Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
Today we’re looking at Lovecraft and Hazel Heald’s “Winged Death,” first published in the March 1934 issue of Weird Tales. Spoilers ahead.
“The Orange Hotel stands in High Street near the railway station in Bloemfontein, South Africa. On Sunday, January 24, 1932, four men sat shivering from terror in a room on its third floor.”
In a stifling hotel room in Bloemfontein, South Africa, four men sit shivering around a corpse. What inspires their fear isn’t the body, but a strange fly floating in a bottle of ammonia, an ink-scrawled message on the ceiling, and the notebook held by the coroner’s physician. The dead man checked into the hotel as Frederick Mason, but his notebook’s titled “Journal of Thomas Slauenwite, M.D.”
The physician reads aloud:
Slauenwite declares up front that he intends this as a posthumous record concerning the punishment of Henry Moore, entomology professor at Columbia. Moore was Slauenwite’s college friend and a fellow researcher in Africa. But as Slauenwite’s work on remittent fever was about to earn him fame and advancement, Moore accused him of deriving his theses from another physician’s unpublished papers. Slauenwite’s career stalled–what a return for all the guidance he gave Moore on his well-received text, Diptera of Central and Southern Africa!
From exile at a “hole” of an equatorial trading post, Slauenwite plots revenge. He’s heard from Africans about a “devil-fly” whose bite causes sure death from sleeping sickness, after which the victim’s soul enters the fly. Slauenwite pooh-poohs the latter as superstition, but is interested in the disease and its vector. A crocodile hunter guides him into a “pestilential” jungle of green-scummed lakes and Cyclopean ruins. Locals say the ruins are older than man, a former outpost of “the Fishers from Outside.” There Slauenwite obtains devil-fly specimens. They appear related to the tsetse fly. He decides to crossbreed them, hoping the hybrid that will intrigue Henry Moore. To give his hybrids a still more exotic look, he dyes their wings blue. His experiments on his black African servants prove the hybrids as deadly as he could wish–just ignore how the servant-biting fly battered itself to death in its cage after the man expired. Slauenwite will send the “unidentified” flies to Moore–Moore’s rash carelessness is sure to get him bitten, and dead. Punished!
Slauenwite mails the flies under a false name and in disguise. From friends in America, he learns Moore has sickened after a fly bite on the back of his neck. His correspondents’ increasing coolness makes Slauenwite wonder if Moore suspects foul play. Moore dies. Authorities seek the man who sent the blue-winged flies. Spooked, Slauenwite flees to Johannesburg under the alias Frederick Mason.
A couple months later, he begins to receive “visits” from a fly that looks just like one of his wing-dyed hybrids. The creature’s behavior baffles him. It hovers near his copy of Moore’s Diptera. It darts at him and evades swatting with great cunning. It dips its feet into his inkwell and crawls across the white ceiling, leaving an inked scrawl that looks like a question mark. Or is Slauenwite just imagining things?
Next visit the fly “writes” the number 5 on the ceiling. It beats its body against a window screen in series of five strokes. Is Slauenwite going mad, or has the fly really “inherited” human intelligence? From Moore? How did it get to South Africa from New York?
All his attempts to kill the fly fail. It communicates new numbers on successive days: four, three, two, one. Is it counting down Slauenwite’s time before delivering a deadly bite?
He runs to Bloemfontein, barricades himself in a sealed hotel room with plenty of food and necessaries. But on day zero the fly appears again, having smuggled itself in with the food! Now it crawls on the clock face, stopping on the figure 12. Noon, the hour at which Moore was bitten!
Slauenwite fumbles out chemicals from his doctor’s bag, hoping to gas the fly. His journal ends with the acknowledgement that he shouldn’t be wasting time writing, but it steadies him as the fly grows restless and the minute hand ticks toward 12…
Back to the coroner’s party in the hotel room. We learn that Slauenwite never did mix his gassing chemicals. Cause of death? Well, there is a fly bite on the back of his neck, but though later tests will show it introduced the causative parasites of trypanosomiasis, he died instantly of a heart attack, probably brought on by sheer fright.
What continues to frighten the coroner’s party is the ink-scrawl on the ceiling, which reads:
“SEE MY JOURNAL—IT GOT ME FIRST—I DIED—THEN I SAW I WAS IN IT—THE BLACKS ARE RIGHT—STRANGE POWERS IN NATURE—NOW I WILL DROWN WHAT IS LEFT—”
In that ammonia bottle, where a strange fly still floats, the blue dye still clinging to its wings….
What’s Cyclopean: Ruins in the pestilential Ugandan jungle.
The Degenerate Dutch: Slauenwite is a white South African in 1932, and talks and acts precisely as one would expect. Unpleasant company, much improved by being turned into a fly.
