Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Three stories by Zealia Bishop and H. P. Lovecraft

Cover of the 1970 first edition of
The Horror in the Museum
and Other Revisions
H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth tells us, spent a lot of time "revising and correcting manuscripts of prose and poetry sent to him by a variety of hopeful writers."  One such writer was Zealia Bishop, who reported that Lovecraft made so many changes to her manuscripts that it made her feel like "a complete failure as a writer."  Ouch!

The above quotes come from my copy of the "Corrected Fifth Printing" (2002) of Arkham House's The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions, a collection of stories H. P. Lovecraft worked on to varying degrees but which were initially started by other writers. According to S. T. Joshi, the three stories included in The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions that were circulated under Bishop's name in the 1920s and '30s, "The Curse of Yig," "The Mound," and "Medusa's Coil," are "close to original works by Lovecraft," they being "based on the scantiest of plot-germs" provided by Bishop.

I've never read these stories before, and I haven't read any Lovecraft in a long time, so let's check them out.

"The Curse of Yig"

"The Curse of Yig" has been widely anthologized, and after first seeing print in Weird Tales in 1929, was actually reprinted in a 1939 issue of that magazine.  It seems that the weird fiction community has given this one its stamp of approval--let's see if I can concur or if I have to play iconoclast on this one.

Our narrator is an "American Indian ethnologist" come to Oklahoma to investigate Native American mythology about snakes and the snake god Yig.  Indians and old white settlers are tight-lipped when it comes to the topic of Yig, "father of all snakes," but the researcher gets an eyeful and an earful from a medical doctor at an asylum. Eyeful: a glimpse of a totally insane person who slithers around on the floor of his cell like a snake!  Earful: the story of this pathetic creature's origin, a tale of pioneer settlers from Arkansas whose efforts to build a new life in Oklahoma were plagued by their fears of snakes and obsession with the folklore of Yig!

This is a really good horror story, well paced, well plotted and well written.  Among its strengths is its setting.  I guess because of where Lovecraft himself spent his life, weird stories seem to mostly take place in New England or the New York area, so it is a nice change of pace that "The Curse of Yig" draws on the lore of the American West and the history of the pioneers and their interactions with Plains Indians.  The descriptions of flat expanses, unceasing winds and red dust clouds succeed in making Oklahoma as creepy as the ancient woods and decrepit towns of the northeast.

After "The Curse of Yig" has generated an atmosphere of looming dread with its descriptions of the landscape and the pioneer couple's nerve-wracking journey and settlement comes the climax, a powerful scene of terror.  One of the pioneers sits trapped in the dark, surrounded, desperate to decipher what horrible atrocities the sounds she hears and shadows she glimpses signify, what evils may momentarily be visited upon her; this tense scene is followed by revelations of soul-wrenching tragedy and sickening gore.

No wonder "Curse of Yig" has been so widely republished--it works flawlessly.  A horror classic!

"The Mound"

"The Mound" was written in 1929-30, Joshi tells us, but didn't appear in Weird Tales until 1940.  The version that Weird Tales published had been severely edited by August Derleth, we are told; The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions is the first place the "unadulterated" manuscript was published.

To my surprise, "The Mound" is practically a sequel to "The Curse of Yig," featuring as narrator the same ethnologist.  He is in the same part of Oklahoma, now investigating a haunted mound, upon the summit of which figures, thought to be ghosts of long dead Indians, are regularly seen.  Numerous people over the decades who have gone to investigate the mound have returned insane, or simply failed to return.

Our narrator goes to the mound and discovers an old manuscript from the mid-16th century, written by a Spanish explorer named Zamacona. This Spaniard found an entrance to a vast underground cavern, lit by radiation of some kind, where lies a tremendous city, that of the Tsath, humans who are direct descendants of those brought to Earth by Great Cthulhu itself over a million years ago!  The people of Tsath are immortal telepaths, and are served by a slave class composed of the product of a program that bred conquered peoples with animals, amalgamations of humans and machines we would now call cyborgs, and the animated dead.

