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 H.P. Lovecraft and Duane Rimel’s “The Disinterment,” first published in January 1937 issue of Weird Tales. Spoilers ahead.
“Intuitively I knew my own tombstone; for the grass had scarcely begun to grow between the pieces of sod. With feverish haste I began clawing at the mound, and scraping the wet earth from the hole left by the removal of the grass and roots.”
Our unnamed narrator is a very good sibling, for he traveled to the far Philippines to nurse a brother dying of leprosy. Too bad he’s not also a good judge of friends.
After narrator returns home, his long-time companion and physician Marshall Andrews discovers he’s contracted the dread scourge. Narrator is currently symptom-free, but if authorities find out about his condition, he could be deported to die in lonely squalor. Luckily Andrews keeps his secret and allows narrator to remain in their ancient abode, a veritable medieval fortress perched on a crag over crumbling Hampden. Andrews is a surgeon of high local reputation, but the wider medical world might look askance at his experiments in glandular transplantation, rejuvenation and reanimation, and brain transference.
Leaving narrator in the care of venerable servant Simes, Andrews travels to the West Indies. In Haiti he learns of a curious drug. It induces so profound a sleep that the taker’s bodily functions mimic death closely enough to fool the cleverest examiner. How does this concern narrator? Well, Andrews has a plan. Faking death might not cure narrator, but at least he could be dead to the world and achieve the partial freedom of a new identity.
Narrator agrees to the macabre scheme. He takes the Haitian poison and “dies,” after which he’s interred in his family’s burial ground. Andrews and Simes dig him up shortly afterwards. Back in the crag-top “fortress,” narrator slowly recovers consciousness, only to find himself paralyzed below the neck. Andrews assures him the paralysis will pass with time. Certainly the doctor lavishes attention on his friend, constantly examining him and inquiring about his sensations. Despite—or because—of this, narrator begins to fear that Andrews now views him more as an experimental animal than a comrade. He doesn’t like the “glint of victorious exultation” that sometimes gleams in the doctor’s eyes.
More troubling still is the “terrible sense of alienation” narrator feels from his slowly-recovering (and still unseen) body. His limbs barely respond to his mind’s commands. His hands feel woefully awkward. He dreams of “ghoulish graveyards at night, stalking corpses, and lost souls amid a chaos of blinding light and shadow.” Meanwhile Andrews grows colder, and the cries of his lab animals grate on narrator’s overwrought nerves.
New life begins to vibrate in narrator’s body, a fact he conceals from Andrews, as he’s now determined to escape his “refuge.” One night he creeps from bed and dons a robe that is oddly too long, shoes that are oddly too big. A heavy candelabrum in hand, he makes his dizzy way to Andrews’s laboratory, finds him asleep over notes, brains him. As he looks at the “hideous half-visible specimens of [Andrews’s] surgical wizardry scattered about the room,” he feels no contrition for the murder.
Simes isn’t as easily dispatched, but narrator chokes the life out of him, ignoring his gibbering pleas for mercy. Then, in a “frenzy of something more than fear,” he staggers from the “fortress” and heads to his nearby ancestral home, and the cemetery where he briefly rested. Bare-handed, he unearths his own coffin. The stench of rot overwhelms him—what fool could have buried another body in his place?
He scrambles from the charnel pit but must return to wrest open the coffin. What he sees there drives him screaming into unconsciousness.
Waking, he finds himself at the ancestral door. He enters the study he deserted years before. He will write out his story until the sun rises. Then he’ll throw his deformed self into a nearby well. You see, Andrews meant all along that narrator should be his “masterpiece of unclean witchery…perverted artistry for him alone to see.” The other body, which narrator has been slowly learning to control, must have come with Andrews from Haiti along with the poison. “At least,” narrator writes in closing, “these long hairy arms and horrible short legs are alien to me…that I shall be tortured with that other during the rest of my brief existence is another hell.”
And what did narrator see in his own grave? Only “[his] own shrunken, decayed, and headless body.”
What’s Cyclopean: This week’s selection reminds us that “hideous” was in fact Howard’s most-used word. There is also bonus gibbering.
The Degenerate Dutch: Scary medicines causing death-like paralysis come from Haiti. Naturally. So do alien creatures suitable for experimental body transplants.
Mythos Making: Creepy activities with dead bodies also occur in “Charles Dexter Ward,” “Herbert West,” and “Cool Air,” among many others. Creepy identity-warping body horror shows up in too many stories to count.
