Sunday, May 31, 2020

Unspeakable! The Secret History of Nameless Cults by Bobby Derie

As the John Hay Library at Brown University continues to digitize its collection, and place them online, interesting little tidbits are revealed for the more detail-minded among us.

Farnsworth Wright to H. P. Lovecraft, 2 Apr 1934

Dear Mr. Lovecraft:

I just received your letter of last Friday, and hasten to answer it.

I shall try to look up further authority regarding "unaussprechlich" and "unnennbar". If I can find good authority for "unaussprechlich" I am inclined to let that stand; for "unaussprechlich" has a sinsiter aspect that is lacking in "unnennbar".

Just got a letter from the Sultan of the Southern Kingdom, Lord Malik (accompanying a manuscript). He and Juggernaut are about to leave the land of the Osages and trek westward. He hopes to see Conan the Reaver as he passes through Texas; and the Lord of Xothique and Averoigne after he leaves San Francisco.

I envy him his trip.

I read in yesterday's paper about the death in Baltimore of Edward Lucas White last Friday. He was 68 years of age, and died from illuminating gas--the journal does not say whether it was suicide or accident. He was a strange genius. My wife, who used to be a librarian before I married her, considered his "El Supremo" one of the very best adventure stories she ever read. I have not read it.

We are keeping the windows of our office closed today, so as to retain what cool air there is; that is, cool compared with the air outside. The morning paper says that cooling off has begun in the far Northwest; so I suppose the coolness will reach here within a few days. But until then...

I am glad that Barlow likes the pictures. I myself admired Doolin's illustration for THE STRANGE HIGH HOUSE. The trouble with Doolin is that although he occasionally turned out something good like this, yet the most of his illustrations lacked imagination. The lack of imagination is why we have let Wilcox go.

I was surprized, when I read the page-proofs of THROUGH THE GATES OF THE SILVER KEY, to find no mention whatever of Unaussprechlichen Kulten. So there was nothing to change. In the typescript of Mrs. Heald's story, OUT OF THE EONS, Unaussprechlichen Kulten is mentioned twice; and I have changed this in the typescript (following Howard's example) to Nameless Cults.

Thanks again for your promptness. Regards to both you and Barlow.

Cordially yours,



Farnsworth Wright

[[ Link to letter, with images: ]]

The beginning and the end of the letter concern Robert E. Howard’s creation Unaussprechlichen Kulten, which first appeared in “The Black Stone” (Weird Tales Nov 1931) and “The Thing on the Roof” (WT Feb 1932) under the English title Nameless Cults. The book, inspired by works such as Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, was well-received by HPL:

And this reminds me to remark how much I enjoyed “The Thing on the Roof”. That carried the sort of kick I enjoy! Before long I mean to quote Justin Geoffrey and von Juntz’s “Black Book” in some story of my own.

—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 16 Jan 1932, MF 1.264

Neither Lovecraft nor Howard were fluent in German, but Lovecraft felt the book should have a German title and attempted to create one. Before he used it, however, Lovecraft tried out the title on August Derleth, whose family retained some German (his grandmother being Pennsylvania Dutch), which led to this exchange:

By the way—in case I ever try any more tales for my own amusement, can you tell me if Ungenennte Hedenthume is an even approximately decent German equivalent of the title “Nameless Cults”? I want to be able to make casual allusions to von Junzt’s Black Book in the original. I only took German a year, & that was in 1906—the present possibly ridiculous attempt at translations being a result of blind & unintelligent groping in a meagre grammar & wholly inadequate dictionary. I thought it best to give the word “Cult” its darkest signification—the phrase as above being really, I suppose, “Unnamed Heathenisms”. Any light you can shed on this matter will be of the utmost interest to an illiterate old man. I have a remote notion of some day hinting at the reason why von Junzt’s great-grandson lately cut his throat after discovering certain papers in his ancestor’s long-sealed Düsseldorf attic.

—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 28 Jan 1932, ES 2.446


Thanks for the original title of the Black Book. I feel sure that Unausprechlichen Kulten is the correct version!

—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 2 Feb 1932, ES 2.448

Neither phrase is grammatically correct German, but Lovecraft passed the title on to Robert E. Howard.

I feel honored that you should refer to Von Junzt’s accursed document, and thanks for the German of “Nameless Cults”, which I’ll use in referring to it. Though I’ve lived adjacent to Germans for many years, I know nothing of the language—and neither do a lot of them.

