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 “Medusa’s Coil,” a Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop collaboration written in 1930 and first published in the January 1939 issue of Weird Tales. Read the story at your own peril, bracing for lots of use of of the n-word.
Spoilers ahead, and bigotry.
Unnamed narrator gets lost in rural Missouri and stops for directions at a decrepit plantation house with overgrown grounds. An old man answers his knock and introduces himself as Antoine de Russy. De Russy suffers from spinal neuritis and hasn’t been able to keep up the place; he must stay on, however, to guard—something.
A storm’s coming, so narrator asks Antoine to house him overnight. Antoine’s surprised, as locals won’t even visit Riverside now. He leads narrator to a sitting room, less shabby than the rest of the house. Our adventurous narrator’s wish to plumb the de Russy mysteries is soon satisfied, for Antoine seems eager to tell his story.
After the death of his wife, Antoine raises his son Denis alone. The boy’s a de Russy in spirit and honor as well as looks, romantic yet chaste. Antoine trusts him to study safely even in the giddy atmosphere of Paris. However, Denis’s school friend, Frank Marsh, a talented artist of the decadent school, is also there. Frank introduces Denis to a mystical cult headed by Tanit-Isis, a young woman called Marceline Bedard in her “latest incarnation.” Though she may have been a petty artist and model before her priestess gig, she claims to be the illegitimate daughter of nobility. Denis raves about her in letters; before Antoine gets alarmed enough to advise him, Denis marries Marceline.
They come home to Riverside. Antoine admits Marceline is beautiful, slim and graceful with deep olive skin. Her hair’s her most striking feature: jet black, falling below her knees, and tending to arrange itself in distinct ropes or strands as if possessed of its own serpentine vitality. She constantly tends to it, and Antoine has the odd notion she feeds it with the oils she applies. Her dark eyes strike him as those of an ancient animal goddess; her complexion recalls Babylon, Atlantis, Lemuria. Denis fawns on her, and she seems to return his affections. Family friends accept her, but the family’s black house staff avoid her as much as possible. In stark contrast, ancient Zulu pensioner Sophonisba reveres Marceline, welcoming her into her cabin and even kissing the ground over which Marceline walks.
Frank Marsh visits to recuperate from a nervous breakdown. He grows fascinated with Marceline, convinced she’s the inspiration needed to revive his flagging artistic genius. Something about her conjures visions of forgotten abysses. She’s the focus of cosmic forces, and he must paint her portrait, not just for himself but to show Denis a saving truth.
As the sittings commence in an attic studio, Antoine realizes Marceline’s infatuated with Frank. He contrives business to take Denis to New York, while he keeps an eye on his daughter-in-law. One evening he overhears her chastising Frank for caring only about his painting. Frank should know better than to reveal old things. He mustn’t incite her to call up what lies hidden in Yuggoth, Zimbabwe and R’lyeh!
In August, the climax comes. Antoine finds Marceline murdered in her bedroom, barely recognizable with the hair scalped from her head. Bloody footprints, and a bloody track like a huge winding snake, lead him to the attic. Frank lies dead, wrapped in an inky coil. Denis crouches nearby, bloody machete in hand, wild-eyed. Uneasy about Marceline’s letters, he returned and sent the house staff away. He found Marceline posing nude and demanded to see her portrait. Frank refused; Denis punched him out; Marceline unveiled the painting and fled. After seeing it, Denis knew he must execute the false-fronted gorgon that almost made him barter away his soul.
Though Frank’s painting is the greatest thing since Rembrandt, Denis insists Antoine burn it unseen, along with the coil of living hair Denis cut from Marceline and which crawled upstairs to destroy Frank. Outside, they hear Sophonisba wailing the names of Shub-Niggurath and “Clooloo,” who must come out of the water to reclaim his slaughtered child.
Denis kills himself. Antoine buries him in the basement, well away from the graves he digs for Marceline and Frank, who’s still wrapped in the serpentine hair-coil. He doesn’t burn the portrait; a week later, he looks at it, and everything changes. It depicts a scene of insane geometry and Cyclopean architecture, seemingly underwater. Marceline, nude, wrapped in her hair, presides over monstrous entities, eyes glaring as if alive, locks leaving the canvas to grope toward Antoine! Later, servants claim a giant black snake glides around the basement and visits Sophonisba’s cabin. Sometimes, even now, Antoine hears it gliding around the house at night, leaving trails in the dust. Medusa’s coil “enslaves” him and traps him in the house.