Mythos Making: The cyclopean ruins used to belong to “The Fishers From Outside”—Outer Ones/Mi-go?—and are sacred to Tsadogwa and Clulu. Do flies get mind-snatching powers by feasting on Mi-Go blood?
Libronomicon: Slauenwite conveniently leaves a journal detailing his revenge against Moore and vice versa.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Am I going mad, or is this fly mocking me? (In fact, the fly is mocking you.)
Well, “Winged Death” was a fine finale for Hazel and Howard, my favorite collaboration team. It features a chillingly sociopathic narcissist of a villain and one of nature’s least loved creatures, the fly. Even when they’re not spreading pestilence and throwing up on our food and biting the hell out of us, flies are annoying. They buzz, they bang into screens and windows (shoulda stayed outside in the FIRST place, sucker), they die all legs up in a blatant attempt to milk sympathy. Annoying!
And potentially terrifying. Because not only are sleeping sickness and river blindness and leishmaniasis no joke, but the humble nonbiting housefly comes loaded with nasty pathogens like those that cause dysentery, typhoid and cholera. Too scary. Let’s talk fictional flies. One of the great TV events of my childhood was the more-or-less yearly showing of The Fly (1958). This is the one starring “Al” Hedison, who was really David Hedison, who was really Captain Crane from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, another childhood favorite, especially when the monster of the week would storm through a port and swat poor Seaman Kowalski to the deck for the hundredth time. Kowalski, the redshirt who would not die. But he’s a story for another day.
This is the movie that most scared the crap out of me until Night of the Living Dead came along, and I loved it. The wonders of science! Reasonably mild-mannered inventor builds a disintegrator-reintegrator machine! First horror of science! He tries transporting the cat, which does the disintegration part just fine, but not the reintegration, oops. Its phantom mewing tells inventor, “Um, not ready for life forms yet, jerk.” Second horror of science! After a bit of twiddling, inventor transports HIMSELF! Unaware that a housefly has gotten into the disintegration chamber with him! They both reintegrate, BUT OMG WITH THEIR ATOMS MIXED TOGETHER! Now there’s an inventor with the head and foreleg of a fly, a fly with the head and arm of an inventor! I found this cross-species merging deliciously shocking. In my innocence, I never wondered why both the man-fly and the fly-man retained (or gained) human intelligence. In fact, the monster with the fly head was way smarter than the monster with the human head, which ended up in a spiderweb.
Maybe they switched heads but not brains?
“Winged Death” scares me consistently, too. As I remember my first read years ago, the fly was the most terrifying element. This reread it’s Dr. Slauenwite. Given the nonchalance with which he “experiments” on any convenient African, his own servant included, I wonder whether these were his first “experiments” in murder. The Dr. Sloane whose remittent fever work Slauenwite purloined? Did Slauenwite just happen to come across his papers, or did he off Sloane to get hold of them? Because, you see, everything needs to be about Slauenwite. Moore should never have outed him – where was his gratitude, after Slauenwite made him, down to practically ghostwriting Moore’s career-making text on flies? Truth is, it’s not only the Africans who are woefully inferior to Slauenwite because superstitious black savages–it’s everybody!
Nerve-twisting thing? Slauenwite strikes me these days as too pertinent and realistic a character study. Yeah, there are people like him. Yeah, and maybe they can fool too many people too much of the time. Including themselves.
What’s a fly with a human soul to that? I’m all like, you go, fly! Only bite him right away, before he can catch on!
Wait, what’s that you buzz? Whom the gods would destroy, they first drive mad? All right, something in that. Not that a fly’s a god, even with a human soul, but maybe the devil-flies of Lake Mlolo are the latter-day minions of the gods. Tsadogwa (Tsathoggua) and Clulu (Cthulhu), that is. The “Fishers from Outside.” Fishers of men?
Lovecraft and Heald sneak a little Mythos into the story with their miasmal Cyclopean ruins and the deities mentioned above. Do they do it just for fun? To give an evocative though vague explanation for why the devil-flies are so weird (echoes of alien magic)? The story could have gotten along without Mythos references, substituting plain old jungle-variety legends from the dark heart of the Dark Continent. Interesting to consider, though, how the transfer of soul or consciousness is so central a concern in Mythos canon, from the consciousness-canning of the Mi-Go to intimate body-swapping a la Ephraim Waite to body-swapping on a cosmic scale with the Yith.
What would be the point, for any kind of god, to install a human persona in a fly? To punish, to torture, for the cheap giggles? What would be in it for the fly? Does its consciousness get shoved out by the human or augmented by it? What would be in it for the human? Cheap transportation, for one thing. Free, in fact. Fly onto a steamer from New York to Africa and feast on the best scraps from the kitchen. Hop a train to Bloemfontein, and who’s to know? Sneak into sealed rooms in a sandwich!