Libronomicon: Andrews’s library includes “any number of fanciful subjects hardly related to modern medical knowledge.” Most focus on “monstrous” surgical experiments, “bizarre” transplants, and attempts to develop new drugs.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Whatever the effect of Andrews’s experiments on his subjects, they don’t seem to do wonders for his own mental health.
I’m not sure that the underlying message is tinged with homophobia, but it never works out for two Lovecraft guys to live together. Remember the cohabiting pair of “The Hound?” The arrangement gets even more dire when one of the roomies is a surgeon with dubious ambitions, like everyone’s favorite reanimator Herbert West.
So narrator of “The Disinterment” was doubly doomed, wasn’t he? Long-time cohabitants, check. One of the pair a brilliant mad scientist, check.
And is there a specific phobia assigned to those who dread the amalgamation of human and nonhuman bodily parts, or sometimes gene pools? Because Lovecraft capitalizes on that one a lot, too. Humans and white apes mating: “Arthur Jermyn.” Snake-human hybrids: “The Curse of Yig.” Fish/frog-human hybrids: “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” Ancient man-animal mummies: “Under the Pyramids.” Changeling ghouls: “Pickman’s Model.” The offspring of woman and Yog-Sothoth, for the love of the Outer Gods: “The Dunwich Horror.”
Can’t we just keep humans HUMANS and animals ANIMALS? Shades of Dr. Moreau, fiction’s greatest (?) vivisectionist! But H. G. Wells’ point, ultimately, is that animals made to look and behave like humans, not that big a deal, since humans routinely behave like animals, since after all humans are animals.
For Lovecraft, as race should mate with like race, species should mate with like species. And nobody should mate with Outer Gods, period. Except—maybe humans and Deep Ones aren’t so bad a match-up. What with us all coming from the sea originally, right? Even boozy old Zadok Allen knows that.
But, come on, Anne. Let’s get back to “The Disinterment.” There’s no way the non-consensual attachment of human head to ape body can be a good thing. For either the human or the ape, no matter how big a kick it gives the mad scientist. Unnamed narrator got seriously screwed. Though one must wonder. One must wonder several things.
First, how could narrator live with Andrews for years without knowing his dark tendencies?
Second, kinda confusing how fake-dying and then coming back to assume a new identity could help narrator. [RE: Step 3—profit!] I guess the authorities would no longer be looking for him in particular, but he’s still got leprosy, could still be deported if he leaves off hiding and parades his eventual sores in public. So taking an FDA-unapproved death-mimicking drug in return for identity change doesn’t seem all that tempting to me. A better fictional ploy, for both Andrews and Lovecraft-Rimel, would have been for Andrews to claim the death-mimic drug would actually cure narrator of leprosy. Now that would make the risk far better worth taking. And so what if the cure was a lie. Once narrator woke up with an ape’s body grafted to his head, he wasn’t going to be happy even if leprosy-free.
I’m thinking the only one who could really profit from narrator’s supposed death, all along, was Andrews. I presume someone knows narrator lives with him; by making the world think narrator’s six feet under (um, in toto), Andrews doesn’t have to account for his permanent disappearance from public view. But narrator never realizes this, nor does Andrews muhaha about his cleverness. Not that he muhahas about anything, to narrator, except via his clinical chill and gleaming eye.
Third (and this is how my mind works, detail-wise), what kind of ape comes from Haiti? There are no native species. Of course, the Haitian ape could be an import to the island, possibly a pet or zoo animal. Or the ape need not have come from Haiti at all—narrator just shiveringly speculates that it did, in tandem with the death-mimic drug.
And (my mind continuing to “work”) what kind of ape body could at all reasonably bear a human head? Narrator’s noggin would be ridiculously over-sized on a gibbon and kinda biggish on a chimpanzee. It would probably look too small on a gorilla or orangutan, but at least it wouldn’t be weighing their bodies down. I don’t know. I guess I’ll go with a large chimp or a little gorilla. Like a female gorilla. Uh oh, though. Now narrator would also have to contend with a sex change!
In the end (literally), this very short story aims for a quick reader frisson at the shock of narrator’s postsurgical situation. Okay, that’s a legitimate aim for a piece of this length—it’s not likely to wow with character development or world-building. The idea’s creepy, but narrator’s too gullible for me, and too unobservant. It really takes him a look in his grave to realize he’s got an ape body? He couldn’t make that out in all the time he’s lying around convalescing? Wouldn’t ever take a peek under the blanket Andrews prescribes for his warmth? Wouldn’t notice the difference while he’s murdering his “caregivers”?
