In some preliminary notes to the fascinating anthology The Horror in the Museum (1970), S.T. Joshi observes that Lovecraft’s correspondence with Rimel, which began around 1934, shows that Lovecraft read and reviewed much of the younger author’s work. For example, Lovecraft made a substantial contribution to Rimel’s The Tree on the Hill, which was written around 1934 but published in 1940. (See also A Couple of Forbidden Trees). Lovecraft’s letters to Rimel contains much praise for The Disinterment, while minimizing his involvement in producing the story. Since Lovecraft was 25 years older than Rimel, it seems likely he was trying to provide support and encouragement to the younger man.
Subsequent review of The Disinterment suggests that Lovecraft’s work on the story may have gone beyond superficial revision. In his two volume biography of Lovecraft, published several decades after The Horror in the Museum, Joshi suggests that the story was either completely written by Lovecraft or is at least a deft imitation of the master’s style. And Joshi points out that the subsequent quality of Rimel’s work and its resemblance to the Lovecraftian style never again approached that of this collaborative effort.
The biographer identifies other elements that suggest The Disinterment is more Lovecraft’s than Rimel’s: his creative revision of the stereotypical “mad doctor” character, his grammatically elegant prose, and the characteristic restraint of his first person narrator, who cannot reveal the graphic horror of his predicament until virtually the last line. To be fair to Rimel, only occasional words are italicized for dramatic effect at the very end. There is no climactic last sentence that is completely italicized.
Joshi likens The Disinterment “to some of Lovecraft’s early macabre stories, especially The Outsider” (1926), which it does resemble in terms of mood, setting and atmosphere. However, the preoccupation with body horror—dismemberment, disfigurement, alteration of physical identity—links it more closely with later works like The Mound (written in the early 1930s but published in 1940), The Shadow Out of Time (1936), and The Thing on the Doorstep (1937).
It is interesting to note that both The Disinterment and The Thing on the Doorstep appear in the same issue of Weird Tales; both involve major characters who are transported into bodies that are not their own. (This of course is also the situation in The Shadow Out of Time, published just the year before.) What’s going on here?
Another reason to assume Lovecraft is the primary author of The Disinterment is the story’s close resemblance to others in Lovecraft’s bromantic cycle of stories. These include The Statement of Randolph Carter (1920)—probably the prototype for the rest—The Tree (1921), Hypnos (1923), The Hound (1924) The Quest of Iranon (1935), The Thing on the Doorstep (1937), and The Disinterment (1937).
If readers tackle these stories more or less in this sequence a certain pattern of relationship emerges and becomes elaborated across stories. All of them take place on a planet Earth completely devoid of women, and involve an essentially passive narrator being led ever deeper into some dreadful physical horror by a more aggressive, driven, or talented partner.
In The Disinterment, the narrator is slowly dying of leprosy, but is eager to avoid quarantine and live out his remaining years of life in relative freedom. His housemate, with whom he has lived with for many years, is a notorious, avant-garde surgeon who specializes in “reanimation by therapeutic methods”. He has returned from Haiti with a drug that mimics death. Unbeknownst to the narrator, that is not all that he brought back from the island nation. The two come up with a plan by which the narrator will counterfeit his own death, have his estate settled, and then live out the remainder of his years in obscurity. The fact that he is to be “resurrected” 3 days after ingesting the drug will remind astute readers of how skillful Lovecraft was at taking biblical notions and turning them inside out for interesting effects.
The process seems to work, but as the narrator recuperates from the ordeal of being buried alive and then exhumed, he begins to suspect that he has been the subject of one of his partner’s more ambitious surgical experiments. Lovecraft and Rimel keep the awful secret well concealed until the end, allowing the reader to diagnose the narrator’s true condition from the disturbing symptoms he reports. The gothic setting, the preoccupation with physical symptoms and altered sensations, and the theme of premature burial are weirdly reminiscent of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1839). The narrator’s perspective of his long-time friend changes by degrees as he realizes the nature of his betrayal.
Given the narrator’s references to some of his partner’s experiments with animals, this reader initially thought The Disinterment was a riff on H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. The actual horror is much worse, at least in Lovecraft’s world view, a kind of extreme miscegenation in which African and Caucasian bodies are dismembered and reassembled as one. This image takes the story far out of the bromantic realm and makes it emblematic of contemporary racism and racial nightmare. What is going on here?
An easy interpretation of stories in Lovecraft’s bromantic cycle is that they are somehow indicative of repressed homosexuality expressing itself through grotesque, nightmarish imagery. At this point little can be determined one way or the other about Lovecraft’s sexual orientation, though some of his friendships with fellow horror writers, (Whitehead, Talman, Barlow) are suggestive; they seem to parallel relationships between male characters in this several of these tales.
But another perspective is to see in these dynamic duos as two halves of the same restless soul, the submissive, resigned author adjacent to an idealized persona, a risk-taker, more confident and successful, though equally as doomed. (This is actually what is depicted in Hypnos.) Ultimately, the matter is irrelevant to assessing Lovecraft’s art and contribution to the field of horror. And yet, if readers had a better understanding of Lovecraft’s struggles with self-esteem and with establishing a stable sense of self, his accomplishments might be appreciated even more