Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories.
Today we’re looking at “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” written in 1920, and first published in the March and June 1921 issues of The Wolverine. You can read it here.
“In a rational age like the eighteenth century it was unwise for a man of learning to talk about wild sights and strange scenes under a Congo moon; of the gigantic walls and pillars of a forgotten city, crumbling and vine-grown, and of damp, silent, stone steps leading interminably down into the darkness of abysmal treasure-vaults and inconceivable catacombs. Especially was it unwise to rave of the living things that might haunt such a place; of creatures half of the jungle and half of the impiously aged city—fabulous creatures which even a Pliny might describe with skepticism…”
Summary: Our unnamed narrator opens with the cryptic salvo that “Life is a hideous thing.” And science threatens to loose hidden truths that will make it a thousand times uglier. If we knew what we really are, we might run mad and immolate ourselves like Arthur Jermyn, Baronet, whose very existence some deny.
The Jermyns were a reputable and comely family until the 18th century, when Sir Wade started exploring the Congo and telling wild tales about a lost jungle city, once the seat of a prehistoric white civilization but now overrun by apes (or worse, their hybrid offspring with the last white humans.) Wade took a “Portuguese” wife who lived unseen in Jermyn House. She accompanied Wade on his last African expedition and never returned.
Their son Philip succeeded to the title after Wade’s enforced retirement to a madhouse. Though small and “densely stupid,” he was strong and agile. After disgracing the family name by marrying his gamekeeper’s daughter, he compounded the sin by becoming a common sailor. One night, off the Congo coast, he disappeared.
His son Robert returned the Jermyns to respectability. Handsome despite some proportional peculiarities, he took up Wade’s African studies. He married well, but two of his children were so deformed they were never seen in public. The third, Nevil, had his grandfather’s surliness and proclivity for low company. Nevil married a “vulgar” dancer and ran off, to return a widower with an infant son.
Yet it wasn’t these family troubles that unhinged Robert’s mind. He continued looking for a connection between Wade’s tales of the lost city and legends of the Onga tribes. In 1859, an explorer visited Robert with notes he thought the ethnologist would appreciate. Whatever they contained, Robert first strangled his visitor, then murdered all three of his children. Only Nevil’s intervention saved grandson Alfred. Two years later, confined like Wade, Robert died.
Alfred became baronet, but his tastes never lived up to the title. He eventually abandoned his music hall singer wife and his son Arthur to join an American circus. There he grew fascinated with an oddly pale gorilla and trained it to box with him. During a rehearsal, the ape landed a punch that enraged Alfred. He attacked the beast with an inhuman shriek, tearing at its throat with his teeth. Normally tame, the gorilla fought back and left Alfred a mangled corpse.
Young Arthur received an excellent education despite the family’s reduced wealth. Unlike his forebears, he was a dreamer and poet, and so didn’t mind his odd, off-putting looks. He took up Wade and Robert’s studies and traveled to the Congo, where he met an aged Kaliri chief well-versed in legends of the lost city. Mwanu claimed its hybrid residents had been exterminated by the war-like N’bangus, who’d carried off a certain stuffed goddess. She’d been a princess among the hybrids, later consort to a white god. She bore his son, then went away with him. Years later, the god and princess returned. On her death, the god mummified her as an object of worship for the hybrids. Some said the god himself died before her shrine. Others said their son, though unconscious of his heritage, finally returned to the lost city.
In 1912, Arthur confirmed the existence of the lost city by uncovering what little the N’bangus had left. A Belgian agent told him he could obtain the stuffed goddess and would send it to Arthur in England.
In 1913, Arthur received the box containing this storied totem. He opened it alone in the chamber housing the earlier fruits of Jermyn exploration. Servants heard him scream, then watched him run from the chamber as if pursued by Nemesis. Later that night, Arthur drenched his clothes in oil, went out on the moor, and sparked himself into a human torch.
No one collected his remains after seeing the artifact from which he’d fled. It was a mummified white ape of unknown species, shockingly nearer mankind than any other primate. Worse, it wore a gold locket bearing the Jermyn arms. Worse yet, its shriveled features bore a ghastly resemblance to Arthur Jermyn’s!
