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 Arthur Machen’s “Novel of the Black Seal,” first published in 1895 as part of The Three Impostors. Spoilers ahead.
“Life, believe me, is no simple thing, no mass of grey matter and congeries of veins and muscles to be laid naked by the surgeon’s knife; man is the secrete which I am about to explore, and before I can discover him I must cross over weltering seas indeed, and oceans and the mists of many thousand years.”
Miss Lally argues with Mr. Phillips about matters supernatural. Phillips is a determined rationalist; so was she once. But “experiences even more terrible” have changed her mind. Does Phillips know Professor Gregg, the ethnologist?
Phillips admires Gregg’s work. How unfortunate that he drowned on holiday, with his body never recovered!
Lally doesn’t believe Gregg is dead. He was sound in mind and body when he went walking that last morning. When he didn’t return, searchers found his personal effects miles from the river, wrapped in a rough parchment parcel. On the inside of the parchment was an inscription in red earth, of characters resembling a corrupt cuneiform.
In her twenties, orphaned and destitute, Lally sought employment in London. Unsuccessful, she wandered misty streets alone, expecting starvation. When a man hailed her for directions, she fell to the sidewalk in hysterics. The man, Professor Gregg, solicited her tale of woe and offered her a position as governess to his children.
Lally becomes as much Gregg’s secretary as governess, helping him complete his Textbook of Ethnology. That task done, he joyfully proclaims himself “free to live for stranger things.” Lally’s eager to learn more. Gregg shows her documents and–an object. The papers concern rural disappearances, an old man murdered with a stone ax, a limestone rock covered with weird scribbling. The object’s a small black stone carved like a seal. It’s at least four thousand years old, but its characters match those scribbled on the limestone rock only fifteen years before! But what this collection means, Gregg refuses to explain until he has proof.
That summer Gregg takes a country house near Caermaen, once headquarters of a Roman legion. The house perches above a broad river valley and beneath a forest full of “the sound of trickling water, the scent of the green leaves, and the breath of the summer night.” Soon Gregg confesses the place connected with the black seal mystery. Here he hopes to test certain theories, but he still won’t say more until he has confirming evidence.
Lally worries Gregg is cherishing a monomania. Nevertheless she delights in the countryside and only “remembers strange things” when she returns to the house where Gregg paces with the look “of the determined seeker.” One rainy day she discovers a book of ancient Roman geography. She’s amused by a passage about “persons” in interior Libya who practice foul rituals, hiss rather than speak and whose pride was the “Sixtystone” called “Ixaxar.” The black seal, by the way, has sixty characters on it.
Shortly after, Gregg hires a local boy. Jervase Cradock (he explains) is what countryfolk call a “natural,” mentally weak but harmless. Morgan the gardener says Jervase’s mother wandered the Grey Hills after his father’s death, weeping like a lost soul. Eight months later Jervase was born, black-eyed and olive-skinned, with a strange harsh voice and given to unfortunate “fits.”
Lally witnesses Jervase collapse with blackened face, babbling in an unknown hissing tongue. Gregg carries the boy to his study, purportedly to assist him. But the professor’s unconcealable exultation terrifies Lally–how can this benevolent man view Jervase with such callous curiosity? She thinks of leaving, but Gregg persuades her to stay as his “rear guard.” There’s danger in his studies here, but they’ll soon be done.
Jervase has another fit. Again Gregg cares for him in his study. Next morning the maid finds a bust moved from an impossibly high shelf; inexplicably it’s smeared with slime that smells like a snake-house. Lally’s unease mounts.
Gregg goes for “a miniature walking tour,” warning Lally he may be away overnight. He’s still gone the next night. Morgan brings Lally a letter Gregg left, should he go missing. It directs her to a full account of his fate, which he advises she burn unread. Still, if she must know the truth…
Lally still carries Gregg’s account and hands it to Phillips. It details Gregg’s theory that most folklore is a “prettified” account of an ancient nonhuman race–the fairies of Celtic legend. Tales of witches and demons also spring from this race, which having “fallen out of the grand march of evolution” retains powers apparently supernatural. They sometimes leave changelings or breed with human women, as in the case of Jervase. By the way, Gregg did finally decipher the black seal and learn how man “can be reduced to the slime from which he came, and be forced to put on the flesh of the reptile and the snake.” He performed the “spell” on Jervase, and witnessed the boy unfurl a slimy tentacle that pulled down the unreachable bust.