Antoine shows the portrait to narrator, who cries out. As if in sympathy with her actual body, Marceline’s image has rotted, but her eyes and serpentine hair remain alive, mobile. Narrator shoots the painting—clearly a mistake. Narrator and Antoine flee, Antoine shrieking they must escape before Marceline comes out of the grave, along with the inky coil.
Too late. Marceline’s corpse lumbers up to drag Antoine back into the house, now burning from a dropped candle. Something writhes through long grass after narrator, but he gets to his car and drives off. Soon he meets a farmer who tells him Riverside burned down years before!
Narrator tells no one what he saw in the portrait, what Denis and Antoine must also have seen and what had most mortified their family pride. Frank had divined the truth about Marceline, and it explained her affinity for old Sophonisba. In however deceptively slight proportion, Marceline was—a negress.
What’s Cyclopean: Hellish vaultings in Marsh’s masterpiece, made of stone—or maybe fungus. Hard to tell.
The Degenerate Dutch: It’s horrible to unknowingly marry a gorgon from the dankest pits of hell—and more horrible yet if she turns out to be African American. And it’s so sad that the gentle southern way of life is now extinct. Don’t you just miss the charm of the slaves playing banjo and singing and laughing out on the flood plain? Lovecraft usually sticks to settings north of the Mason Dixon line—and now you know to be very, very grateful.
Mythos Making: Old rites can call up dark things from Yoggoth, Zimbabwe, and R’lyeh. There’s an itinerary for you! (We get a lot of R’lyeh. So much R’lyeh. Alien-built, the horror behind Atlantis and Mu, etc. etc.)
Libronomicon: Antoine de Russy’s books show that he’s a man of taste and breeding.
Madness Takes Its Toll: This whole story is full of people who prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you can be perfectly sane and yet still be an unthinkingly evil douchecanoe.
Writing with Zealia Bishop always leads Lovecraft into strange geographies, like the desert southwest and outback Missouri and womankind-as-sexual-beings. The potential romantic melodrama of “The Mound” is effectively squelched in favor of subterranean worldbuilding. Romance leads to homely pioneer tragedy in “The Curse of Yig“—after all, what Audrey did to the baby rattlers, she did for love of phobic Walker. In “Medusa’s Coil,” there’s no skirting the immemorial battle-of-the-sexes stuff, here to end not with embraces but with machete-play and venomous revenge. Talk about Southern Gothic! Talk about le Grand Guignol!
This one acts on me like Marceline on Frank Marsh—I’m fascinated but repelled but determined to plumb her mysteries and haul them up to the sun. It’ll take a while, though, and more rereads. Here I can take exploratory dives into the aqueous depths.
First thing that struck me were the parallels with Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher.” Narrator travels through bleak country in autumn, coming at sunset upon a decrepit house and its debilitated owner. See that crack in Usher’s fungous facade? This sucker’s going down. Notice the tinder-dry state of Riverside, the narrator’s aborted cigarette, the oil lamps and candle? This sucker’s going up. Then there’s Madeline, who returns from the tomb, and Marceline, who returns from the limey grave, at which point the promised architectural dissolution ensues.
Next were echoes of “Pickman’s Model.” We have in Frank Marsh a genius painter of the macabre. Marsh is a decadent and mystic, peering through the veil of the mundane. Pickman’s the ultimate realist, gazing without a flinch at the mould-caked lineaments of Earth’s fleshly (and flesh-craving) horrors. Marsh is one of us and points out the other. Pickman, unperturbedly, is the other. Each, however, captures dark truth in pigments. Marsh does Pickman one better by capturing a Color Out of Space in whatever portrait-Marceline pours from her goblet.
The frame’s not artful—gotta have a stranger-narrator to hear Antoine’s story and then witness its truth. The storm’s an atmospheric convenience; for an internal motive, narrator only says that he’s adventurous and curious (evidently by nature).
As far as narrator’s concerned, the tragedy of Riverside is Antoine’s and Denis’s. Me, I say it’s Marceline’s. Even Frank admits she’s the closest thing to divinity Earth can boast, Tanit-Isis in a former incarnation, in this one a scrambler who can assume her true priestly role only before a bunch of Bohemian amateurs. Better to nab a (supposedly) rich American and play the good wife. At least she’s lucky to find Sophonisba at Riverside, a sister in ancient lore and a true believer. Then Frank drops back into her life, and the captivator is captivated. Now Marceline really wants to play the human woman and put aside “elder secrets” in favor of moonlit romance. I imagine Frank’s attraction is that he does know what she is, he does understand her as Denis could never bear to. Too bad Frank’s so ambivalent, greedy for wonder but also anthropocentric enough to think Denis should be warned off. Or is he racist enough?