Members of the Royal Anthropological Institute burned the mummy and threw the locket into a well.
What’s Cyclopean: This story is distinctly lacking in cyclopean.
The Degenerate Dutch: To be descended from non-human primates is horrible enough, but it leads to one’s family consorting with all sorts of people who aren’t rich and white.
Mythos Making: No particular Mythos connection here, more’s the pity. The white apes would be ever so much more interesting if they worshipped Shub-Niggurath.
Libronomicon: Sir Arthur Wade’s book, Observations on the Several Parts of Africa, earns him ridicule…
Madness Takes Its Toll: …and eventually a place in a madhouse. Talking about African ruins is apparently a terrible idea if you want a reputation as a sane, stable member of the community. Genealogically-induced infanticide won’t do your reputation any favors either, honestly.
In a letter to Edwin Baird, Lovecraft claimed his motivation for writing “Arthur Jermyn” came from reading Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Its exposure of the dark secrets behind “whited village lives” had struck him as tame, and he was sure he could, in his “weirder medium,” come up with “some secret behind a man’s ancestry which would make the worst of Anderson’s disclosures sound like the annual report of a Sabbath school.” Zing! Another influence was probably Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Opar, a lost African city appearing in the Tarzan novels, also peopled by hybrid ape-men.
Winesburg and Opar aside, this story’s deeper springs are the classic Lovecraft obsessions. The opening could come from an early draft of “Call of Cthulhu,” with its insistence that science will be the psychic death of us all by illuminating that which should have been left obscure. The narrator has already had his mind blasted, it seems, for he straight off declares that life is hideous. Why? I guess because of the same thing that made Stephen Jay Gould entitle his great Burgess Shale history “Wonderful Life”—evolution. From Gould’s point of view, which I share, what could be cooler than the intricate processes of speciation over time? To Jermyn’s narrator, however, evolution—and its reverse—are terrible. If we know what we really are, we’ll freak out. We’re apes, people! Naked apes! Capable (Lovecraft postulates) of interbreeding with hairier apes and sliding right back down the evolutionary ladder!
Ugh. Reverse evolution is always waiting to pounce. Last week we saw what happens when isolated people get inbred—too similar mating with too similar. This week we see that more exotic pairings can also degrade us. And, you know, this can even happen to rich and well-bred white people. In fact, it can especially happen to them, because they’re the ones with the money and spare time to explore exotic locales and mingle with exotics, exotically.
This is bad. This is really, really bad. If you, however personally innocent, find out you’re the product of such interspecies miscegenation, you better not just kill yourself. You better kill yourself with fire! And other people better not even touch your ashes. In fact, they better just pretend you never were. Yup, top this, Sherwood Anderson.
Some years later, Lovecraft will write about another hybrid population where the participants are even more widely separated in evolutionary time. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is rife with repulsion at the mixing. Repulsion, terror, that one extreme of the Lovecraftian reaction to the weird or the other. Yet in “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” we’ll also see the opposite reaction: attraction, wonder. Self-recognition, for we all come from the sea and can return to it. Acceptance.
In “Arthur Jermyn,” the fact that we all come from the jungle is not at ALL acceptable. Doesn’t matter that you’re a poet and a dreamer, the highest form of Homo sapiens. If you’re tainted by the past, you’re screwed. Or as Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Part of your identity (identity!) comes to you through blood, like genes and tendencies to illness or madness, or it comes as psychic reverberations, ancestral ghosts. Don’t just ask Arthur Jermyn. Ask Charles Dexter Ward or Jervas Dudley or the last of the de la Poers.
I’ll tell you one thing. You may not be able to escape the past no matter how hard you try. But messing around with old family artifacts, or tomes, or keys, or houses—sure to cause trouble. If only Arthur Jermyn had sold Jermyn House and gone off to Italy to write poetry and admire safe European ruins!
Nah. He probably would have run into that Belgian guy in a cafe, and the Belgian guy would have said, Whoa, you look just like this Congolese mummy I stole off the N’bangus.
