at erotica and censorship in the Lovecraft era, opening with the very early correspondence that Lovecraft had with Kleiner on erotic literature. The then young ultra-conservative Lovecraft — wishing to know whereof he ranted — examined a sample of “representative realistic works” of eroticism. He then changed his previous opinions on erotic literature and censorship…
[my] perusal of representative realistic works without prejudice leads me to attempt a revaluation [of erotica]; a revaluation possible because of my increased impersonalism.” (Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner, p.203).
Quite what Lovecraft was making a “perusal” of appears to remain a mystery, but evidently he came away un-aroused by the arousing material and was thereafter able to consider such material with staunch “impersonalism”. One imagines Lovecraft staggering up, rather bored, after spending an hour lounging with The Lustful Turk.
Derie points out Lovecraft’s contemporaneous early attempt at a long ribald poem, brilliantly crafted for Kleiner in the 18th century manner: “The Pathetick History of Sir Wilful Wildrake”. This entertaining narrative poem is surely deserving of a performance by some especially lugubrious English Shakespearean actor at the next NecronomiCon, or as an .mp3 for Lovecraft’s birthday.
Derie also briefly examines a misleading bit of Lovecraftian lore, namely the notion that Lovecraft tore the luridly erotic covers off his pulp magazines when he purchased them. But Derie notes that Lovecraft’s set of Weird Tales, now safely stored at Brown University, is perfectly intact.
Derie notes but does not investigate the common assumption that Weird Tales was once ‘banned in Indiana’. It’s my understanding that there is no evidence for this direct claim, from newspapers or elsewhere, and that we only have the word of the unreliable Eddy on the matter. Wright did once reject “The Vault” with the claim that it would not pass the “Indiana censorship”, but this is no evidence for a ban of this particular issue. (For a good summary of the history of the story in question, see: Gladwin, Lavin and Look (2014), “[Who?]—can—write—no—more”: Stylometry, Authorship, and “The Loved Dead”). Derie only touches lightly on the internal informal self censorship of the pulps, or the wider climates of censorship and policing. Hopefully this gap will be filled by the forthcoming “anthology of essays on Weird Tales [magazine] edited by Jeffrey Shanks”, which is set to be the final volume in the Scarecrow Press Studies in Supernatural Literature series.
Interestingly, Lovecraft’s own words are used to point out that the swamp orgy in “The Call of Cthulhu” must have been homosexual in nature:
You’ll recall that Rankin [the Weird Tales artist] made ample-bosomed wenches of my male orgiasts in the Louisiana swamp scene of “Cthulhu!”” (Lovecraft’s emphasis)
This is not a point I had focussed on before I read the book, but now I wonder if this was the problem that prevented Wright’s initial acceptance of the story?
Derie also notes Lovecraft making a fairly clear and early reference to Hart Crane as being a ‘gay’ man:
Crane has at least the external appearance and actions of a man”. (Selected Letters 1, p.292)
Admittedly Lovecraft would have had no sense of ‘gay’ in our post 1972 sense. His words imply that he vaguely thought of Crane as an ‘invert’, a term which — by the early 1920s in America — rested on the reception of continental European sexological conceptions of a ‘woman’s nature in a man’s body’, and the ‘third sex’.
My mentioning the above points may give the false impression that the discussion of homosexuality in Lovecraft’s circle is strong in this book. It is not strong, and Derie is otherwise very much inclined to focus on heterosexuality throughout the book. But he does follow up on the Crane remark by giving an outline account of the muddled early attempts to see Lovecraft as ‘gay’ (in the modern post-1972 sense). Lacking a grounding in queer theory, a strong framework for the history of sexuality, or a clear outline of Lovecraft’s biography, such early scholarly musings were inevitably somewhat wide of the mark. They were often unable to peer into the past through the obscuring mists of modern politicised identity politics, unwilling to shake off the soporific vapours of psychoanalytic orthodoxy, or simply misled on the facts of Lovecraft’s life and era. One can understand why Derie seems unimpressed by these early attempts.
