Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Lovecraftian Family Secrets

“Life is a hideous thing…”

Facts Concerning The Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family (1921) is not one of Lovecraft’s better stories.  Virtually all of the characters in the tale are dead before it even begins, so there is little need for dialogue or characterization.  For the same reason there is little movement, conflict or suspense—the worst has already happened.  And there is scant attention to setting, which is one of Lovecraft’s strengths as a writer.  In many of his stories—think of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, or The Dunwich Horror or The Colour Out of Space—Lovecraft showed real talent in creating entire landscapes that are dark, ominous and filled with cosmic doom.

But anything Lovecraft wrote can be interesting in the light of what is known about his family and the peculiar emotional and psychological turmoil he endured.  His writing tends to be a fictional and symbolic representation of his psychic pain experienced at various points in his life.  This of course is common among many writers, but in Lovecraft, the themes in his fiction and poetry are barely transmuted from the source material—a reason he is an important, but not a great writer.  His voluminous correspondence combined with his fiction and poetry constitutes the case documentation of an individual who struggled greatly with misfortune, social isolation, and mental health problems.

Some of the elements in Arthur Jermyn are better understood if one considers aspects of Lovecraft’s own family history.  Both of his parents succumbed to severe mental illness as he grew up—his father’s symptoms were the result of the neurological degeneration of syphilis.  Though not clearly established, it has been suspected by some that his mother also contracted the disease.  Both died in the same asylum.  Lovecraft himself endured extreme depression and several nervous breakdowns, a few times considering suicide by drowning.   

S.T. Joshi and others have documented the unfortunate influence of his mother on Lovecraft’s self esteem and self perception—she inculcated in him the sense that he was ugly and physically repellent.  There is a strong element of this in Facts Concerning The Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family, where the physical strangeness and bestial details in his characters’ appearance are emphasized.  The domination and over protectiveness of first his mother and later his maternal aunts, (who interfered with his marriage to Sonia Greene) is also represented in the story: a forgotten race of white apes worships an all powerful female deity.

In Facts Concerning The Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family, the story, such as it is, is fairly straightforward.  The author depicts the ancestry of one Arthur Jermyn through several generations of patriarchs.  The Jermyn clan is an old, well established and well regarded family. It does well until Sir Wade Jermyn, Arthur’s great-great-great-grandfather begins his explorations of the Congo region of Africa. 

He is reputed to have discovered an ancient prehistoric civilization of white ape like creatures.  Worse, it seems that he may have mingled with at least one of the natives.  There is reference in local legends about “a great white god who had come out of the west” and taken the ape-princess as his consort.  Subsequent generations of Jermyns are afflicted with madness and physiological abnormalities—as well as a fascination with the family’s historic past and connection to Africa.

Arthur Jermyn is different from his predecessors.  He is the last of the line and described as a “poet and dreamer.”  The family’s financial assets are only a shadow of their original grandeur.  But Arthur Jermyn becomes smitten with an enthusiasm for family genealogy, which in a Lovecraft story is nearly always life-changing (The Shadow Over Innsmouth), if not fatal, (The Case of Charles Dexter Ward). Think of all the Lovecraft characters that have shared this motivation and interest!  Arthur Jermyn is ultimately too successful in his investigations.  He obtains an ancient mummified relic of a stuffed goddess from the Congo, and discovers a confirmation of what the reader already knows about his troubled ancestry.  He is unable to accept this truth, and so takes his life.

It was the consequences of sexual activity outside the bounds of white Anglo-Saxon protestant matrimony which culminated in Arthur Jermyn’s horrible self discovery.  Surely this is an echo of Lovecraft’s difficulties with understanding his own father’s behavior and his terrible end.  This is in the context of Lovecraft’s Puritan upbringing, and his squeamishness about sex and relationships with women.   It is striking that Lovecraft places the ancestor’s sexual transgressions several generations in the past, instead of only one generation, which was the case in his family.  This seems a kind of distancing from the pain of that revelation.

The horror of miscegenation—marriage and procreation across racial and ethnic lines—is no longer such  a horror in the 21st century, but was certainly one at the beginning of the 20th.  It is a theme in several Lovecraft stories, among them The Lurking Fear, Pickman’s Model, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth.  In the 1920s, American society was concerned with immigration, race relations, and sedition, among other anxieties, as urban areas became more cosmopolitan and diverse in composition. 

These are recurrent issues in America of course, but were particularly intense in Lovecraft’s time.  (As an example, the Ku Klux Klan was revived in the early 1920s, when it introduced its notorious cross burnings.  The movement often emphasized the superiority of Anglo-Saxon genetics as well as its presumed descent from 18th century British colonists—a familiar enthusiasm of Lovecraft’s as well.)

Facts Concerning The Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family (1921) is not one of Lovecraft’s best, but is an interesting snapshot of his psychological difficulties understanding and accepting the ‘facts’ of his own family. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your interest in The R'lyeh Tribune! Comments and suggestions are always welcome.