The past. Gonna get you sometime, somehow.
“Tell me about Winesburg, Ohio,” I say to my wife, who grew up in Ohio and therefore got assigned the thing in school. A look of horror appears on her face and she makes a ‘shoot me now’ gesture. I explain: “Apparently Lovecraft wasn’t impressed by it, and ‘Arthur Jermyn’ is him saying ‘I’ll show them all what a real family scandal looks like.’”
“Go, Howard!” says Sarah.
“No,” I say. “Don’t go, Howard.”
But he did. He went there, and wallowed in it. All Sarah can remember of Winesburg are nasty intimations about an effeminate man doing something uncouth with a younger gentleman, so it may still be an improvement over the inspiration. But dear lord, the catalogue of Degenerate Dutch snickering gets old quickly.
I vaguely recalled the denouement involving the revelation that Arthur’s great-great-grandmother was an ape. Which, yeah, having kids with something less sapient than you certainly bespeaks unfortunate taste in lovers, not to mention a distinct lack of interest in consent. But in fact, what we appear to have here isn’t an ape, but a previously unknown close relative on the homo tree. (Or human-ape hybrids, but this appears to be hearsay and makes little difference by the time of the story. Homo relatives are more interesting, so that’s what I’m going with.) They build cities, they have a religion—albeit unfortunate taste in gods—and they likely have language. In short, they’re just as smart as humans. Sure, they’ve got violent tempers, but frankly Homo Sap isn’t one to go throwing stones about that sort of thing. (The killer from The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll was born in the house where I now live; to the best of my knowledge the worst thing in his ancestry was a long line of Maryland aristocrats. He might have done better with a Congolese primate or two.)
So Arthur Jermyn’s horrifying revelation is that he’s got some not-quite-human heritage. Lovecraft would probably not have been delighted by the current controversy over whether we all carry a bit of Neanderthal in us. Admittedly it would be startling to discover it only a few generations back (perhaps some hobbit blood?), but I like to think most modern folk would handle it better than Arthur and his murderous grandfather.
Speaking of whom, I have little patience for infanticide stories at this point, and basically none when they’re written by people without kids and with a… narrow… idea of who deserves to live. This story’s narrator seems to have a lot of opinions about who doesn’t, or at least who shouldn’t want to. Even before Arthur’s ancestry comes out, we get the suggestion that plenty of people would kill themselves just for having his looks. Weirdly, the world is full of people who have rich, fulfilling lives in spite of not meeting societal appearance standards. Perhaps this early in his career, Howard remained sheltered from such tame deviations—or perhaps he simply disapproved.
Much of the story seems devoted to demonstrating what a blight on Wade’s noble ancestry was created by his wife’s contribution to the gene-line. His descendants—those who look human enough to be permitted out in the light of day—have tempers and wanton ways. They run off to join circuses. They consort with “gypsies” [sic] and music hall performers, and join the Navy as common sailors.
This is tepid stuff compared to the familial secrets that will come out in later and better stories: murderous cults with vast underground boneyards, anglophobic cannibalistic apes, and of course the terrifying glories of Y’ha-nthlei. Lovecraft comes back to this theme again and again—and no wonder, given his fears about his own family’s imperfect nobility. Every single one of these stories has something to make me flinch—also no wonder, given Lovecraft’s ideas about what might constitute ‘taint’ on a proud line. And yet, the theme gets at something real, something important, that he never quite does justice to.
No family—even or maybe especially those that appear perfectly reputable on the surface—is without its horrors. Sometimes these are right out on the surface, so nasty that you kind of wish you could hide them in an attic. Sometimes they’re buried deep, in lairs that no one outside the dread inner circle ever sees. And in rare cases, overt disreputability may mask hidden wonders and glories.
In other words, families are weird, and there’s a reason why so many people envy the Addams household. I’d love to see more neo-Lovecraftian stories explore this without tripping over the originals’ extraordinarily pedestrian bigotry.
Join us next week for “He,” and yet another reminder of Lovecraft’s minor issues with New York City.
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. She lives in a large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” is published on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.