The Lovecraft Reread

Medusa’s Side of the Story: Gemma Files’s “Hairwork”

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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 Gemma Files’s “Hairwork,” first published in 2015 in Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles’s She Walks in Shadows anthology. Spoilers ahead.

“No plant can thrive without putting down roots, as nothing comes from nothing; what you feed your garden with matters, always, be it the mulched remains of other plants, or bone, or blood.”

Summary

From her grave beneath the ruins of Riverside, Marceline Bedard de Russy senses the approach of a “little seeker.” Whoever and whatever the seeker may be, she’s come to Missouri from France, looking for Frank Marsh’s fabled portrait of Marceline wearing nothing but her hair. Tully Ferris, the guide she’s hired, looks at Marceline’s photo and remarks that she’s a “redbone” or “high yaller” like himself, meaning a pale-skinned person of mixed race. Oh yes, says the seeker. And though Marceline was secretive about her background, as the “priestess” Tanit-Isis she claimed her powers came from Zimbabwe and Babylon, darkest Africa and the tribes of Israel. As for her incredible hair, some claimed it was actually a wig made of hair and maybe even scalp, many hundreds of years old.

Seeker and guide head toward Riverside. Meanwhile Marceline remembers a sampler made of the hair of fifteen dead de Russys, showing the old plantation gardens. That line of linden trees looked so pleasant and gracious, but its real purpose was to hide the “bone-field,” a sump where slaves were buried, late at night, “once their squeamish masters were safely asleep.” Nothing but a “false face over rot.”

In 1912, Frank Marsh introduced her to Denis de Russy. One touch of Denis’s hand, and Marceline knew that he was of her own blood–and that she had met her fate at last. You see, her mother’s mother bore Denis’s grandfather’s child, and that child fled the plantation for fear the old man’s eyes would fall on her next. From New Orleans she made her way to France and eventually Paris, a road “equal-paved with vaudeville stages, dance floors, seance rooms and men’s beds.” She bore Marceline in the demimonde and taught her its ways. She also gave her the Tanit-Isis wig she’d received from her own mother, an ancestral legacy that would help Marceline wreak revenge on anyone with a drop of de Russy blood in their veins. Of course, that would include Marceline herself, but workings—magic, curses—require a price, and “the single best currency for such transactions is blood, always.” Blood to sink into the soil of Riverside and mingle with the blood of ten thousand slaves.

At Riverside she met ancient Kaayakire, whom the white masters had named Sophonisba or Aunt Sophy. The elder sorceress taught Marceline “how to use [her] ancestors’ power to knit [their] dead fellow captives’ pain together like a braid, a long black snake of justice, fit to choke all de Russys to death.” And after Denis killed Marceline and Frank Marsh, the snake also did its job–for Denis hadn’t hanged himself out in an old slave cabin, no, the hair-snake had strangled him. Later, a veritable octopus of vengeance, it strangled Denis’s father Antoine, who’d tried to burn it to ashes. Instead he burned down his own house—the hair-snake was immortal, indestructible.

Beneath ruined Riverside, Marceline is “eyeless with mud stopping [her] mouth and gloving [her] hands, roots knot-coiled ’round [her] ankles’ bones like chains.” Nevertheless, she can throw out “feelers” to sense the little seeker and Tully Ferris as they tromp up to the remains of the house. The seeker is “earth-toned.” Tully’s face betrays him as another tainted with de Russy blood, drawn to her by the spider-silk of fate. If Marceline weren’t Marceline, she might regret what must befall her visitors. But Marceline is Marceline, and after long decades she’s grown tired of lying still under the earth.

Sheeting rain slows but doesn’t deter seeker and Tully. They pick through the debris of the upper floors, just this past year crashed down onto the lower ones. The seeker discovers a box. Tully spots a scrap of canvas, much molded and torn, but undeniably the portrait they’ve come for. The seeker mourns its state and the bullet holes that have obliterated Marceline’s painted face. Another relic awaits her in the box: Marceline’s Tanit-Isis wig, none the worse for wear, eternal. Fascinated, the seeker lifts it to her head, breathes its perfume, barely hears Tully’s scream as the hair of every dead slave buried at Riverside “crawls up from the muck like sodden spiders” that “force their knotted follicles inside his veins.”

The seeker’s snared, too. The Tanit-Isis wig “runs its own roots down into your scalp and cracks your skull along its fused fontanelles to reach the grey-pink brain within, injecting everything which ever made me me like some strange drug, and wiping you away like dust.”

Freshly embodied, her contract for revenge fulfilled, all her own at last, Marceline walks away from Riverside, “into this fast, new, magical world, the future, trailing a thousand dark locks of history behind.”