Zamacona kept copious notes about Tsath society, which is a kind of left-wing utopia thanks to mechanization, technocracy, socialism and eugenics.  "In government," our narrator relates, "Tsath was a kind of communistic or semi-anarchical state....Family organisation had long ago perished, and the civil and social distinction of the sexes had disappeared.....Poverty was unknown, and labour consisted only of certain administrative duties imposed by an intricate system of testing and selection." Lovecraft/Bishop describe the evolution of Tsath society in some detail; in the period of the Spanish manuscript the easy life has turned the Tsath somewhat decadent, and they are losing interest in science and history and indulging more and more in mysticism devoid of sincere belief and sensuality--"principal occupations" include "intoxication, torture of slaves, day-dreaming," and "gastronomical and emotional orgies...."

(Lovecraft thought the 18th century was the height of civilization and regretted the War of American Independence, which I guess is why he flings all those British spellings at us.)

Disgusted by the treatment of the slave-classes, whose members are blithely disassembled and put back together again Frankenstein-style and tortured in the arena for entertainment by the Tsath master-class, and even serve as steeds and cattle (yes, a source of meat), as well as the orgiastic and sensual Tsath religion, the conquistador wanted to leave, but, for security reasons, the Tsath forbid his return to the surface. Zamacona was provided a swank city apartment and inducted into one of the "large affection-groups" which have replaced "family units" among these creepos--whoa, is HPL poaching some of Ted Sturgeon and Bob Heinlein's territory here?  The Tsath guaranteed Zamacona that his affection-group would include "many noblewomen of the most extreme and art-enhanced beauty"--hubba hubba!

During his four years among the decadent Tsath, whose degeneration was accelerated by the Spaniard's presence, Zamacona made three escape attempts, the second effort with the help of a Tsath woman who still cherished outmoded ideas of monogamy and had fallen in love with the surface dweller.  When they were caught she was tortured in the arena and her headless body turned into an undead slave, an automaton charged with standing guard on the mound of the story's title--her living dead cadaver is one of the "ghosts!"

The horror climax of the story has the narrator, the 20th century ethnologist, returning to the mound after reading the manuscript, digging an entrance to the world of Tsath, but then turning back in mind-shattering terror when confronted by an undead guardian whose cobbled together form includes pieces of Zamacona's body, indicating that the Spanish explorer's third attempt to escape was also a failure.  

The 60-plus-page "The Mound" has more in common with Lovecraft's famous "At The Mountains of Madness" (published in 1936 in Astounding but apparently written in 1931) and "The Shadow Out of Time" (also published in Astounding in 1936) than it does with the compact (16 pages) and economical "Curse of Yig," despite these two Bishop stories sharing a narrator and setting.  While "Curse of Yig" is a true horror story, all dread and shock, suspense and gore, "The Mound," like those two Astounding serials, is a science fiction story (with horror elements) about an alien civilization, complete with a detailed fictional history for that alien culture and an expression of Lovecraft's own elitist technocratic politics and interest in decaying, degenerate, peoples.

"The Mound" is good--the horror components and SF components all work--but it drags a bit (unlike "Curse of Yig," which feels like it is the perfect length) and it doesn't feel fresh--at times it really feels like a North American version of the Antarctican "At The Mountains of Madness" or Australian "The Shadow Out of Time."  It is more ambitious than "Curse of Yig," and has something to say about society, but is less entertaining.

"Medusa's Coil"

The history of "Medusa's Coil" is similar to that of "The Mound."  First written in 1930, a version that had been "radically revised and abridged" by Derleth was printed in Weird Tales in 1939; it wasn't until 1970 that the public had access to the original version when it appeared here in The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions.

A guy, our narrator, is driving at night through southern Missouri; when he gets lost and it looks like rain he stops at a decaying mansion to ask if he can stay the night. The decrepit old hermit who lives in the mansion tells its, and his own, story of decline.

The mansion, built in 1816, was originally the center of a plantation built by a transplanted Louisiana grandee, the grandfather of the current lonely owner, Antoine de Russy.  In the description of the estate's early-19th-century grandeur, we get a sentence which gives us an idea why in 2016 the people who run the World Fantasy Award stopped fashioning their trophy in the likeness of a Gahan Wilson caricature of Lovecraft:
There had been, at one time, as many as 200 negroes in the cabins which stood on the flat ground in the rear--ground that the river had now invaded--and to hear them singing and laughing and playing the banjo at night was to know the fullest charm of a civilisation and social order now sadly extinct.
Our narrator uses the word "negro," but in the telling of his tale de Russy says "nigger" more times than I could easily keep track of.