I felt that Derie could have usefully touched on Lovecraft’s understanding of Nietzsche, the Stoics, and Epicureanism, and then used Lovecraft’s singular understandings of such ideas to illuminate his growing tolerance for the various erotic foibles of his fellow man. The experience of New York played a part in such changes, and the boisterous free-wheeling Kalem discussions are briefly mentioned. But also playing their part were the various philosophies that Lovecraft espoused, and to some extent lived by.
Various early influences are examined, especially the influence of Arthur Machen from the spring of 1923 onwards. Non-fiction works such as The Golden Bough, and even Lovecraft’s various mammoth classical encyclopaedias, might also have been considered as story-bearing influences worthy of closer study. Lovecraft’s dreams might also have made for an interesting few pages.
Derie moves on to a full discussion of miscegenation and degeneration in Lovecraft’s fiction and letters. This is a rich topic in Lovecraft studies and one where Derie appears to be much more at ease. Any mainstream academic seeking a good overview of Lovecraft and miscegenation will need to read the first half of this book. Degenerate family lines, impregnation by outer entities, and a quivering mass of implied “weird couplings” are all usefully surveyed. It will be the work of yet another book to explore the roots of all these ideas in the era’s race thinking, eugenic frameworks and practices, and the medical and hygienic fears around venereal disease.
Derie touches once or twice, and very lightly, on the role of the reader in completing the circle of meaning when reading Lovecraft’s fiction. More might have been said on this reader-centred approach, and on the wider chain of reader-completed intertextual meanings which — even in Lovecraft’s time — were being set up for readers by the collaborative nature of his ever-widening Mythos. Though to be fair to Derie — who is an accomplished R.E. Howard scholar — I should note that later in the book he very ably outlines Howard’s various approaches to sex.
The meanings of Lovecraft’s many classical allusions and references are not entirely lost sight of during the book’s key early sections on miscegenation and degeneration. In his analysis of “The Rats in The Walls” Derie is able to call on Blosser’s essay “The Sign of the Magna Mater” (Crypt of Cthulhu fanzine, No. 97, 1997). I’m fairy sure that I have not seen this rare essay, but I would dispute Derie’s conclusion that the self-castrating Roman cult of Atys could not logically have fathered a line of hereditary priests. In my 2013 essay “Of Rats and Legions: H.P. Lovecraft in Northumbria” I noted that impregnating the mother of the new recruit might have served as a ritual ‘proxy’ for impregnating Cybele, as a feature of the Atys/Cybele cult’s pre-castration orgiastic rites.
A long analysis of “The Thing on the Doorstep” (1933) concludes that the story can be understood as a key early example of transgender fiction. I would suggest that the realisation of this story was partly made possible through the influence of Lovecraft’s earlier ghost-writing collaborations, with women such as Zealia Bishop. Derie also gives accounts of Lovecraft’s collaborations with Bishop, Heald and others, pointing up the erotic plot devices that the women wanted incorporated.
With the section on Lovecraft’s life and work completed, readers keen to reach the latter sections of the book will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief. They will not be disappointed by what follows — namely, a ten page survey of tentacles in early horror and pulps. This serves as the opener for the second half of the book, which surveys the various semi-pornographic or sex-centred uses to which Lovecraft’s Mythos has been put since the 1970s. Major fiction authors such as Pugmire, Kiernan, Robert M. Price, Alan Moore and many others are each treated to several pages of serious discussion. Fanzines, sex themed Cthulhu anthologies and even Internet fanfic all merit short signposting surveys.
The final chapter allots a meaty 17 pages to discussion of sex and the Lovecraftian occult, beginning with Crowley and running through various contemporary occultists and occult tendencies. I was hoping that the following section on Art would have the same fulsome treatment, but Art and Comics are surveyed in just three pages. This seems a pity, since Derie seems especially well versed on comics. Movies are likewise fairly briefly surveyed, and Videogames not at all.
Lovecraft and sexuality is a vast topic and Derie is to be congratulated for assembling and wrangling a great deal of material into an accessible and affordable introductory form. But Lovecraftian scholars need not assume that all has been said on the matter. Derie has kindly erected a useful guidepost, but the twenty or so potential books that it points to have yet to be written.