What’s Cyclopean: Files makes good use of the descriptive proclivities of different characters: the mold-eaten ruin of the De Russy estate is “saggy as an elephant’s butt” one place, full of “cicatrice-blisters of moisture” in another.

The Degenerate Dutch: “Hairwork” is a direct sequel to Lovecraft and Bishop’s “Medusa’s Coil,” and Marceline quotes their climactic description of her “deceitfully slight proportion” masking her true racial origins. Quel domage.

Mythos Making: In “Medusa’s Coil,” Cthulhu-worshipping Marceline Bedard and her hair take down a totally innocent family of southern aristocrats.

Libronomicon: “You” seem to be seeking out Frank Marsh’s lost canvases. This doesn’t turn out to be a healthy life choice.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Denis De Russy is a “madman” by the time he flees ranting to Sophonisba’s/Kaayakire’s shack.

 

Anne’s Commentary

As anyone who has met my own dark lady Patience Orne might deduce, I have a baby-bunny, a tiny-kitten, a fuzzy-chick soft spot for femmes fatales. Especially those of a supernatural and/or sorcerous bent. So of course I was devastated when that fool daddy’s boy Denis de Russy hacked poor Marceline Bedard to death with a machete. And then—scalped her! Overreact to psychically revealing portraiture much? Or worse, in Denis and Antoine’s case, to racially revealing portraiture…

Sure, Marceline gets back at Antoine, but only as a bloated and bald corpse. Someone so impeccably groomed and put-together as she must have hated that outcome.

Well, I need simmer no longer. In “Hairwork,” Gemma Files has given us Marceline’s “she said” to Antoine de Russy’s “he said.” The story alters some of the action of “Medusa’s Coil”: Denis and Antoine die in quick succession to the black hair-snake of vengeance; Riverside burns down within days of the initial bloodbath rather than years later. More importantly, it gives Marceline a reason for marrying Denis de Russy far deeper than vanity and gold-digging, purpose with a capital P.

Way way back, one of her ancestors may have been the actual or symbolic child of Cthulhu; in more recent times, she’s the child of a people stolen from Africa, source of their power. A de Russy “breeds” her grandmother, producing a daughter who runs from that fate, though she can’t escape the de Russy genes coiled snakelike in her every cell. It’s a neat reversal of “Medusa’s Coil”—for “Hairwork’s” Marceline, it’s white blood, not black blood, that taints a person even if diluted over time to a single drop, as in Tully’s metaphorical case. More specifically, it’s the white blood of her immediate forebears’ masters—at least there’s no indication she means to extend the curse beyond the de Russys, to avenge slaves beyond those who lived and died and were buried at Riverside. That curse was her contract, as binding as shackles. With Tully, she’s free of it. Marceline herself, slave to no one and nothing, her own person.

Which is both a magnificent and a terrifying idea, given what Marceline herself acknowledges: she can’t care about the little seeker and Tully’s deaths, though she knows that would be a natural reaction for someone, well, not Marceline.

Another (for me) gratifying change is Marceline’s relationship with Frank Marsh. In “Coil,” Antoine de Russy describes it as her “commonplace infatuation for the artist.” Her “dog-like infatuation.” Dog-like! Talk about a femme fatale behaving out of character! Call her a leopard, call her a lamia or Medusa or succubus, call her any number of ophidian names. But a dog? Crass defamation! Made worse by Marsh treating her with that most Lovecraftian of mixed emotions, fascination and repulsion. And even after he exposes her as a monster, her crowning glory wants to give him a great, big forever hug!

Although Antoine could be misinterpreting that hug as one of affection, rather than enduring rage.

Files makes Marsh the infatuated one, Marceline the user. All Marsh is to her is the poor slob fated to introduce her to Denis de Russy. If Marsh then has to suffer certain consequences of his infatuation, oh well, his blood too can go toward working the curse she must fulfil. Which makes more psychological sense to me.

Another twist Files gives Frank is changing his hometown from New Orleans to Innsmouth, Massachusetts. Yep, he becomes one of those Marshes, down to the “fishy eyes.” It’s a touch more amusing than consequential, though an Innsmouth background might make it more natural for Frank to sense the supernatural in Marceline.

I reread “Medusa’s Coil” after reading “Hairwork,” to compare the two. But this time, instead of reading “Coil” online, I got down my Arkham House Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions, the 1976 second printing with that charming original cover by Gahan Wilson. (How I found this tome in an obscure little bookshop in Providence is another story of triumph and terror…) All was well until I got to the end and read this ultimate line: “No wonder she owned a link with the old witch-woman Sophonisba—for, though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a loathsome, bestial thing, and her forebears had come from Africa.” Wha? No, seriously, wait. Let’s check the story on hplovecraft.com. Where the ending reads simply and starkly, “…Marceline was a negress.”

