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.
This week, we’re reading Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia,” first published in the September 1838 issue of The American Museum of Science, Literature, and the Arts. Spoilers ahead.
“Here was indeed the triumph of all things heavenly —the magnificent turn of the short upper lip —the soft, voluptuous slumber of the under —the dimples which sported, and the color which spoke —the teeth glancing back, with a brilliancy almost startling, every ray of the holy light which fell upon them in her serene and placid, yet most exultingly radiant of all smiles.”
Narrator’s memory has grown feeble through years of suffering and opium addiction, so he cannot precisely say how or when or even where he first met the lady Ligeia. He thinks it was in a large, decaying city near the Rhine. He believes her family was ancient, though he never learned her paternal name—not even before he married her! Was it she who insisted on anonymity, or he who allowed it as proof of his love? It’s another troubling gap in his memory. Narrator doesn’t mention it until later, but Ligeia brought great riches to the marriage, and that generally does trump uncertainty about lineage.
On Ligeia’s beauty, narrator’s memory doesn’t fail. She was tall and slender. She moved with quiet majesty; her footfall had such lightness and elasticity that she came and departed as a shadow. The loveliness of her face proved Francis Bacon’s claim there can be no exquisite beauty without “some strangeness in the proportion.” And yet narrator can’t quite “trace home” the exact strangeness in Ligeia’s lofty forehead, delicately aquiline nose, sweet sculpted upper lip and soft voluptuous lower. Oh, then, her luxuriant raven-black hair, truly Homer’s “hyacinthine” tresses! But, oh, Ligeia’s eyes! Brilliant black and overhung with long jetty lashes! Fuller than the fullest gazelle eyes! In trying to comprehend the expression in Ligeia’s eyes, narrator can only write that he’s felt the same sentiment while contemplating moths and butterflies, the ocean, the glances of the very old, and certain stars. He’s felt it from certain strains of stringed instruments. From certain passages in books.
One passage from Joseph Glanvill particularly resonates with Ligeia’s mystery: “Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.”
Most placid in manner was Ligeia. Most low was her voice, magical in melody and modulation. And yet how violent were her passions, how fierce her energies, how wild the words she habitually uttered, rendered more effective by their calmness of utterance.
Ligeia’s intellectual acquisitions were immense. She was proficient in both the classical and modern European languages. Few men could have traversed all her “wide areas of moral, physical, and mathematical science.” He appreciated her superiority enough to easily let her lead their metaphysical investigations.
Great is narrator’s joy to see the “delicious vista” of transcendental wisdom expanding before him. How poignant his despair when Ligeia sickens, and he watches wife and mentor slipping away. He supposes she’ll face death without terror, but no: “Words are impotent to convey any just idea of the fierceness of resistance with which she wrestled with the Shadow.” Narrator never doubted Ligeia loved him. Now she confesses to a passionate devotion amounting to idolatry, the basis for her wild longing for life—but for life—
The night she passes, she bids narrator read a poem she’s composed. It details a manic drama ending with this revelation: “The play is the tragedy, ‘Man,’/And its hero the Conqueror Worm.”
Agitated, Ligeia leaps up. “Oh God,” she cries. “Must it be undeviatingly so? Shall this Conqueror Worm be not once conquered?” Exhausted, she then returns to bed. As she dies, narrator hears her murmur that passage from Glanvill: Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.
Narrator’s crushed with grief. He leaves the gloomy city near the Rhine for a gloomy English abbey. Leaving the exterior to verdant decay, he redecorates the interior in unrestrained 19th-century Exotic-Gothic. His masterpiece is the high turret chamber, ceiled in dark oak, lit by a Saracenic censer that breathes serpentine flames, and accented with black granite sarcophagi. Most striking, and awful, is the tapestry that covers the lofty walls: cloth-of-gold, interwoven with black arabesques animated by an artificial wind.
Into this chamber Narrator leads his second wife, fair-haired and blue-eyed Lady Rowena Trevanion. The Trevanions loved narrator’s money enough to give him their beloved daughter, thought she fears narrator’s opium-spurred moodiness. Narrator in turn loathes Rowena. Before long, she falls ill with fever. She complains of sounds and movement in the turret chamber, which narrator dismisses. Rowena recovers. Then relapses. Recovers. Relapses.
One night Rowena faints, and narrator fetches her wine. He feels something invisible brush by, sees a shadow on the carpet. Only an opium delusion, of course. As Rowena lifts her goblet, he seems to hear a gentle footfall, seems to see drops of ruby-red fluid drop into her wine.