De Russy had a son, Denis, whom he sent to Paris to study.  Among the turn of the century decadents hanging around the City of Lights, Denis met a beautiful woman, Marceline, with long black hair (de Russy compares her to "an Oriental princess" you might see in an Aubrey Beardsley drawing; maybe Lovecraft has the Salome illustrations in mind here?) who was leading a sort of quasi-bogus cult of hipsters who claimed to believe in antediluvian magic.  Denis married this beauty with olive skin and hair that seemed to almost have a life of its own and brought her back to the Missouri plantation.  De Russy and the American-born black servants got a bad vibe from her, but one of the blacks on the plantation, a Zulu woman born in Africa over 100 years old named Sophonisba, doted on and fawned over Marceline.

One of Denis' buddies from the Sorbonne, American artist Frank Marsh, came for an extended visit and a sort of love triangle developed; Marsh and Marceline, both sensitive artistic types, had more in common with each other than either did with Denis, and spent a lot of time together.  Marsh started painting her picture and Marceline fell in love with him.  Things came to a head when it became apparent to Marceline that Marsh was not in love with her at all--in fact, he had come to the plantation to warn Denis that his wife was an evil monster linked to ancient Cthulhu and that whole R'lyeh crowd!  Marceline attacked Denis, and he killed her with a blow from a machete.  When he saw that her four- or five-foot long braid was still moving, that it had a life independent of Marceline's gory corpse, he decided to cut the hair off her dead skull so he could throw it in afire.  Mistake!  The braid moved like a snake, out of the room and into Marsh's room, where it constricted the painter to death python-style!  Denis then committed suicide, leaving poor Dad to clean up the mess; de Russy buried the three disgusting corpses in the basement.

But that's not all!  The US-born black employees started complaining of seeing a snake in the basement, and refused to go down there, while ancient Sophonisba started hanging out down there all the time!  The plantation's finances collapsed and soon de Russy was left alone.... or was he?  His story told, de Russy takes the narrator upstairs to see the painting, revealing the final, ultimate, horror--not only was Marceline an evil witch with monster hair, she had a proportion of African blood!  The figures in the painting seem to move, and in a fit of shock, the narrator wrecks the canvas, causing de Russy to panic--the painting has in the past spoken to him and demanded that he protect it!  Or else!  The men flee the house, but de Russy is too slow--the risen corpse of Marceline catches him.  Our narrator makes it to his car and escapes with memories which will haunt him to the last of his days!

This is a good horror story, though current sensibilities will recoil at the way it exploits whites' fears of blacks and men's fears of women.  It also touches upon a parent's worries about his children, the kind of jealousy that can spring up between friends when an attractive woman is around, and Lovecraft's common themes of decay (the passing of the Southern way of life as well as the collapse of a respectable family that traced its lineage back to the Crusades--remember that Lovecraft's own family could trace its ancestry back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony but by his lifetime was facing financial, psychological and physical collapse) and miscegenation.  The pacing is good, and the characters, driven by sexual and family relationships as are so many of us, are easier to identify with than your typical Lovecraft character, who is some kind of lone, alienated researcher.  The images--the collapsing mansion, the seductive woman, her animated hair slinking around like a serpent--are vivid and memorable.


"Curse of Yig" was surprisingly good, and "Medusa's Coil" nearly as effective, while "The Mound" is an almost archetypal Lovecraft story; solid, but a little too long, in spots a little too slow and dry, and too reminiscent of other examples of Lovecraft's work.  I've enjoyed these stories, so more Lovecraft revisions in our next episode!  

1 comment:

  1. Yep, I remember the final paragraph of "Medusa's Coil"... Not word for word, but that it parallels what may be called the typical Lovecraft ending... The horrors mount and... at last, the final dreadful revelation. What!?! Sometimes it kinda hurts, to be so attached to the work of HPL.
    Bravo for seeing the good even when the man from Providence sees fit to whack you in the face with a mackerel.