The Lovecraft Reread

Sucking the Life Right Out of the Room: Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “Luella Miller”

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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 Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “Luella Miller,” first published in the December 1902 issue of Everybody’s Magazine. Spoilers ahead.

“‘Yes,’ says I, ‘she’s killin’ herself. She’s goin’ to die just the way Erastus did, and Lily, and your Aunt Abby. You’re killin’ her jest as you did them. I don’t know what there is about you, but you seem to bring a curse,’ says I. ‘You kill everybody that is fool enough to care anythin’ about you and do for you.’”

Summary

From villagers old enough to remember Luella Miller to children born long after her death, all fear and shun her former home. None will enter the unassuming one-story house, much less occupy it; the last person desperate enough to try moved in “hale and hearty” only to leave a week later—dead, face transfixed with terror.

Lydia Anderson is “a woman well over eighty, but a marvel of vitality.” From the time Luella arrived to teach at the district school, Lydia has lived across from her cursed house. As she’s uniquely positioned to tell Luella’s story we must fear she’ll be taciturn, or garrulous only under the influence of alcohol. However we’re in luck. If Lydia’s in the mood to yarn, yarn she will, no lubricants necessary beyond receptive ears.

Now Luella had a rare beauty, pliant yet unbreakable grace like a willow’s. Her hair was fair and flowing, her eyes blue and softly pleading. To see her walk, you’d think of a willow again, like one of the trees leaning over the brook had got its roots free and moved off. Might as well have had a willow teaching the school, too. Luella had one of the girls, Lottie Henderson, do all the work. Lottie worshipped her and worked even as she got sick, right up till the day she died. Then a big boy tried to teach, but didn’t do as well as poor Lottie. Good thing Erastus Miller married Luella before the school committee had to step in. The boy went crazy a year after, but Lydia couldn’t say why.

As for Erastus, he fell hard for Luella. Did all her housework and cooking, because she was such a delicate flower. Well, delicate Luella lived like a queen, didn’t even do her own sewing, because Erastus’s sister Lily did it for her. Then, out of nowhere, Erastus got blood consumption. He wasted away, still slaving for Luella.

After Erastus passed, Lily moved in with her sister-in-law. A robust and blooming young woman, she was soon ailing like Erastus. Yet she was devoted to Luella, and Luella pined when Lily died until Aunt Abby Mixter came to take care of her. By now the villagers weren’t surprised to see Abby droop while Luella thrived. Someone wrote Abby’s daughter, Mrs. Abbot, who tried to pry her mother out of Luella’s clutches, going so far as to accuse Luella to her blinking baby-innocent face that she’d killed enough people, leave Abby alone. Luella fell into hysterics. Abby stayed on to comfort her and died soon after. The young doctor who tended her defended Luella from a furious Mrs. Abbot; he’d be the next one Luella would latch onto, Lydia predicted.

This time she swore to take action.

Spinster Maria Brown took Abby’s place, heeding no warnings. She thought people should be ashamed of abusing someone too delicate to do for herself. Maria was already doomed, Lydia knew. But as Dr. Malcom’s courtship intensified, Lydia confronted the blue-eyed vampire in her parlor, saying she brought a curse on everyone fool enough to care about her. She’d killed Erastus and Lily and Aunt Abby, and she’d kill Maria Brown, and Dr. Malcom too. Oh, yes she would, even Dr. Malcom, and she had no business thinking of another man after Erastus died for her.

Through all this Luella grew paler and pale. It was certain that Luella avoided the doctor afterward, until he stopped pursuing her. For a while after Maria Brown died, no one came near Luella, for they said it was like the old witchcraft had returned. From her vantage point across the street, Lydia watched Luella sicken, but she didn’t offer to help.

One day Dr. Malcom rushed in, called to Luella’s sickbed. Not long after Luella emerged spry as ever and engaged to the doctor. Sarah Jones, a girl from the city, came to do for her. Was all well at last for our resilient willow? Sadly, no. Both Dr. Malcom and Sarah Jones faded and died, and Luella Miller was confirmed as the village pariah.

Again Luella sickened. Again Lydia watched. Finally, watching Luella falter by under some slight burden of groceries, Lydia thought again of Erastus and ran out to do right by his wife. After she deposited the bundles in the kitchen, she escaped, not heeding Luella’s piteous cries.

Two weeks later, Lydia witnessed a wonder: the ghosts of Luella’s victims bearing her out of her house “white in the moonlight, and they were all helpin’ her along till she seemed to fairly fly in the midst of them.” Luella was found afterwards, peaceful, dead in her bed.