He says nothing. Rowena drinks. Three nights later she’s dead. Four nights later narrator sits by her shrouded body in the turret room, thinking with renewed and bitter woe of Ligeia. A low sob from the deathbed startles him from doped revery. He stares, in superstitious agony, until he sees a tinge of color return to the corpse’s cheek. His efforts to assist revivification are in vain. Rowena lapses back into repulsive rigidity, coldness and pallor.
Only to revive an hour later. Then relapse. The hideous cycle continues all night. Toward dawn, the corpse stirs more vigorously. It rises, totters, advances. Its stature chills narrator to stone. Can Rowena have grown taller?
He leaps to her. She releases the grave cerements binding her head. Masses of raven-black hair tumble down. Then she opens her eyes.
And narrator shrieks, for here are “the full, and the black, and the wild eyes—of my lost love—of the lady—of the LADY LIGEIA.”
What’s Cyclopean: Homeric, hyacinthine hair!
The Degenerate Dutch: In describing Ligeia’s beauty, our narrator cannot limit himself merely to the ordinary descriptors of “our own race”; he must exoticize. Her eyes are “even fuller than the fullest of the gazelle eyes of the tribe of the valley of Nourjahad.” This is admittedly slightly dubious as exoticization attempts go, as Nourjahad does not appear to be a real valley, but a reference to an Arabian-Nights-like tale by Francis Sheridan.
Mythos Making: Lovecraft loved his immortality-seeking necromancers—here’s one now.
Libronomicon: Most of the important books in “Fall of the House of Usher” were Poe’s own creation. “Ligeia” draws on real authors—for example, philosopher and mystic Joseph Glanville.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Incipient madness can be discovered in Unnamed Narrator’s interior decorations: “in the gorgeous and fantastic draperies, in the solemn carvings of Egypt, in the wild cornices and furniture.”
Oh, Ligeia, love of my Gothic adolescence! How many were the portraits I sketched of you, some using Cher as a model (straight hair rendered hyacinthine), some using Vampirella (minus the fangs and bangs and glued-on slip of a costume.) Although, come to think about it, I probably gave you some fangs, because what’s revivification if you don’t come back a vampire, immortal as long as the blood supply holds out? I mean, there you tottered, self-wrenched from the gore-imbued jaws of the Conqueror Worm, grave cerements a-flutter about you, raven tresses a-float in the rushing air, lids rising with taunting slowness to reveal the unmistakable orbs. Of course you needed the ultimate Goth accessory of elongated and exquisitely poignant canines! And of course you’d better sink them at once into the neck of that tiresome opium addict of a husband. Then, when he’s drained, go figure out what he’s done with your library, because you are not one of those Gothic goddesses who just stand around and look darkly gorgeous. You are damn SMART, girl! You are a SCHOLAR! You know more than all the GUYS, and a GUY admits it!
This last thing was a big deal for my thirteen-year-old girl self, Goth and otherwise. Ligeia’s nightside beauty would have been enough to attract me to the character, but I’m sure she’d have faded in my memory into the long parade of doomed heroines with which 19th-century weird literature is rife if it weren’t for her brilliance and erudition.
Oh, Ligeia, let me count the ways you fulfilled my wishes, many of them subconscious. Sure, I was down with being beautiful and brainy. Being free of family expectations (since you didn’t seem to have any left to expect) was a perverse plus to my teen rebel half, and it certainly was nice that the family had left you such a large fortune before dwindling into dust. Fluent in many languages, ancient and modern, great for traveling and deciphering tomes and tombs. Found a man who might have been initially amazed by your learning, but who got over it. Who even appreciated it. Who even acknowledged you as his superior and mentor! What a catch—better not bite his neck, after all. On mature rereading, I wonder at your ability to maintain a Classic exterior—placid and majestic, so nearly Greek, Athenian, Apollonian—when behind those enormous black eyes of yours—gazelle eyes, Houri eyes, exotic, Dionysian—lie stern passions worthy of the most extreme Romantic! Only a powerful will could hold those opposing temperaments together —
Only the most powerful will. Oh, right. Your crowning attribute, Ligeia! A will that survives bodily death. A will that spawns a ghost with agency beyond flitting around behind the tapestries and casting shadows of shades. A will, I think, that must have entered poor narrator’s drug-addled mind and led him to decorate that bizarre bridal chamber. That led him to bring a bride into it when it seems he himself had no inclination toward remarriage, no desire for this particular bride. It was you who needed the bride, the host body, yes?
Oh, naughty Ligeia. I could forgive you, though, back in my teenage days, when I could too readily identify blonde and petite Lady Rowena Trevanion with popular girl tormentors, active or passive. In fact, I could applaud you. How dare those gold-digging Trevanions take advantage of narrator in his grief? Hell, that simpering Rowena was asking for trouble, marrying abbey-dwelling opium addicts she didn’t even love.
