A Brief History of Sex in Weird Fiction

From Machen to Cthulhurotica

For the course of human history, sex has been an essential element in our mythology and folklore. From the earliest civilizations we have stories of divine pairings and births, demigods, succubi and incubi, lamia and corpse-brides, statue-brides, and all manner of fantastic gods, monsters, and entities concerned with some form or aspect of sex. In the Old Testament there are curses for women suspected of adultery, and the Greek Magical Papyri and medieval grimoires such as the Picatrix contained love spells, charms for and against conception, and cures and curses for impotence. In the ancient world and medieval Europe, sex and the fantastic in art and literature were not strangers, and were known in manuscript form from the Metamorphoses of Apuleius to the Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio.

Movable type and the printing press led to the mass distribution of these and other works, sometimes bowdlerized, others outright banned and placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or more often censured by local authorities. While never sufficient to eliminate sexual art and literature, the laws and restrictions on sexual expression in literature led many authors to disguise love and sexuality in their fiction behind euphemisms, metaphor, and symbols, while the more explicit sexual material tended to be more ephemeral and disposable literature, where it’s very offensiveness made it a perfect a satirical weapon for libertines like the Marquis de Sade to attack established authorities. Pornography and obscenity as currently understood in Britain and the United States took shape during the Victorian era, where the lower price and higher quality of printing, the vast expansion of literacy, and the public repression of any sexual language led to two ongoing struggles: between publishers who wished to satisfy public demand to their own profit, and from writers and artists who wished to push the boundaries of their expression.

Weird fiction first arose in this period as the confluence of several different literary and artistic streams — fantastic poetry like Christina Rosett’s Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), and Gothic novels like J. Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) used intrusive supernatural elements in narratives that played to popular Victorian sexual subtexts and fears; at the same time Decadent writers and artists like Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley, Joris-Karl Huysmans (Là-Bas, 1891) and Aubrey Beardsley (The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser, 1907) more directly sought to shock or titillate audiences, pushing against the sexual mores of the day. One of the most influential writers of weird fiction from this period is Arthur Machen. An erudite Welsh actor and journalist, Machen earned a slightly tinged reputation for his learned — if somewhat bowdlerized — translations of the Heptameron (1886)of Marguerite of Nevarre, The Way to Attain (1889), and The Memoirs of Casanova (1894), but his real success and infamy came from “The Great God Pan,” whose hinting, implicit sexuality caused an uproar in London, and the collected edition was sold under the counter in some shops, alongside The Yellow Book (1894−1897) and other erotica.

With the turn of the century and World War I, the old publishing standards continued to evolve, the dime novels and magazines evolving in format and contents to meet the changing demand. Pulp fiction magazines, early comic strips and comic books set the tone for the popular fiction genres of today, from the fantasy adventure antics of Tarzan to the scientifiction escapades of Buck Rogers. Straddling the genre lines were pulps like the Argosy (1882−1978), The Black Cat (1895−1922), Spicy Mystery Stories (1934−1946), and dozens of others, but the standout among them for weird fiction was Weird Tales (1923−1954), which attracted strong talents including H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and a young Robert Bloch.

Like most of the other pulps at the time “The Unique Magazine” tended to be conservative when it came to sexual content — although it was well-known for the nudes and scantily-clad women that graced its cover, it was hardly unique in that regard. Even their most noted talents struggled with the editors with regard to censorship, which was widespread throughout the publishing field at the time, and even the “Spicy” pulps were notoriously tame and refrained from explicit content. Still, Weird Tales published stories on necrophilia (Lovecraft and C. M. Eddy, Jr.’s “The Loved Dead”), sadomasochism (Robert E. Howard’s “The Black Stone”), tentacle erotica (C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau”), and bizarre, inhuman females seeking to mate (Clark Ashton Smith’s “Mother of Toads,” albeit in expurgated form), among many other subjects. In none of these cases were the pulp stories explicit or intended to be pornographic — the key element that they shared in common was transgression, the violation of natural laws and social mores, the intrusion of the unknown, the unusual…the weird.