Long after, at eighty-seven, Lydia Anderson would run from her house on a moonlit evening and fall dead before the steps of Luella Miller’s house. Shortly after, the house would burn down, leaving nothing but cellar stones, a lilac bush, and “in summer, a helpless trail of morning glories among the weeds, which might be considered emblematic of Luella herself.”

What’s Cyclopean: Lydia’s dialect manages to be both comprehensible and respectful, a rare trick. “I have wondered lately if she knew it—if she wa’n’t like a baby with scissors in its hand cuttin’ everybody without knowin’ what it was doin’.”

The Degenerate Dutch: We’re in rural New England this week—a setting that works pretty well when written by a rural New Englander.

Mythos Making: You can just picture Luella Miller trying to live in a neighborhood with Joseph Curwen and the old guy with the upsetting book.

Libronomicon: No books this week—if you want to know more, you’d better talk directly to Lydia Anderson.

Madness Takes Its Toll: The boy who “helps” Luella teach is “took crazy” after she marries someone else.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Some monsters hiss at you with mouths full of sharp teeth. Some are beyond human comprehension, indescribable and unnamable. Some are so absurd as to make their monstrosity obvious.

Then there are the subtle monsters. The people who make life just a little worse—or a lot worse—for those who come too near, all the while seeming to wander through life oblivious and untouched. Such a person, taken to the supernatural extreme, is Luella Miller. Maybe that’s why this story manages, for me at least, to feel both modern and older than its publication time. On the one hand, we’ve all known someone like that. On the other hand, the whole thing feels a little bit Puritan: Luella’s idle hands do the devil’s work rather directly.

Mary Wilkins Freeman is new to me, which either says something about my insufficient familiarity with the nineteenth-century feminist weird, or Joanna Russ’s eternal observations about women’s writing, or both. She was well-known and well-published, in rather classier venues than Lovecraft tended toward, and cheerfully wrote supernatural tales alongside “domestic realism.” I think that’s Wikipediese for “stories where women act like real people.” This week’s selection not only passes the Bechdel test with ease, but the men (along with several other women) exist mostly as helpless victims of Luella’s own helplessness. No Victorian dudes manage to nobly overcome their passions to destroy the femme fatale, and despite the Salem references there are no pitchfork-wielding mobs. Instead, Luella’s destroyed by gossip and one grand old lady who’s willing to tell her the truth about her own nature.

“Luella” is a far quieter story than most of Lovecraft’s, despite the high body count, but I don’t need to squint much to see influences and connections. There’s the New England gothic setting, of course. Wilkins Freeman, Massachusetts native and Mount Holyoke Alumn, might have felt right at home in Arkham, or at least wanted to sit down and take some gossipy notes from the housewives there. Lovecraft might have spent a few more paragraphs waxing rhapsodic about Luella’s abandoned house, which doubtless has a gambreled roof. Asenath Waite takes a slightly more active approach to sucking the life out of weak-willed spouses. Zadok Allen monologues in a less well-observed, and thus more awkwardly written, dialect than Lydia Anderson.

Luella gets creepier the more I think about her. I think it’s the ambiguity in how much of what happens is her. Does she mind-control people into giving themselves to her. Does she put out an aura of privileged helplessness that compels her thralls? Or is everyone but Lydia complicit in their demises, in their willingness to accept Luella’s claims of incapability, in their refusal to say, “Okay, then I’ll teach you how to do your laundry”? There’s something fey about her, like stories where people dance at elven command until their feet bleed and break, only with washing dishes instead of terrifyingly irresistible parties. She’s “gentry” in that sense, and I can see why some reviews describe this as a Marxist vampire story even if she’s not technically richer than her neighbors. But privilege she has, mysterious and utterly dependent on the rest of her community agreeing that she has it. And on her ignoring it—acknowledge what she’s doing, and she starts to lose her power.

We haven’t done much with vampires—they’re sort of their own subgenre, more comprehensible than cosmic horror and dealing with a whole separate set of anxieties. Yet the overlap exists. Your truly eldritch vampire might lie buried beneath an abandoned house, or pass as a sexy humanoid damsel-in-distress at the local spaceport. Luella’s among the more recognizable and comprehensible life-suckers we’ve encountered so far, but that doesn’t make her one whit less disturbing.

 

Anne’s Commentary

In Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft cites Mary Wilkins Freeman’s collection The Wind in the Rose-Bush as a trove of “horror material of authentic force.” However, he specifically mentions “The Shadows on the Wall” rather than “Luella Miller”—maybe “Luella” features too much serial monogamy to suit his constitutional chasteness, with Luella herself being the mono-gam most males and females in town are only too ready to love.