I guess I can forgive you even now, because I still bristle when I read that Poe wondered whether he shouldn’t have had Ligeia lose control over her host, so that reanimated Ligeia gradually relapsed into corpse Rowena, to be entombed as such. However, dear Edgar later recanted this heresy. In Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft ranks “Ligeia” alongside “Fall of the House of Usher” as “those very summits of artistry whereby Poe takes his place at the head of fictional miniaturists.” Okay, “Usher” is better in detail and construction, but “Ligeia” does “reach its terrific climax with relentless power.” Too bad Howard thinks Ligeia’s reanimation of Rowena’s corpse is only temporary. But then he did take a pessimistic view of reanimation, cough, Dr. West, cough, also Dr. Munoz, cough, even the formidable Joseph Curwen.
I prefer to think that after the “terrific climax” of narrator’s recognition of his not so long lost love that you, my Ligeia, come up with a clever plan for getting some Rowena simulacrum into the waiting tomb, after which you and narrator retire to a southern clime where he can rehab from opium while you continue with your metaphysical studies the more brilliant for having been meta-physical, that is, dead, for awhile.
A powerful woman, surname unknown and with the apparent education of several lifetimes, attracts a man of inferior learning but similar occult interests. They study together, with her leading the way, until she falls to some Victorian malady. On her deathbed she forces her husband to memorize “wild words.” Our widow then moves to a picturesque ruined abbey (which he purchases with the money she conveniently gained for him) and decorates it in alarming style with all the accoutrements of death-and-immortality obsessed Ancient Egypt (source of funding ditto). The otherwise-inconsolable widow promptly acquires a bride (source of funding ditto), all the while doubting her parents’ judgment in offering her into his keeping. Oh, and he hates her, which is normally a thing one looks for in one’s bride. Her “bridal chamber” is a room which is totally not decorated in necromantic symbols and almost certainly doesn’t contain anything even approaching a summoning circle. She sickens and dies with no indication that any sort of curse or poison might be too blame. And reawakens as the dearly departed.
Has someone written Ligeia’s actual story? Beneath Poe’s opium-excited prose, there lurks a wicked necromancer arranging, from beyond the grave, for her beloved minion to (unwittingly?) carry out the spell that will restore her to life. I would read the hell out of that, preferably with vivid depiction of what happens after she appropriates the body of the unfortunate Rowena.
Instead, ol’ Edgar provides an overwrought mood piece about the allure and terror of female power, with the story revealed only in the white space. Sometimes that sort of thing can work. Given that this particular tale is a classic, and that many people who are not me adore Poe, I suspect that it does in fact work well for many people who are not me. But I want to see Ligeia taken on by Mary Shelley, equally overwrought but frequently better at characterization. I want to see her written by Lovecraft—who did justice to Joseph Curwen and could probably manage his colleague—ideally with Hazel Heald’s enthusiastic addition of the enthusiastic support of Hazel Heald, who can always be counted on to add women and dialogue. Or maybe Conan Doyle could transform the opium-addled narrator to a still-worshipful but more descriptive-of-methods Watson, to Ligeia’s (evil, necromantic) Holmes.
How about Tolkien? All shall love me and despair. Or at least the narrator shall. In Poe’s hands, Ligeia’s more a myth than a woman with her own personality and motivations, for all that her agency and death-defying willpower are emphasized to the point of legendry. She’s misty-winged Ashtophet, she’s Homeric with her hyacinthine hair, she has a chin like that revealed by Apollo to Cleomenes in a dream. I have no idea what that last is about. Plutarch, per an admittedly quick Google search, has Cleomenes acting on a dream about him taking over Sparta. No chins are involved.
No, wait—there’s actually something really weird going on in these descriptors. Several of them aren’t what one would infer from the text. “Hyacinthine” is an epithet for Odysseus—most adoring gothic heroes don’t compare their beloveds to male heroes, even ones who, um, return home several years after they were thought dead by all but their faithful spouses. Or “the gazelle eyes of the tribe of the valley of Nourjahad”—Sheridan’s 1767 Nourjahad isn’t a valley, but a person who thinks himself immortal. Then there’s that dream of Cleomenes, not actually of pretty chins but of seizing power.
Fine, Poe is very clever, and knows exactly what he’s doing. I still don’t have to like his prose.
Next week, we don’t quite return to Ulthar in Hagiwara Sakutarō’s “the Town of Cats.” You can find it in the Vandermeers’ The Weird anthology.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. 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.