How Curious: What Oklahoma mound inspired an H.P. Lovecraft story?
Before H.P. Lovecraft was considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, known for his cosmic brand of horror, he made a living ghostwriting for other authors. But was one of these stories inspired by a mound in Oklahoma?
While driving through Caddo County in west-central Oklahoma, I spotted a tall rock formation in the distance called the Ghost Mound. It was impossible to miss among the trees as vultures circled its rounded top.
At the base stood farmer Deon Yearwood. The mound has been in his family since the 1930s, when his father purchased the property.
Yearwood proceeded to lead me up the steep mound. He made the hike look effortless, which comes after decades of practice.
“When I was a kid, I would climb that mound two or three times a day,” Yearwood said. “I knew where every crack and rock was. You got to make your own entertainment when you are this far from town.”
The Ghost Mound also played a part in KGOU listener Colton House’s childhood.
“I grew up on a farm just to the south of there so you could see it from my front door window, so it was always there growing up,” House said.
He thought of The Ghost Mound again while reading a novella called “The Mound” that H.P. Lovecraft, one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, wrote under a different author’s name.
The novella takes place in Binger, Oklahoma, which is about 20 miles southeast of The Ghost Mound. It is about an ethnologist who visits a haunted mound and ends up finding a portal to a subterranean civilization.
House wonders if the Lovecraft novella was based on the Ghost Mound.
“I feel like there is a story there with trying to figure out what this old ghost story was and maybe the history of it,” House said.
Ghosts and ghostwriting
In his lifetime, Lovecraft was not a successful writer. So he made a living as a writing coach,
One of his clients was Zealia Bishop. Sean Branney, co-founder of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, says Bishop had hopes of writing about her own life experiences.
“...which were largely about being a frustrated single mom and domestic kinds of challenges with a sprinkling of romance in there,” Branney said.
But this was far from Lovecraft’s brand of cosmic horror.
Then, while Bishop was visiting her sister’s ranch in Oklahoma, she heard spooky folklore.
Branney said one about a snake-god taking vengeance on anyone who harms serpents inspired Bishop.
“She thought, ‘Oh, this is a story I could write, and it is something that Lovecraft might like,’” Branney said. “And so she took the basic gist of the story and sent it on to Lovecraft. And so he basically was hired as a ghostwriter to go in and take her idea and flesh it out and make it a better story.”
The story, titled “The Curse of Yig,” was published in a pulp magazine in 1929 under Bishop’s name, with Lovecraft receiving a small fee.
But this was not the last time Bishop and Lovecraft would collaborate.
Her time in Oklahoma also inspired another story titled “The Mound,” set in Binger. Lovecraft wrote the 30,000 word novella based on a brief synopsis from Bishop that read, “There is an Indian mound near here, which is haunted by a headless ghost. Sometimes it is a woman.”
“I think the mound is the most significant work that he did under somebody else's name,” Branney said. “It is a long story. It is a complex story. It is an interesting story. It has got a lot of his own kind of theories about politics and sociology ... kind of woven into this underground world and culture. It really is a stand out among all the other works that he did, again, as revisions or collaborations.”
What Oklahoma mound inspired an H.P. Lovecraft story?
In the story, the location is described as being “about a third of a mile west of the village.”
Bishop never indicates in her memoir which real-life mound, if any, the story is based on.
But it is accepted among most Lovecraft circles that the novella is likely modeled after the Ghost Mound.
As Deon Yearwood and I made it farther up the Ghost Mound, he pointed out a small cave, which is tied to what some think could be an Indigenous folk tale that the Mound supposedly got its name from.
“Two brothers were gathering ponies for the Tribe, and they stopped close by here for the night,” Yearwood. “And one of the brothers woke up during the night and the ponies were gone.”
The brother left to look for the ponies.
“During this time, the other brother woke up and saw that he was gone along with the pony,” Yearwood said. “So he started looking as well and could not find them.”
So when he returned to the campsite, he looked up toward the mound and saw a barn owl in the small cave with the reflection of the moon on its belly.
“It took a ghostly like appearance,” Yearwood said.
This story also appeared in a 1965 edition of The Oklahoman.
Once we made it near the top, I looked out on the open fields, dotted with cattle, farming equipment and crops.
But what looked like a footprint on the rocks caught my eye.
Yearwood said this is related to what some think could be a second Indigenous folk tale related to a woman falling or jumping off the mound.
I asked leaders and officials from the Caddo Nation in Binger if they had ever heard of any Indigenous folk tales related to the Ghost Mound. While aware of some stories, they say the tales were most likely made up by farmers in the area.
Some Lovecraft fans believe another possible inspiration for the story’s location is Dead Woman’s Mound, which is about 20 miles northwest of Binger and also has what some think could be Indigenous folk tale related to it.
Branney says Lovecraft’s depiction of Indigenous peoples in “The Mound” is stereotypical, a recurring theme within Lovecraft’s work related to minority communities.
“He does not go to the trouble of trying to portray them with any kind of humanity or personality or any sort of nuance or understanding,” Branney said. “I think by any modern standards, it is wildly insensitive.”
When “The Mound” was first submitted to a pulp magazine, it was rejected because it was too long. An abridged version was later published in 1940 after Lovecraft’s death, but the full novella was not published until 1989.
How Curious is a production of KGOU Public Radio. It is produced by Katelyn Howard. This episode was edited by Logan Layden. David Graey composed the theme music. If you have an Oklahoma-related question, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Subscribe to the How Curious podcast on your favorite podcast app.
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