Overall he must have admired Freeman’s command of New England vernacular in dialogue, as well as her deft grafting of the supernatural onto the real, even onto the everyday-domestic real, a most sensitive operation. To write convincing dialect was one of Lovecraft’s own ambitions. Seems readers are divided by a precipitous ravine on his success. To bring horror into the reader’s own world, the contemporary moment, no mist-shrouded Gothic battlements required, there I believe Lovecraft succeeded in spades. And so, before him, did Mary Wilkins Freeman, in spades AND hearts. Because she did relationships, too. “Luella Miller” is all about relationships. Webs of them. Where they center on Luella, bad relationships. Poisonous ones.

The Lovecraft story “Luella” most reminds me of is “The Shunned House.” In both tales we have a building long deserted because something about it—or something haunting it—sickens or kills anyone who lives there. What haunts the Shunned House is a mystery, to be hunted out of musty old tomes and papers, analyzed down to something sorta-kinda scientific (“an alien nucleus of substance or energy” from another plane), then unearthed and boiled away with sulfuric acid. It’s too bad that narrator’s uncle had to die before this simple solution could be deployed (his ether radiation defense having proved ineffective.) Still, here’s a rare chance to see Lovecraft’s hopeful side. Narrator renders the Benefit Street property rentable again—now, in Providence, that’s a very happy ending!

Wait, there’s more. While the curse of the Roulets still hung over the Shunned House lot, its trees were gnarled and barren, its basement home to deformed fungi and leprous mold. When narrator dispelled the curse, the fungi and mold withered away, the trees revived and bore sweet apples. These are not insignificant details. In Lovecraft’s fiction, the presence of any members of the great Kingdom Fungi is a bad sign. Gnarled trees, bad sign. Gnarled trees of unusual size, with fungi, we’re dead.

Freeman’s use of plant imagery is equally significant, more subtle. Lydia vividly describes Luella with reference, direct or implied, to willows. She’s as pliant and yielding yet unbreakable. Her hair falls in straight, fair, glimmering lengths. She has a wonderful grace of motion and attitude, and (to reverse the comparison) if a willow could walk, it would walk just like Luella did. The willowiness extended even to her clothing, for she preferred a dress of green shot silk, a hat trailing green streamers, and a green ribbon flying from her waist.

While perfect to picture forth how Luella’s languid charm may strike some (Lydia) as too droopy, the willow’s not her only vegetable avatar. She’s also linked with a morning glory that straggles among the weeds of the vacant lot that remains after her house “accidentally” burns down. With a vine that clings, like her little slender hands! How many clinging vines precede Freeman’s story! Among the most famous is Thackeray’s Amelia, polar opposite of Becky Sharp in terms of backbone possession, whom the author addresses on the occasion of her finally figuring out which guy has loved her all these freaking years: “Farewell, dear Amelia—Grow green again, tender little parasite, round the rugged old oak to which you cling!” There’s also Dickens’s kitten-cute but ditzy Dora, who beats out smart and useful Agnes to be David Copperfield’s first wife. At least Amelia and Dora don’t suck the life out of everyone around them. Not literally, like Luella.

Because when Freeman reimagines Luella as a morning glory, I bet anything she’s not imagining some magnificent cultivar like Ipomoea tricolor, the Heavenly Blue morning glory. I bet she’s thinking Convolvulus arvensis, the field bindweed. Oh, so you think this is pretty, do you? Wait until it gets into your garden and coils up every stem of every plant to loll atop all in great smothering blankets of tight-packed leaves and those baby-faced white flowers blinking in the sun murmuring that they can’t possibly grow tomatoes, they’ve never grown tomatoes in their lives….

The thing is, does bindweed know how evil it is? Is Lydia’s insight correct, that Luella’s really as innocently self-centered as an infant? For that matter, can we blame Cthulhu for being Cthulhu and eventually waking up to rampage around with delight? It’s bindweed’s nature to bind, and Luella’s nature to psychically vampirize, and Cthulhu’s nature to rampage!

Or is it? Is that what morality’s for, to counter nature?

Well, not in the case of bindweed, probably.

And where’d Luella even come from, anyhow? Who’d she “eat” before coming to this village? Origin story! Questions asked at 2 in the morning, people, and word count waning fast.

 

Next week, it’s Jack the Ripper versus the Mi-Go in T.E. Grau’s “The Truffle Pig.” You can find it in The Nameless Dark, or free online in audio format.

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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