Readers by now have probably heard or read about the British scientist who offered three reasons why women should be segregated from men in research laboratories: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” he began, “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry!”
A Nobel laureate, his brilliance apparently could not cross over from the linear-thinking and scientific left hemisphere of his brain to the groovier, far more intuitive and socially aware right hemisphere, and so save him from embarrassing himself and the entire Royal Society. (I realize that neuroscience has now disproved the left brain/right brain dichotomy, but I still find it a useful metaphor for our divided souls.)
I thought of this scientist and his faux pas while reading an equally sexist bit of fiction, the C.M. Eddy, Jr.—H.P. Lovecraft collaboration, Ashes (1924). One might excuse the latter for its male chauvinism, having been published early in the 20th century, a couple of decades before the British scientist was born. But that is not very much time in terms of positive social change, which—barring the catastrophes of war or pestilence, or even despite them—needs at least a century or more to unfold. The scientist’s comments were a reminder, if one was needed, that sexism persists and continues to affect the workplace, in this case research laboratories.
The female lab partner in Ashes does not cry when criticized, but the narrator does fall madly in love with her and her with him. “That girl took to chemistry as a duck takes to water!” he remarks, worshipfully. But the poor woman is later gagged, tied up and locked inside a big mahogany chest by the maniacal Professor Van Allister, a brilliant chemist, (but probably not a member of The Royal Society). She is to serve as bait, to lure the narrator back to the evil scientist’s sound-proofed lab so that he can be sacrificed to weird science and fulfill the madman’s dream of everlasting fame.
Unlike other joint efforts that are considered “primary revisions”, Lovecraft’s turgid prose style and mythos trappings are wholly absent from C.M. Eddy’s text; his typically heavy hand as editor cannot be easily detected. Lovecraft’s influence is much more obvious in another Lovecraft—Eddy collaboration, The Loved Dead (1924)—see also Lovecraft’s Brush with Necrophilia. The inclusion of a woman, some conventional romance, and two domesticated animals that are not cats make this work primarily Eddy’s and not Lovecraft’s. And there is also a happy ending to Ashes, impossible in a Lovecraft story.
S.T. Joshi described Ashes as “perhaps the single worst tale among H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘revisions’”. It is indeed awful, relative to the work Lovecraft accomplished later in his career. But Ashes can still be entertaining in the same way that a low budget, grade Z movie can be, as long as it is done in earnest, and without irony. If not an ‘A’ for effort, the story can at least earn a passing grade as a sort of proto shudder pulp fiction.
All of the elements of “weird menace” are there: a mad scientist, a tormented young woman who must be rescued, over-the-top melodrama, breakneck pace, plot twists and evil thwarted at the very last minute. Ashes was initially rejected by Weird Tales until Lovecraft worked on it; the story was published in the March 1924 issue along with Lovecraft’s own The Rats in the Walls, among others.
My favorite passage occurs right after the evil Professor Van Allister has demonstrated his invention, a liquid concoction that turns anything it touches—“except glass!”—into a pile of white ash. The professor envisions his secret recipe as a potential weapon of mass destruction. “An army equipped with glass bombs filled with my compound could annihilate the world!” The narrator and the beguiling Miss Marjorie Purdy, “one of those strict-attention-to-business types”, observe as the scientist reduces a terrified rabbit, a bunny, to powder. Miss Purdy faints dead away, and while she is unconscious...
“The feel of her soft, yielding body held close to my own was the last straw. I cast prudence to the winds and crushed her tightly to my breast. Kiss after kiss I pressed upon her full red lips, until her eyes opened and I saw the lovelight reflected in them.”
“After a delicious eternity we came back to earth again—long enough to realize that the laboratory was no place for such ardent demonstrations. At any moment Van Allister might come out of his retreat, and if he should discover our love-making—in his present state of mind—we dared not think of what might happen.”
Oh, my. To insert a musical earworm at this point: “It’s poetry in motion/She turned her tender eyes to me” as Thomas Dolby sang in his brilliant 1982 song She Blinded Me With Science. Evidently, ever since the 1920s, this kind of shenanigans has been the ever latent terror of co-ed laboratories around the world, at least those that focus on chemical reactions.