Gregg believed the phenomenon no more supernatural than a snail pushing out its horns, but still horror overcame him. Nevertheless he meant to finish his research by meeting the “Little People” face to face. Hence the fatal walkabout. Lally and Morgan found Gregg’s belongings by the limestone boulder in the barren hills. Of course the lawyer didn’t credit her tale but invented one about Gregg drowning.
Phillips doesn’t notice Lally’s inquiring glance as she concludes, for he’s looking around the square in which they sit: the evening bustle seems “unreal and visionary, a dream in the morning after an awakening.”
What’s Cyclopean: Machen characters have a unique way of talking. “I thirst for an elucidation.” “We stand amidst sacraments and mysteries full of awe, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Intellectual disabilities and epilepsy are caused by primitive slime fairies. Now you know.
Also, the “uncouth characters” of fairy runes are “as strange and outlandish as the Hebrew alphabet.” Thanks?
Also also, Lally calls the rural hills of England “more unknown to Englishmen than the very heart of Africa,” despite the fact that there are… Englishmen… living there.
Also also also (this story is pretty degenerate), the whole premise hinges on the idea that “races of men” may be more or less evolutionarily advanced, and trade off wild and terrible superpowers for civilization. The less evolved races “speak a jargon but little removed from the inarticulate noises of brute beasts.” That’s not how any of this works.
Mythos Making: There are tentacles. And scary interspecies breeding.
Libronomicon: Professor Gregg’s Textbook of Ethnology is a quite admirable example of its kind. Also cited: Descartes’ Meditationes, the “Gesta Romanorum,” volumes of eighteenth-century sermons, an old book on farriery, a collection of poems by persons of quality, Prideaux’s Connection, a volume of Pope, and a quarto of ancient geographers.
Gregg also jokes about posing Miss Lally “a problem in the manner of the inimitable Holmes,” just in case you hadn’t caught the clever parallel.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Professor Gregg’s colleagues think he must be going mad. He thinks not. But he sure does seem to have plans to show them, show them all.
What I’d forgotten about “The Novel of the Black Seal” is that while the story has often been anthologized as a stand-alone, it’s actually one of thirteen interconnected episodes that comprise Machen’s 1895 novel The Three Impostors. This “rediscovery” didn’t surprise me–Miss Lally’s narrative is framed so abruptly in the version I read that I suspected it had been excerpted from a larger work or longer series. I mean, who are Lally and Phillips, and what is their relationship, and why are they sitting around talking at great length about matters supernatural? Where are they sitting, for that matter? I assumed it was in Phillips’s study, with him parked by a window looking out into Leicester Square. I also assumed Lally was consulting Phillips in his professional capacity, unclear as his profession is beyond a general scientific bias.
In the context of Three Impostors, however, Phillips is a sort of naturalist-dilettante of independent means who mostly enjoys arguing over smokes with his romanticist-dilettante friend Dyson. One evening he’s walking in Leicester Square and primly claims the other end of a bench occupied by a young lady, yep, Lally. Far from hoping to strike up a conversation, he’s annoyed when the lady heaves a stifled sob and looks at him as if imploring his attention. Oh well, what’s a gentleman to do but ask what’s wrong.
Lally opens with a story about how she’s been waiting for her brother, who meets her every Saturday in the square. Today he’s late, and when he does appear it is in company with a man of mask-like features who clutches brother’s arm with a rotted corpse-hand! Then the two disappear, leaving Lally as Phillips found her. It’s that story about Corpse-Hand we hear Phillips pooh-poohing at the start of “Black Seal.”
Oh yeah? Lally says, forgetting her distress about brother. Wait until you hear about my adventure with Professor Gregg!
In the Three Impostor’s epilogue to “Black Seal,” Lally has gotten Phillips so interested that she has to escape from his eager questions by pleading that her employers await her. Phillips goes home, drinks too much tea, and outlines an article tentatively entitled “Protoplasmic Reversion.”
Machen has a nice dark sense of humor. It’s especially evident in the prologue to Three Impostors, in which those very impostors leave a deserted house where they’ve performed some nefarious deed. One of them is a very young lady with a “quaint and piquant” face and shining hazel eyes. She implies she’ll be glad to shed her aliases of Lally and Leicester. Miss Lally we know, or thought we did. Miss Leicester figures in “The Novel of the White Powder,” a later episode in Three Impostors. Helen, as the other impostors call their confederate, carries a neat paper parcel. Neat to start with. Then it starts oozing and dripping.