—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, Apr 1932, MF 1.279

The new title did not make an “official” appearance immediately, although Lovecraft began to make reference to it in his letters (cf. DS 367, MF 1.308, etc.) Lovecraft would first make reference to the book under its German title in “The Horror in the Museum” (WT Jul 1933), ghostwritten for Hazel Heald. Farnsworth Wright, however, was not in on the joke, as was apparent when he wrote:

We frequently receive queries from our readers wanting to know where they can get copies of the Book of Eibon, the Necronomicon, the Black Book, and von Junzt’s Unassprechlichen Kulten. I answer such letters personally, for it would be a shame to destroy the illusion of reality by broadcasting in the Eyrie.

—Farnsworth Wright to Clark Ashton Smith, 29 Sep 1933, DS 467n2

This caused Lovecraft in turn to write:

By the way—to pull a piece of counter-pedantry, do you notice that Pharnabozus speaks of the Black Book and von Junzt’s Unauss. Kulten? For shame, Farny! As if any schoolboy didn’t know that “Black Book” is a colloquial name for von Junzt’s hellish tome itself!

—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 22 Oct 1933, DS 464

Lovecraft made further reference to Unaussprechlichen Kulten in “The Dreams in the Witch House” (WT Jul 1933), and other stories written during 1932-1933, though most were only published later. The issue only came to a head in early 1934:

Price & Wright have started quite a controversy over our version of von Junzt’s original title—Unaussprechlichen Kulten. Sultan Malik claims that Unnennbaren (= unmentionable) has some subtle preferability (in the way of unmistakable evil) over the earlier choice. Let ‘em fight it out among themselves. Wish Two-Gun Bob had doped out his own original & saved us the trouble!

—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 29 Mar 1934, ES 2.628


Price had taken courses on German while a student at West Point; the division over the name came about because of Lovecraft and Price’s collaboration “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (WT Jul 1934), the result of a legendary meeting between Lovecraft and Price in New Orleans in October 1932 (thanks to the quick thinking and intercession of Robert E. Howard, MF 1.314). This letter would appear directly after Lovecraft’s 29 Mar letter to August Derleth, and was followed by:

Odds in the Black Book name debate return toward Unaussprechlichen. Satrap Pharnabazus concedes that nothing else could be quite as malignly mouth-filling as that. It has a sinister rhythm about it, compared to which Sultan Malik’s choice—Unennbaren—sounds deplorably tame.

—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 13 Apr 1934, ES 2.630

Well—the unaussprechilichen—unnennbaren controversy goes merrily on! Just before receiving your letter I had a note from Satrap Pharnabazus saying that unaussprechlichen was quite out—that it meant chiefly something mechanically or phonetically unpronounceable—hence I took the liberty of quoting the statements in your letter. I’ve no idea where Wright got the material for his cocksure statement—though I believe he refers questions of Germanic erudition to a young Austrian who works in the office. [...] Had a joint card from Two-Gun Bob & Sultan Malik at Cross Plains, & fancy they must have enjoyed their personal session.

—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 29 Apr 1934, ES 2.631


I had the enclosed just read when a letter from Satrap Pharnabazus arrived with the following matter pertaining to the “unaussprechlichen” controversy. Looks as if our side were winning! But how ironical to have aid coming from the despised Senf!

          “Senf wandered into the office yesterday, & I asked him (without explaining why I wanted to know) ‘What does unaussprechlich mean?’ ‘It means “unspeakable”’, he said. Then I told him why I wanted to know, & he commented, ‘The fellow that said unaussprechlich means “unspeakable” only in the sense of “unpronounceable” couldn’t have known very much about German.’

          “So unaussprechlich it is!

          “Senf is a little gnome of a man, with a marked German accent (for he was a grown man before he left Germany), & he wears a dark brown toupee which is so obviously a toupee that it fools nobody.”

          Well—I guess Wright will use unaussprechlichen after all—so much for Sultan Malik’s synthetic West Point German!

          Incidentally, Wright reveals the fact that he doesn’t know that The Black Book & Unaus. Kulten are supposed to be one & the same volume. Evidently he didn’t read Two-Gun’s Black Stone attentively.

—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 29 Apr 1934, ES 2.632

“Senf” was C. C. Senf, an artist at Weird Tales and a native of Germany who had immigrated to the United States; “despised” by Lovecraft because of some of his errors in illustration..

Wright stubbornly refuses to heed my plea for the retention of Unaussprechlichen Kulten, & plans to flip tamely back to the “translated” form—simply Nameless Cults in English! That’s one way of cutting the Gordian knot. Evidently he found that Price’s Unnennbaren wouldn’t hold water. By the way—he & I were both considerably surprised to find that the name is not used at all in the text of the Silver Key sequel!

