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August 2000
 
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The Thing in the Woods by Harper Williams (1924)

Wilbur Whateley, the monster in H. P. Lovecraft's classic "The Dunwich Horror," is a revolting composite of various animal species. But who would have thought that his pedigree includes a smidgen of velveteen rabbit?

In a 1924 letter, Lovecraft recounts a book-buying spree from which his buddy Frank Belknap Long brought home The Thing in the Woods, a "new" horror novel by Harper Williams. Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi has cited this potboiler about a werewolf and its slightly more human brother on the loose in rural Pennsylvania as a possible influence on Lovecraft's tale of an extradimensional entity and its slightly more human brother on the loose in rural New England. Bibliophiles have long presumed Williams an obscure American writer whose only novel was published in 1924. In fact, The Thing in the Woods was first published in England in 1913, the fifth novel by Margery Williams, a British writer who spent her school years in Pennsylvania Dutch country. The American edition not only appeared under a pseudonym, modestly revised---it also failed to acknowledge that in 1922 Wiliams, under her married name, Bianco, published the children's classic, The Velveteen Rabbit.

The mind boggles at the alternate literary histories that could have resulted. Had Lovecraft been influenced by Williams's next book after The Thing in the Woods, might he have written a sentimental fantasy, "The Dunwich Hare"? Or what if Williams had pursued a career as a horror writer? The subtitle of her kids classic, "How Toys Become Real," does have an eerie ring.

What to make of this strange discovery---but that in literature, as in everything else, the most incongrouous things have fewer degrees of separation than we think.

—Stefan Dziemianowicz

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