Monday, May 19, 2014

Snakes on a Plain (In Oklahoma)

Financial difficulties in the latter part of his life led H.P. Lovecraft to attempt making a living at editing and revising the work of other authors.  He produced several joint efforts with lesser lights such as Adolphe de Castro, Hazel Heald, William Lumley, C.M. Eddy, and Zealia Bishop.  At best, these collaborations achieved mixed results.  S.T. Joshi has remarked that much of this collaborative work amounted to Lovecraft making extensive revisions of the original work, in effect becoming its ghostwriter.   For Lovecraft, the revisions were time consuming and aggravating, and rarely paid well.

In his 2008 introduction to The Curse of Yig, Bob Gay—echoing S.T. Joshi’s account—reports that Zealia Bishop wrote some fiction and a memoir but was chiefly known for corresponding and collaborating with H.P. Lovecraft on several stories, of which The Curse of Yig (1928) was one.  A later and much more effective story, The Mound, was written in 1930, though published a decade later.  The Mound was discussed in two earlier posts, (see 1. H.P. Lovecraft, Ethnographer of Doom and 2. But Zamacona Does the Heavy Lifting).  Both The Curse of Yig and The Mound are set in Oklahoma.   

Joshi suggests that Lovecraft did not think much of Bishop’s work.  He sites one of Lovecraft’s letters in which he may be alluding to her lack of talent:  “the most deodamnate piece of Bushwork  I’ve ever tackled…the sappy, half-baked Woman’s Home Companion stuff of a female whose pencil has hopelessly outdistanced her imagination .”  Ouch!  For her part, Zealia Bishop often felt she was “a complete failure as a writer” following Lovecraft’s intensive editing and revision of her work.

Bob Gay speculates that there may have been one other collaboration between Zealia Bishop and H.P. Lovecraft.  Based on discrepant reports of monies owed for revision work and the timeline of publication, Gay makes the case that One-Man Girl (1928), a short story published in a woman’s romance magazine called Cupid’s Diary, may have been a joint effort of Bishop and Lovecraft.  It is very difficult to substantiate this possibility now.   What does seem likely is that by the early 1930s Lovecraft was seeking other venues to publish his work besides Weird Tales.  If Gay’s hypothesis is correct, the plight of the cosmicist horror writer having to submit to editing romantic fiction makes Lovecraft a bit more endearing.  (Probably his surname would have helped.)

S.T. Joshi describes The Curse of Yig as “quite an effective piece of work” but this seems awfully generous.  The story exemplifies many of Lovecraft’s worst faults as a fiction writer.  There are pages devoid of dialogue or activity and full of ponderous back story, awkward, complex grammar, and ridiculous stilted dialogue.  Chastising his wife for killing a nest of rattlesnakes, Walker Davis says

“Gawd’s sake, Aud, but why’d ye go for to do that?  Hain’t ye heerd all the things they’ve been tellin’ about this snake-devil Yig?  Ye’d ought to a told me, and we’d a moved on.  Don’t ye know they’s devil-god what gets even if ye hurts his children?  What for d’ye think the Injuns all dances and beats their drums in the fall?”

And so on for a couple paragraphs.  No one on earth has ever talked like this.  Native Americans will find offense in the frequent references to offering alcohol to local tribesman in exchange for information about the mysterious snake god.  And the premise of the story—supernatural vengeance for killing creatures sacred to a local deity—is not believable in late 19th Century Oklahoma.  The idea seems to be an anachronism.

Yet The Curse of Yig is interesting on another level.  The story begins and ends at an insane asylum, where the narrator has gone in search of information about local snake lore.  He hears the story of the doomed Davis couple from the psychiatrist there.  Walker Davis and his wife Audrey were settlers who hoped to start a new life in Oklahoma.  Walker, who had an intense fear of snakes, was increasingly spooked by local Indian legends of the great snake god, Yig.  To spare him the trauma of coming upon a mass of young rattle-snakes, Audrey dispatches them with the butt of a rifle.  In so doing, she incurs the wrath of Yig, and husband and wife eventually suffer a gruesome end.  But this is no ordinary death at the hands of an enraged local deity.

Freudian psychoanalysts will appreciate all of the phallic symbols slithering about, as well as the vague metaphoric references to both castration anxiety and penis envy.  Without giving too much of the story away, suffice it to say that Audrey is the instrument of her husband’s ghastly demise in more than one way.  She in turn then literally becomes an embodiment of the “great snake” she is trying to save her husband from.

Was Lovecraft making a comment about the nature of matrimony as he experienced it? Or is this a case of  ‘If it’s not one thing it’s a mother’?  What exactly is the “curse” of Yig?

H.P. Lovecraft used his various collaborations with other authors to recycle some of his favorite ideas, which seem at times to be lifted whole hog from some of his own stories.  However, in a few cases, as in The Curse of Yig, The Mound, and The Loved Dead, it appears he was able to break free of some of his self-imposed constraints using the cover of his collaborator.  The stories are among his more sensationalist. 

Lovecraft seems especially to run amok in Oklahoma, delving into sexually charged material and perseverating on grotesque mutilations and alterations of the human form.   It is a quality that is not nearly so intense in the familiar stories that bear his name.  Given that Zealia Bishop aspired to writing romance stories for women’s magazines, the more perverse content was probably Lovecraft’s contribution.  (In The Loved Dead he merely dabbled in necrophilia.)

With only a few exceptions—often his better work—nearly everything H.P. Lovecraft wrote was autobiographical in nature.  Since women are almost completely absent from his fiction, when they do appear, as in The Thing on the Doorstep (1937), The Mound (1930), The Dreams in the Witch House (1933), and in a special way in The Curse of Yig, something much closer to his heart is being said.   

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