Okay. Wikipedia tells me that August Derleth changed the last line to the “milder” version in a 1944 anthology. No wonder then if he retained the revised ending in Horror in the Museum. But why stick at “negress” while retaining the numerous appearances of that still more offensive “n-word” in the rest of “Coil?” I guess you could argue that it’s entirely in character for Antoine de Russy to use the “n-word.” That argument teeters a bit when you consider that the unnamed narrator is little less racist than Antoine, what with his idea of the antebellum South as an idyllic civilization populated by honorable (white) planters and merrily singing and banjo-plunking (black) slaves. Nor does this narrator wonder at Denis and Antoine for considering Marceline’s racial heritage more disturbing than her blatantly inhuman background. He wouldn’t shy away from “negress,” I don’t think.

Last thought: Files’s Marceline describes the little seeker as “earth-toned and many-pointed.” A woman of color? With a spiky hairdo, or are the points an artifact of Marceline’s now-eyeless manner of “seeing,” which is also compared to the thousand-faceted vision of a dragonfly? Hairdo aside, or rather covered by the Tanit-Isis wig, I like to think of the reborn Marceline striding forth in dark skin, dragging “dark locks of history” in her proud femme fatale wake, the world’s “perception” of her as white no longer necessary.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

If you’re looking for a story that subtly deconstructs Lovecraft’s racism, you’re going to be disappointed this week. If, on the other hand, you want something that cracks the egregious “Medusa’s Coil” open with all the unsubtle force it deserves, breaks apart the rotting ribs, and shakes it until the decomposing guts fall out on the fungous-tainted soil, Files has got you covered.

One of the pervading details of Lovecraft’s Mythos stories, more consistent than the geography of Kingsport or the history of forbidden tomes, is that brown people everywhere worship the same gods and seek to overturn civilization in Cthulhu’s name. Probably with the help of a wayward shoggoth or two. This is easy to make fun of, but it masks an ugly terror: that this revolt against civilization’s unnatural order is justified. That the privileged minority, tottering atop a pile of blood and illusion, are eternally vulnerable to the revenge of those they’ve oppressed to get there. In Lovecraft’s view, of course, these oppressed folk are inherently inferior. “In the Mountains of Madness” is explicit that the shoggothim build nothing of their own, that they’ve destroyed something they can never hope or desire to replace. In Lovecraft’s letters, he describes… let’s call them people of African ancestry… as similarly irredeemable. In “Medusa’s Coil,” the conflation is explicit: Marceline Bedard represents ultimate horror because she’s both a supernatural and genetic monster, masked in the skin of the rightful rulers.

Files’s story follows the logical progression of this agglomerate horror. Not only is Marceline the descendant of African slaves, but she draws on Jewish traditions for her power. Artist Frank Marsh is made explicitly one of those Marshes—and also a Cubist, an artistic tradition Lovecraft despised. And Marceline is transformed from monstrous lover into willing sacrifice for the cause of that much-feared and much-justified revolt. “Medusa’s Coil” raises the laughable myth of happy, singing slaves; “Hairwork” delineates the horror that myth tries to paper over.

The other thing “Hairwork” does, just as subversive in its own way, is to give Marceline an out. She’s done her job, played out the sordid surface drama that pays for her family’s grand revenge. Why shouldn’t she be able to set aside those bonds, and for once use her power for her own benefit to walk free in the modern world? True, it’s a bit unfair to “you,” doomed to the same fate as Charles Dexter Ward and Asenath Waite. But Marceline’s used to sacrifice. And for all those brown people to have life and interests beyond tearing down their oppressors—that might terrify Lovecraft and his ilk even more than the revolution itself.

The fate of Charles Dexter Ward and Asenath Waite… there’s a whole ‘nother motif running through Lovecraft’s work, isn’t there: ancestry is supposed to be a source of pride, yet it can bind so tightly that it effaces your identity completely. This theme “Hairwork” accepts in full. The narrative is exquisitely aware of every thread of Marceline’s ancestry: all the precise racial mixtures that used to require specific terminology, and the curse of De Russy blood that means her vengeance must include herself. It’s this that makes Marceline’s escape back into life particularly meaningful—that she’s setting aside not only a task well-done, but perhaps that weight of ancestry as well—not forgetting about it, for she doesn’t seem the type, but building an identity around it that’s made for survival rather than sacrifice.

 

Next week, we cover one of Lovecraft’s favorite haunted house stories: Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “The Haunted and the Haunters, or The House and the Brain.” The weather forecast promises a dark and stormy night. (Other sources include a second portion that was less to Howard’s taste; we’re focusing on the shorter version at Project Gutenberg.)

Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots (available July 2018). Her 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.” 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.

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