By the late 1930s the pulps (and their close offspring, comic books) peaked and began to decline, particularly with the paper shortages during World War II. If weird fiction showed little growth during this period, the covers and illustrations of science fiction and fantasy magazines and comic books continued to become more sexualized, the classic bug-eyed monsters and robots grasping scantily-clad women in tight clinches. Writers like Frank Belknap Long, Fox Gardner, and Manly Wade Wellman transitioned to comic books, sometimes bringing a weird sensibility to the horror comics; science fiction and fantasy fandom began to come into its own as amateur press associations grew, proliferated, and published; and August Derleth and Donald Wandrei’s small specialty press Arkham House continued its ambitious program of bringing the works and letters of H. P. Lovecraft and other weird authors into print.

By the 1950s, the old pulps were mostly dead or dying, even the venerable Weird Tales; although Astounding Science Fiction (which would change its feathers again to Analog Science Fact & Fiction) continued on. The Comics Code Authority came into effect, effectively scuttling horror, sex, and the weird in that medium. Yet there were new markets developing as science fiction paperbacks began to take hold, and ambitious young writers continued to push the boundaries. At the forefront of this group was Phillip Jose Farmer with The Lovers (1953), but other science fiction and followed suit, though the vast majority eschewed addressing questions of sexuality, or depicting alternate sexuality or explicit sexual situations. Weird fiction at this point was at a low ebb, with few outlets and fewer really notable stories, but in the fanzines weird studies was beginning to flourish, with pulp scholars beginning to discuss the life and sexuality of writers like H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.

The Sexual Revolution of the 1960s was a rebellion against the Victorian morality which had stymied life and literature for decades; contraception (and often, abortion) was legalized, attitudes towards pre-marital sex and homosexuality became more liberal, and laws restricting obscene publications were slowly repealed in court cases like Grove Press, Inc., v. Gerstein (1964). The counterculture found expression in New Wave speculative fiction, characterized by permissive editors like Michael Moorcock and new high-end markets like Playboy for speculative fiction, which attracted bold new talents like Samuel R. Delaney, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Joanna Russ began to ignore or break down the old pulp taboos, exploring alternate and fluid sexualities, explicit sexual material, and gender politics. Underground comix modelled themselves after the banned pre-Code horror of EC Comics, only with pornographic art, drugs, and biting social satire; mainstream comics like Warren and Marvel pushed against the code in more subtle ways, or worked around it by publishing black-and-white horror comic magazines.

All of these developments fed directly or indirectly into the weird fiction of the period. Arkham House opened up the Cthulhu Mythos to new writers like Ramsey Campbell, whose merging of sexual awareness and perversion added a new psychological twist to the Mythos through stories like “Cold Print” (1969) and collections like Demons by Daylight (1973). Sword & Sorcery broke through in comics thanks to Conan the Barbarian (1970), based on Robert E. Howard’s hero and perpetuating weird works of sensuous succubi and tentacled star-spawn. Semi-professional magazines like Weirdbook and Chrysalis set the stage for writers like Richard Lupoff to directly merge the New Wave sensibilities with Lovecraftian homage in “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” (1977). More, many weird masters of the pulps found new life in hardback and paperback, through specialty presses like Gnome Press and reprint series like Ballantine Adult Fantasy, with editor-writers like L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter feeding a growing demand for weird material to a receptive audience, including influential biographies on Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft that, while flawed, emphasized their supposed sexual neuroses and the impact this had on their fiction.