—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 7 Jun 1934, ES 2.642

The whole issue was ultimately a bit moot, as Price apparently removed any reference to von Junzt’s tome from “Through the Gates of the Silver Key.” Lovecraft ended up summarizing the whole debate in a later letter:

Did I, by the way, ever tell you about last year’s heated controversy regarding a German equivalent for “Nameless Cults”? Robert E. Howard invented the mythical von Junzt opus, but did not give it a German name—since he is as ignorant as I of German. I thought it would be more convincing to have one, so passed the question to Derleth—who responded with Unaussprechlichen Kulten. Not long afterward Price, recalling his scraps of West Point German, began to question the correctness of this phrase for the exact shade of meaning intended, & offered Unnenbarren as a substitute. Wright—who prides himself on a smattering of German—became convinced that Sultan Malik was right, & refused to use the Derleth version …. forgetting that Sauk City was settled by Germans of great cultivation, among whom the language was kept alive in its best form as a heritage, so that little Augie knows what he’s talking about. These matters stood deadlocked until, one day, the ex-illustrator Senf happened in at 840 N. Michigan to talk over old times. He was born & educated in Germany, & obviously has the right dope. The subject was brought up, & C. C. unhesitatingly voted for Derleth… thus settling the matter, & atoning for all the third-rate “art” he perpetrated in the dear dead days gone by! So it is certain that the monstrous compilation of Herr von Junzt (with its cryptic borrowings from the Eltdown Shards) was issued in Düsseldorf under the title Unaussprechlichen Kulten!

—H. P. Lovecraft to Richard F. Searight, 22 Dec 1934, LRS 40

Other matters of interest in the letter involve “Sultan Malik” (E. Hoffmann Price), who at the time was leaving a job at a garage in Pawhuska, Oklahoma to visit Mexico in his “Juggernaut” (a 1928 Model A. Ford), stopping on the way at Cross Plains to visit with Robert E. Howard. Wright here is echoing Lovecraft’s language from his letters:

Juggernaut has been nobly groomed & supplied with new parts, & stands ready to roll over the plains to the Cimmerian stronghold of Conan the Reaver—& later to the Black Temple of Tsathoggua in Au-Bhun.

—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 10 Apr 1934, OFF 130-131

R.E. Howard
The nickname “Conan the Reaver” came from Robert E. Howard’s story “The People of the Dark” (Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, Jun 1932); “Au-Bhun” is Auburn, California, home of Clark Ashton Smith, author of tales set in Xothique and Averoigne, who Price would visit on his return trip. Farnsworth Wright himself was a native of San Francisco.

At the time this letter was written, while addressed to 66 College Street, Lovecraft was preparing to be hosted by R. H. Barlow and his family in DeLand, Florida, where he would stay for some weeks. Young Barlow had a penchant for original pulp art and typescripts, writing to pulpsters like Robert E. Howard asking for pieces (cf. CL 3.212-13, 215). One of the Weird Tales artists was Joseph Doolin, who among other pieces executed the illustration for Lovecraft’s “The Strange High House in the Mist” (WT Oct 1931). “Wilcox” is Jayem Wilcox, who worked briefly for Weird Tales and Oriental Stories in 1932 through 1934, his illustrations include the interiors for Robert E. Howard’s “Worms of the Earth,” “The Phoenix on the Sword,” “The Scarlet Citadel,” “The Tower of the Elephant,” “Black Colossus,” “The Slithering Shadow,” “The Pool of the Black One,” and “Alleys of Darkness”—as well as many illustrations for Clark Ashton Smith, H. P. Lovecraft, Seabury Quinn, Henry S. Whitehead, and others.

The final interesting note about this letter is the note “FW:RG” at the bottom. Wright suffered from Parkinson’s disease, with the palsy so bad that he found it difficult to type, and apparently later in life the Weird Tales offices made use of staff, at least on temporary basis, to handle typing, opening mail, and other office work. These workers are often unnamed, but “RG” would be the initials of the typist.

Works Cited

CL       Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard

DS       Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill

ES       Essential Solitude

IMH      Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard

LRS      Letters to Richard F. Searight

MF       A Means to Freedom

OFF      O Fortunate Floridian


Lt. Lothar Zogg said...

I enjoyed reading this, especially Wright's letter.

Lord Malik is obviously Ed (E. Hoffman) Price. Here is a quote from Price's 'A Memory of R.E. Howard' from the 'Skull-Face and Others" Arkham House collection of Howard stories:

"It was in 1934 that I drove down from Pawhuska, Oklahoma, by night, so that my 1933 license plate would be less conspicuous: my writing, augmented by work in an auto repair shop,had not been profitable enough to pay for current plates! And 545 miles in a Model A Ford was no more invigoration than my professional record.
There were shorter routes to California, but this was the only one which passed Bob Howard's door so I took it."

The question I have is- who is 'Juggernaut'? His car, his wife?

greyirish said...

The car was nicknamed the Juggernaut.