Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Tell-Tale…Tsetse Fly

Entomology must be a difficult field to succeed in.  At least it was perceived as such by H.P. Lovecraft, in a collaboration with Hazel Heald called Winged Death (1934).  First there is the subject matter: entomology can involve capturing, studying and breeding a variety of nasty, biting, stinging insects.  Which insects may also do double duty as vectors for terrible tropical diseases, especially if they bite crocodiles and other critters, and then humans.  And especially if they thrive in the location of ancient Cyclopean ruins associated with worshipers of Tsadogwa, (Tsathoggua) and Clulu, (Cthulhu).

Evidently, then as now, there is stiff competition among scientists for the opportunity to engage in such insect studies.  In the early 1930s, Lovecraft imagines one entomologist ruining the career of another by demonstrating that his research was derived and unoriginal.  Revenge is effected through careful experimental research and a kind of mano a mano biological warfare.  Winged Death could have been retitled How to Murder an Entomologist in Six Difficult Steps.  These steps include:

1.      Capture several specimens of an obscure species of bloodsucking fly, locally known as “Devil Fly”, (Glossina palpalis).
2.      Crossbreed it with the more familiar Tsetse Fly, (Glossina marsitans), in order to create hybrids that are equally fatal but appear less virulent to an experienced and suspicious entomologist.
3.      Further disguise the insects by applying a chemical dye to give the fly’s wings a misleading blue tint.
4.      Mail the flies from South Africa to Brooklyn, New York, where the offending colleague has his laboratory.
5.      Monitor correspondence from fellow entomologists for news of the victim’s demise.
6.      Change name, physical appearance and address frequently to avoid being apprehended by law enforcement.

As with most of the collaborations with Hazel Heald, the majority of the work appears to have been done by Lovecraft.  The preoccupation with scholarly research, the absence of dialogue and characterization, and the use of journal entries to tell the story are characteristic of much of Lovecraft’s fiction.   S.T. Joshi quotes Lovecraft in a letter to August Derleth saying that “My share in it is something like 90 to 95%.”  Winged Death was published in Weird Tales in March of 1934; it shared that issue with Hugh B. Cave’s The Black Gargoyle, Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique cycle story, The Charnel God, and Edmond Hamilton’s Thundering Worlds, among others.

With the exception of his masterful At the Mountains of Madness (1936) and his earlier The Colour Out of Space (1927), this story is the closest Lovecraft comes to real science fiction.  Though preposterous in conceptualization, Winged Death contains a considerable amount of science—it is a “mad scientist” tale with a plausible evil invention.  Especially chilling is the villain’s depiction of early experiments on his servants as he perfects his weapon of revenge.  The supernatural aspect has to do with a local legend about the “Devil Fly”—it is able to absorb the soul and personality of its victims.

Winged Death begins very much like Ambrose Bierce’s The Damned Thing (1893).  Four men are in a hotel room anxiously eying the remains of Dr. Thomas Slauenwite, who is lying on the floor, face upward—“…the features showed an expression of stark, utter fear…”  Slauenwite has helpfully left behind a journal of his activities, which begins on January 5, 1929 and concludes on January 23, 1932.  It is an account Slauenwite’s plan to murder his nemesis, Dr. Henry Sargent Moore using genetically altered Tsetse flies.  Moore had ruined Slauenwite’s reputation by challenging his research.  Slauenwite is finally successful and remains undetected—at least by humans—for several months. 

But justice must be done, even if its principle agent is small, six legged, and blue winged.  The ending is ridiculous, though poignant.  I will not spoil it.  Taken as science fiction, Winged Death is laughable and not very credible.  Taken as horror—Lovecraft’s forte—the story is akin to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart (1843), insofar as it depicts the psychological deterioration of a murderer overcome by anxiety and guilt.  Did the noisome fly really exist outside Slauenwite’s troubled mind?  To paraphrase Poe:  “I admit the deed!—tear open the windows—here, here!—it is the buzzing of his hideous wings!”

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