Some pornographic fantasy and science-fiction material was produced in the 1960s and 70s, part of a vast boom in pornographic paperback novels and magazines, but little of real or lasting literary merit. The real benefit of this boom in terms of weird fiction was that of an easily accessible market for new writers, to hone their skills and bring in much-needed cash while pursuing their weirder products. Later luminaries like Karl Edward Wagner (The Book of Kane), Brian McNaughton (Throne of Bones), and Robert Anton Wilson (Illuminatus! Trilogy with Robert Shea) all got their start writing erotic novels for hire, and to different degrees the openness and sexuality of their early experience left its mark on their later, more remarkable weird fiction.

If the 1970s representing a full flowering of sex in speculative fiction, with many talented writers pursuing different aspects of sexuality and with greater editorial freedom than ever before, the 1980s saw the science fiction and fantasy market approached saturation, the shelves glutted with poor-quality high fantasy and sword & sorcery novels, many of which contained schlocky violence, gore, sexuality, and formulaic love interests without any deeper characterization or purpose. Weird fiction’s version of this trend was the gradual rise of the pastiche, where writers aped the most obvious and imitable aspects of the earlier pulp weird fiction to the point of caricature, often without greater purpose. Yet there were some writers who worked against this trend: W. H. Pugmire wrote Lovecraftian fiction without the formulaic trappings of the mythos, wrapped in a sensuous prose and characters with easy, fluid sexuality; while Peter H. Cannon turned pastiche to its true purpose, to illuminate and elucidate on the themes (and silliness) inherent in weird fiction, faithfully following the sexual tropes of Lovecraft & co. but often turning them on their head. Weird Tales returned in new incarnations, finally finding a lasting revival in 1988; specialty presses like Necronomicon Press and Cryptic Publications bridged the gap between fanzines and scholarly journals, S. T. Joshi, Robert M. Price, Darrell Schweitzer and others leading the way in both textual and thematic studies of weird fiction, as well as the lives of the weird fiction writers.

The 1990s and 2000s saw, by contrast, consolidation and broader acceptance for weird fiction. Chaosium, a roleplaying game company that had licensed the Cthulhu Mythos from Arkham House, began its extensive Call of Cthulhu Fiction line, bringing forth many anthologies of both new and long out-of-print weird fiction, organized thematically — and incidentally demonstrating the steady pushing-back of sexual boundaries of the Cthulhu Mythos. Weird erotica too came into its own with publications like Cthulhu Sex magazine (1998−2007), the anthology Eldritch Blue: Love & Sex in the Cthulhu Mythos (2004), and the emergence of writers like Caitlín R. Kiernan (Frog Toes and Tentacles, Tales from the Woeful Platypus, Two Worlds and In Between). Horror fiction, which had begun to fracture somewhat in the 1980s, saw the most extreme and hardcore element take a surreal turn into the emergence of bizarro fiction during the 2000s, and some of that fiction was very weird, explicit, and over-the-top indeed, particularly the Hardcore Lovecraft line of Edward Lee (Trolley No. 1852, The Innswich Horror, The Dunwich Romance).

Now the Cthulhu Mythos has spread its tentacles into every aspect of pop culture, and the sexual element runs from hardcore pornographic movies with live performers to a cottage industry in tentacle sex toys, and the audience for such material continues to grow. With so much still available new readers may be surprised that there is anything left to be said about sex in weird fiction, but they would be surprised. Female weird fiction writers and editors like Carrie Cuinn (Cthulhurotica), and Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula Stiles (Historical Lovecraft, Future Lovecraft) are finally coming to the fore, with the all-women anthology She Walks in Shadows due out soon. Weird ebook erotica spreads like a fungus, following often bizarre and specific trends and kinks, giving us titles like Booty Call of Cthulhu. Even today some editorial standards and censorship remain, which gives room for smaller publishers to break the mold, offering editorial freedom in exchange for high-quality weird fiction — Avatar Press, for example, has published comics legend Alan Moore’s disturbing The Courtyard (2003) and Neonomicon (2010), metastories that look back on the implicit sexuality of early weird fiction and pulls back the curtain on the ugliness that Lovecraft and Machen only hinted at.

Today is the New Weird.