Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Bad Hair Day from H.P. Lovecraft

“All too late I recalled the tales of the virtual indestructibility, even through centuries of burial, of the hair of the dead.”

The line above is taken from Medusa’s Coil, (1930), one of several collaborations between H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop.  It occurs near the end of the novella, as the narrator becomes ever more aware of the horror unfolding, or perhaps uncurling, on the upper floor of his mansion.  Like the other two stories, Medusa’s Coil is considered by S.T. Joshi to be a “primary revision”—an effort that involved extensive editing, revision and rewriting by Lovecraft.

The Curse of Yig (1928) was the least successful of Lovecraft’s three joint efforts with Bishop, but is notable for its Freudian charms. (See Snakes on a Plain (In Oklahoma))  However, The Mound (1930) is as near to a masterpiece as Lovecraft comes, and is comparable in quality and conceptualization to more ambitious works like At the Mountains of Madness (1936) and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1941).  The Mound is strongly recommended to enthusiastic readers of Lovecraft.  (See also 1.H.P. Lovecraft, Ethnographer of Doom and 2.But Zamacona Does the Heavy Lifting.)

As with many of Lovecraft’s collaborative efforts, Medusa’s Coil is interesting primarily because of its relationship to other work by the author.  Had it ended somewhere around part IV, it might have been a more accomplished piece of weird fiction.   The first half of the story, which may show more of Bishop’s contribution, is fairly effective, if conventional.  Unfortunately, the story deteriorates and becomes increasingly preposterous in the last two sections, during which the characters struggle unsuccessfully against monstrous, serpentine…hair.

Lovecraft used his various joint efforts to recycle and inflict several of his favorite images and motifs on less competent writers.  The collaborations also appeared to allow Lovecraft a venue in which to be “edgier” and less restrained than he was in his more familiar work, as for example in the 1923 story The Loved Dead, with C.M. Eddy, Jr.

Medusa’s Coil borrows heavily from some of Lovecraft’s earlier fiction.  For example, there is an artist who paints a ghastly soul shattering portrait that recalls Pickman’s Model (1927)—and perhaps Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).  The opening is almost identical to that in The Picture in the House (1921), and there are subsequent scenes that are reminiscent of that ill-fated visit to a cannibal’s abode, (for example, a tell-tale spreading blood stain on the ceiling).  Reading the stories side by side, one gets the impression that the author has returned as an older man, if only in nightmare, to a previous horror.

There is an autobiographical passage early in the story that mirrors Lovecraft’s own upbringing by his grandfather—a common feature in several of his tales. There is also mention of R’lyeh, Yuggoth, the Necronomican, and “Iä! Iä! Shub-Niggurath!  But the most obvious contribution that Lovecraft makes is a passage of awful dialogue near the end of the story.  This is when “Ol’ Sophy” the Zulu witch-woman, discovers that her mistress has been hacked to death with a machete by her husband, who also cut off her mysterious snake like braids.  (I can’t explain all this here.)  Lovecraft has Sophy first utter some unpronounceable Cthulhu-ese, and then quotes her:

“…Ya, yo, pore Missy Tanit, pore Missy Isis!  Marse Clooloo, [that is, Cthulhu] come up outen de water an’ git you chile—she done daid!  She done daid!  De hair ain’ got no missus no mo’, Marse Clooloo.  Ol’ Sophy, she know!  Ol’ Sophy, she done got de black stone outen Big Zimbabwe in ol’ Affriky!  Ol’ Sophy, she done dance in de moonshine roun’ de crocodile-stone befo’ de N’bangus cotch her and sell her to de ship folks…”  

Just plain dreadful, and one suspects that Twain’s rendering of Jim’s slave dialect in Huckleberry Finn was the source material.  However, the dialogue in the first four parts of the novella, which includes a vignette in which a young man and woman converse, as well as the aged narrator’s story within a story, is competently handled, and cannot have been Lovecraft’s contribution.  Lovecraft was notoriously incapable of rendering believable dialogue. 

The last three sections show Lovecraft’s heavier hand, and also emphasize the profoundly racist ideology that underlies Medusa’s Coil.  The fact that the story is set in a decrepit old mansion, once served by African-American domestic servants, is reminiscent of similar stories by two of Lovecraft’s colleagues.

It is the same perspective that informs stories like Robert E. Howard’s Black Canaan (1936) and H.S. Whitehead’s The Passing of a God (1931), to mention just a few.  In fact, racial fear, especially of miscegenation and the cultural interaction such unions imply, is the central horror of Medusa’s Coil—as it was for Lovecraft personally.  In my view at least, the racist content in many of the horror stories from this time period was not superficial or accidental or commonplace.  It was the core component of the social nightmares that helped produce this work.

This is not to say that these stories should be suppressed or ignored because of their racism, which is often the recommendation of more politically correct reviewers.  On the contrary, this material represents “baseline data” and should be kept in view for discussion, analysis and reflection.  These days, some feel that social ills can be corrected by erasing unpleasant words and ideas, that is, by curtailing free speech and free thought—however odious—through an ill-defined and anti-democratic consensus of opinion.  (Why the classic Huckleberry Finn is unfortunately banned in some schools.) 

But this is a form of clinical denial, and expresses the stupidity and naiveté of political correctness.  Our various social and collective wounds must be cleaned and debrided in the open air and in a bright light for them to heal.   The terrifying fact is that we are still experiencing nightmares about racism—and feminism, ageism, socialism, anti-Semitism and all the other “isms”—which nightmares are still being acted out in broad daylight because we are still asleep.

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