And, last quibble, he wrote this last narrative down with his awkward ape hands? Because it does read like a last narrative. I guess we would have needed a frame story with whoever finds the document remarking on how singularly scrawly-clumsy the script is in order to get this across. You know, like the fly-writing of “Winged Death.” [RE: A human hand is a lot more like an ape hand than a Yithian grasping appendage. As far as Lovecraft’s concerned, handwriting is the product of the mind alone.]
At least, thank gods, we don’t have narrator realizing he’s part-ape because he suddenly craves foliage or termites or bananas.
Leprosy is a disease known nowadays more for its stigma than for any great familiarity—a stigma intense enough that modern sufferers prefer to use the more recent technical name of “Hansen’s Disease.” They’re also fortunate enough to have effective treatment available—antibiotics are your friend, and the growth of antibiotic resistance an insufficiently-mined source of modern horror. So the primary effect of “The Disinterment” was to make me very, very grateful for modern medicine.
I also wanted to be grateful for enlightened modern attitudes towards disease, but then I had to google “leprosy deportation” to figure out when and where the story takes place. And except for the lack of antibiotics, “sometime in the last decade” would have been a possible (though unlikely) answer. Actually, I had trouble tracking down any point at which a white guy (which we can presume narrator at least started as) could get deported for leprosy. Such policies are deeply entangled with two centuries of screwed up beliefs about race and cleanliness and exactly the sorts of imagined “impurity” that wigged Lovecraft out. At one point the British Empire at least considered treating caucasians with leprosy as no longer being legally white, so, um, there’s that?
In less fraught echoes of the story’s medical details, it turns out that an obsession with head transplants will still get you looked at funny by your colleagues.
So, anyway, the story. “The Disinterment” is very different from “Dreams of Yith,” a sonnet cycle notable for the mysterious “lidded blubs” and a distinct lack of Yithians. I liked it, Anne hated it, and it’s definitely not what you’d call a full-fledged linear narrative. This week’s story isn’t among the more impressive in the Lovecraftian canon, but it has some seriously disturbing moments. It also has a narrator who actually responds to his lover/totally-platonic-friend-for-whom-he-deserted-his-family’s ill treatment by deciding… that he doesn’t like him any more. I’m willing to forgive him some of the gullibility Anne mentions, on that basis alone. It’s a refreshing bit of sense after all Howard’s narrators who refuse to desert their beloved friends because, um, because then we wouldn’t get to see their ghastly ends, I guess? Here, narrator takes said ghastly end into his own hands.
Or somebody’s hands. Or something’s hands. That’s a twist that genuinely managed to surprise me. I guessed early on that Narrator was the victim of a non-consensual head transplant. I expected an Outsider-like moment of revelation in a mirror—the titular disinterment (nicely masked by the story opening post-disinterment) was an effectively ghoulish alternative. And then the body turns out not to be human. Eek! Is it really an ape, paralleling the scary primate relations of “Lurking Fear” and “Arthur Jermyn?” I personally have trouble describing an orangutan as “alien to all natural and sane laws of mankind,” but Duane and Howard might disagree. Maybe some passing extraterrestrial got swept up in Andrews’s experiments, poor thing.
Speaking of Andrews, I’m usually sympathetic to people with a tendency to shout “I’ll show them all” in the middle of thunderstorms. But Andrews earns no sympathy, first, because of his terrible informed consent practices. Seriously, you’ve got your dying friend right there, who’s desperate enough to agree to your weird useless faking-your-own-death plan. Why not just ask him if he’d like a new, leprosy-free body? Oh, yeah, because you’re not satisfied with running the first successful brain transplant—you’ve got to make it interspecies, too.
And my second complaint about Andrews is that he doesn’t want to show them all. He doesn’t want to show anyone. If you’re going to break all the laws of god and man, then for pity’s sake, publish.
Anne and Ruthanna will both be in Providence for Necronomicon this weekend! When we get back next week, we’ll share some highlights from the con, and the plethora of theatrical productions taking place alongside. Will we make it to Weird Tales Live? A performance of traditional Sea Shanties? A live showing of a certain story about a ruler dressed in golden robes? Only time, and our next blog post, will tell.
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.