It would be interesting to have, at some point, a book titled something like Lovecraft’s Unused Monsters, Cultists and Story-Settings. It would be a sort of expansion of the Commonplace Book, in which the complete letters are scoured for unused monsters, cultists, and glints of story ideas and settings. Doubtless Derleth once trod the same path, and others after him, but it might be nice to see all the possibilities that he mined stripped back to their Lovecraft originals, neatly organised and with the sources given and correlated.
In the meantime, here’s the first in what may be a very occasional series on this blog:
Lovecraft’s Unused Monsters, Cultists and Story-Settings:
Name: The Pigeon Flyers.
Appearance: Appear to be sinisterly beautiful pigeon-breeding youths.
Status: Messengers who serve “obscene, amorphous serpent-gods” on Thog, dark moon of Yuggoth.
Location: Rooftops of tenements in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City.
Time: Early 1920s.
In the early 1920s H.P. Lovecraft took his first tour of the notorious Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, in the company of its reluctant resident Everett McNeil. Lovecraft was especially struck by the pigeon-flyers of this tough Irish neighbourhood, with their pigeon-lofts perched high on filth-spattered tenement roofs…
… sinister pigeon-breeders on filth-choked roofs sending birds of space out into black unknown gulfs with unrepeatable messages to the obscene, amorphous serpent-gods thereof
The idea was used by Lovecraft, though only in the “The Pigeon Flyers” (Fungi From Yuggoth). Since “The Pigeon Flyers” is an obvious inversion of Genesis 8:11 (“And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth”), one wonders if Lovecraft also knew that Biblical law forbade a class of people called the ‘pigeon flyers’ from giving testimony. Had he once mused on how he might tie this nugget of historical fact about an unspeakable group, with a supernatural slant on the common idea of the birds as being message-carriers?
Lovecraft revisited a similar Bible-invoking theme, of a flock of birds seeking the wide waters for a now-sunken homeland, in his Fungi poem “Nostalgia” (c. 1930?).
It might be casually assumed that Lovecraft’s use of “sinister” in “The Pigeon Flyers” implies wizened or even wizardly old men. But, in a 1930 letter to Derleth, Lovecraft specified that the ‘pigeon flyers’ of Hell’s Kitchen in the early 1920s were youths and not the tobacco-marinated old men that we today associate with the sport. Lovecraft elsewhere refers to the “cherubic blond youths” of Hell’s Kitchen (Letters from New York, page 30) and their two chief activities of pigeon-breeding and building bonfires. Thus, in a fictional use, their “sinister” aspect would have likely been their preternatural beauty set amid the ammonium stenches and squalor of the pigeon-lofts. That they serve “serpent-gods” would further heighten the intrinsic symbolism.
Some readers might vaguely recall that R.E. Howard once used the pigeon idea in horror. Howard scholars may correct me, but it seems that Howard’s Lovecraft-alike story “Pigeons from Hell” (1934) didn’t arise from his seeing Lovecraft’s poem “The Pigeon Flyers” in late summer 1930 and/or corresponding with Lovecraft on the difficulty of making the intrinsically comical pigeon into a bird of weird horror. Apparently it’s claimed that the Howard story arose instead from memories of “Howard’s grandmother’s ghost stories”, long ago told of old deserted pigeon-roost mansion houses in the American south. Though it’s certain that Howard had earlier expressed admiration for Lovecraft’s use of “the unique grisliness of the notion” of whippoorwill birds in “The Dunwich Horror”.
Lovecraft’s space-pigeons are able to travel through the “black unknown gulfs” to Thog, a dark moon of Yuggoth on the edge of the solar system (“what they brought from Thog beneath their wings” — “The Pigeon Flyers”). This implies that what in earthly terms are thought of as the “serpent-gods” are located on Thog. Or more likely under, in caves and/or under an ice-sea. Presumably “what they brought” to Earth evokes fungi, and the observation arose due to Lovecraft spotting the fungi-like parasitic growths often seen on diseased urban pigeons. The travel is thus two-way, “unrepeatable messages” are sent and then small podules of strange Yuggothian fungi are brought back to Earth. Possibly this fungi has something to do with maintaining the preternatural youth of the Pigeon Flyers.