I’m not sure about Frank, whether he finds Marceline’s human ancestry the horrible thing of which Denis must be made aware. I’m not sure it’s her blackness that drives Denis to madness—he rants much more about her inhuman monstrosity, how she’s a leopard, a gorgon, a lamia. The hint there’s something more, something Antoine need never know if he doesn’t look at the painting—must it be she’s partly black? Might it not be how the painting’s imbued with Marceline’s terrible vitality-beyond-death and that the painted hair-serpents can leave the canvas?
And Antoine? He wears his racism openly, unashamedly, as his patriarchal attitude and his free use of pejoratives show. Would he really be unable to choke out that Marceline was part black?
What seems sure is that narrator is racist—he’s the one who assumes the ultimate horror for Antoine and Denis was Marceline’s racial heritage. Never mind she’s “Clooloo’s” child—racism, a very local form of “not-me” antipathy, trumps xenophobia, because the aliens and extradimensional monsters are usually far away. Moreover, aliens are worst when they mix with humans—see Deep Ones and Wilbur Whateley.
The racism/xenophobia in this story deserves an essay or ten of its own. Just time to note that another essay could be devoted to the ties between “Medusa’s Coil” and “The Thing on the Doorstep,” which Lovecraft would write three years later, revisiting the horrors of women who aren’t what they profess to be, and who want to mess with men’s souls, and who drag themselves out of basement graves. Except Asenath is really a man, whether it’s Ephraim or Edward who wears her feminine form. Ew, ew, sexual anxieties, and maybe Marceline’s the worst because she’s an actual girl?
Zealia Bishop. A name to send anticipatory shivers down the spine. Her collaborations with Lovecraft tend towards novel settings, reasonably tight plotting, linguistic felicity, actual dialogue, and women with names and speaking roles. They also tend to limn Lovecraft’s broad, terror-driven racism with an edge of vicious systematicity: Bishop’s racism is a lot more intellectual, informed rather than merely justified by the societal and sociological truisms of the day. This story—which is absolutely better on a story level than the incoherent “Horror at Red Hook”—melds both writers’ worst bigotries into a decaying, fungous monstrosity that degrades what could otherwise have been a creeptastic gorgon-haunted house story.
Or maybe not. The racism is built in from the setting up: a plantation long past its glory days, one where the dwindling scion of an “honorable” old family mourns the lost joys of listening to slaves singing and laughing, and receives sympathetic agreement from our twitwad of a narrator. Where men with “a devil of a temper” can certainly be counted on to treat fine ladies—and each other’s property—with the greatest respect. Where reluctantly freed slaves and their descendants stick around out of “strong attachment” to the family. Where the n-word gets thrown around with abandon, and not in reference to cats.
Where the revelation that one’s wife was a true priestess of R’lyeh, and the source of the gorgon legend, can be trumped only by the revelation that she was a “negress.”
So what the hell is so damn scary about brown people? Even those with pale skin and of “deceitfully slight proportion”? Well, for a start, they have hair. Big, scary hair, that might jump right off their heads and STRANGLE YOU WHERE YOU STAND! The irrational terror of white people, faced with hair that doesn’t just limply go along with gravity, has been well-documented elsewhere; I will merely note that this is an extreme example.
Also scary: all brown people (and Jews, and foreigners, and people who speak foreign languages) worship Cthulhu and remember secrets that would have been better drowned with R’lyeh. And they all know each other—perhaps Cthulhu worshippers send secret Cthulhugrams that connect 150-year-old freedwomen with Francophile ophidipilori moonlighting as priestesses.
This isn’t the first place this weird underground monoculture shows up—it’s the central obsession of “Call of Cthulhu” itself. The resulting impression is perhaps not what Lovecraft intended. Cthulhu is always the god of the enslaved and oppressed, those who’ve fallen from glory and those who never had it. This gives me a certain sympathy, especially as insight into ancient R’lyehn secrets appears to have no more power to protect against oppression than any other faith.
My favorite part of the story is Sophonisba praying to Cthulhu to “come up out of the water and get your child.” Probably Howard and Zealia didn’t expect their readers to find this touching.
I suspect Lovecraft sought to portray Cthulhu, not as a last resort of the afflicted, but as the god of revolt against the rightful order, who overturns all that is good and sane and civilized. At some level, Fred Clark points out, this implies an awareness that such a revolution could be justified, and would certainly be well-motivated. If you’re at the top, isn’t that the ultimate terror?
There is real horror in this story—totally unnoticed by the authors—and it’s not Marceline.
Next week, we look (ideally using a mirror) at a very different take on Medusa, and on scary things from the stars, in C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau.”
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” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint in Spring 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and LiveJournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the recently released sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.