Talk about super spies, and with the help of some microbes, super assassins!
Then again, as we saw in 1958’s “Fly” movie, seeing the world through compound eyes could be a bit daunting for the human mind. People turned flies sure commit suicide a lot, as we see both in “The Fly” and “Winged Death.” It’s probably the compound eyes thing, yeah. Or the thought of having to throw up on food for the rest of one’s life, a nastiness explored in full in that other “Fly” movie by David Cronenberg, ergh, don’t remind myself.
In so carefully saving the last of the Heald collaborations for a rainy day, I forgot that I had, in fact, already read it—it’s in the “Best of H.P. Lovecraft” collection where I first experienced his work. I’d also therefore forgotten that it’s not among the pair’s most cosmically thrilling stories.
Mind you, it’s an excellent read. Heald, as usual, has a talent for bringing out Lovecraft’s talents. But it certainly wasn’t the comfort read I was yearning for. The n-word/cyclopean ratio (3:1) is not ideal. The vicious racism is saved from unreadability by virtue of the narrator being an unambiguously villainous white South African. Lovecraft almost certainly sympathized with that barbarous culture—but readers from more civilized climes, while they may wince at the language, can rest secure knowing that Slauenwite’s unfortunate servant gets ultimate revenge along with his professional rival.
“Winged Death” was written several years before the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment came into the harsh light of public scrutiny. It’s no coincidence that those experiments were suddenly “discovered” at a point when American culture generally condemned such things; they were not a tightly held secret in earlier decades. Had Lovecraft heard casual mention of such things from family friends, or did deadly and non-consensual medical experiments simply seem like an obvious thing for a supremacist twit to do? Either way, the resonance is probably more effective than intended.
Other unintended horror: releasing a large quantity of chlorine gas in your hotel room is an excellent way to kill your neighbors, or at least make their lives miserable if the ventilation is good. Small quantities accidentally produced are the major cause of toilet-cleaning accidents. If a train carrying the stuff derails, they evacuate everyone within a 30 mile radius. Moore is a big damn hero. (PSA: As far as I can tell, an ammonia-soaked handkerchief won’t protect you from chlorine gas at all, though it will fill your final moments with the aroma of cat pee.)
In addition to the unintended horror, the intended horror is legitimately scary. It doesn’t quite meet the standard of “Out of the Aeons,” which still gets the award for Least Desirable Lovecraftian Fate, but getting your mind stuck in a fly still sounds pretty unpleasant. Magic or no, there can’t be much room for higher thought. On the other hand, judging from Moore, focus and determination are unaffected. If you wanted to write a scientific treatise rather than a death note, you’d be good to go.
In addition to the inherent creepiness of getting yourself insected, Moore has a fine flair for the dramatic. Ominous countdowns, mocking bows, hounding your victim into heart failure—all excellent ingredients in the dish best served cold. I suppose he had a lot of time to think everything through on his transatlantic flight.
Lovecraft often obsesses over forced re-embodiment, an interesting choice for a materialist. In some cases it’s as much blessing as curse: Yith bodies may be hard to learn to navigate, but they’re the epitome of Howard’s oft-quoted claim that he can easily imagine lifeforms superior to humanity in every way. (And then he can easily be terrified of them, because after all what do humans do to those they consider inferior? Apparently, that’s not one of our qualities that he could imagine an improvement on.) Getting turned into a girl is no fun if you’re a misogynistic twit like Ephraim Waite—or if Waite is then locking you-as-a-girl into the attic for future sacrifice. The Mi-Go offer a shot at the stars, and perfect helplessness. And Ghatanothoa just offers perfect helplessness.
Another repeating theme: people who take “primitive legends” seriously from the start… rarely play a starring role in horror stories. Slauenwite’s a pretty deserving unbeliever, but he won’t be the last person to dismiss extraordinary evidence long after he should have accepted the extraordinary claim as a working hypothesis. Lovecraft’s protagonists at least have the excuse that their ignorance preserves the thin veneer of sanity protecting human civilization. Your average non-genre-savvy horror movie character, less so.
Next week, we’re taking a break for the holiday. Then, for post number 150 (really!) we’re trying to get a hold of Kishin Houkou Demonbane, recommended by RushThatSpeaks way back at post 100 as a truly epic Lovecraftian anime. Several sites seem to have it, but also seem to drain the sanity from our malware detectors. We’ll share the link if we find a curse-free copy, or come up with an awesome/weird alternative if if we don’t.
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” is now available from Macmillan’s Tor.com imprint. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Dreamwidth, 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 young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.