Oh “Miss Lally,” I fear you’re not just a nice young lady innocently caught up in terrible events. But I feared it as soon as you described how you and Gregg met cute. That was a tale of Dickensian pathos, for sure. Then there were the kids. You know, the two dear children to whom you were governess? The ones without names or even sexes? They like to pick berries, that’s all you ever tell us about them. This smells–like berries that have rotted in the dear children’s grubby pockets.
Point being, Lally of Three Impostors and Lally of “Black Seal” (as often isolated from Three Impostors) are both narrators of questionable reliability, the former much more so than the latter. It’s an artifact of isolating “Black Seal” that renders its Lally basically sympathetic. As for Impostor Lally, she makes me wonder how seriously to take the survival of the not-so-fair folk in Wales. If she tricked Gregg into the offer of a job, did she also trick him regarding the fair folk? Or, as an operative for a larger occult organization (as Impostors would have her), is she using her closeness to Gregg to spy on his research?
Who are you, Miss Lally, and what are you doing with our professor? Also, what do you mean by driving Phillips into contemplating protoplasmic reversions? You’re a deep one. Not a Deep One. Though who knows in a cosmos of strange transmutations?
From his appreciation of “Black Seal” in Supernatural Horror in Literature, I take it Lovecraft didn’t question Lally’s narrative veracity. He doesn’t mention Lally at all, or Phillips, but discusses the story as if Gregg himself were the narrator, the academic intrigued beyond his professional ken by intimations of eldritch survivals. Gregg is indeed a fine prototype for Lovecraft’s learned protagonists, morally falling somewhere between Herbert West on the villainous end of the spectrum and Dr. Armitage on the heroic end. Oh, the allure of what may live on beneath the domed hills! Oh, the horror of how close humanity is to evolutionary backsliding! Let’s not worry about Miss Lally, she’s just there to mind the kids.
I don’t know what it is about Arthur Machen. I’ve enjoyed plenty of stories with stylized dialogue. I like watching men who want to know too much end up as Men Who Know Too Much. Hell, I’ve found the squirmily enjoyable silver lining in any number of stories draped in the slime of unconsidered prejudice. But with Machen—even knowing, because it’s a Machen story, that the terrible truths will prove undeniably supernatural, I find his Men-Who-Know so annoyingly tendentious that I end up convinced their theories are nonsense.
I could kind of see what Lovecraft liked about “The White People.” I hated the voice and the obsession with “natural” womanhood and the arguments against works-based sin, but the embedded stories were nifty and the bits of Aklo intriguing. In “Black Seal,” I just spent the entire story muttering “Oh for fuck’s sake” and “You asshole” and “That’s not how any of this works” in various combinations. And feeling sorry for the epileptic slime fairy changeling who gets treated as a conveniently disposable research subject. Gregg seems like the sort of guy who proves that civilized humans aren’t necessarily any nicer than slime fairies.
My fundamental problem with Prof Gregg, aside from his gleefully unethical experiments on disabled kids, is the way his initial theory consists of: “It’s nearly the turn of the 20th century and we don’t know everything about the universe! Therefore fairies!” I recognize too well the type, still common among overtenured professors who do great work in their fields and then get obsessed with whackadoodle solves-everything claims about areas they know nothing about, usually involving the quantum mechanical basis of thought. The end result is rarely “fairy curse worse than death;” usually it involves bad TED talks.
So anyway, last time misogyny, this time ableism, terror of rural people and places, and a touch of racism. (Yes, I’m judging Arthur Machen by modern standards. Any intellectually disabled kid with seizures could have told him in 1895 how little they appreciated being used as a horror prop.) Also terrible scholarly practice. If you’re confident that no one but you and one other person has ever seen this stupid seal, maybe it’s because you’re not sharing your goddamned research. Also, how does he know there aren’t fifty copies hidden in other people’s trophy cabinets? Is making backups too highly evolved an activity for slime fairies?
Lovecraft, of course, would be terribly intrigued by the horrible slime fairies that produce degenerate offspring with traumatized human women. I suspect, in fact, some influence on “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” which has a lot of parallels. Thing is, while I have huge problems with “Shadow,” it engaged me enough to spend two novels arguing with it, whereas I have absolutely no desire to grub around in Machen’s worldbuilding. (Though I’m glad not everyone feels that way–for an awesome Machen riff, T. Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones is well worth checking out.)
I suspect, in fact, that most of this story will slip out of my head within a couple of weeks, leaving only the image of a half-transformed slime fairy changeling flailing with his tentacles to plague my snail-phobic occipital lobe.
Next week, we take a break from prose for movie night: Join us for the new film of “The Color Out of Space,” starring Nick Cage, so you know it’s going to have excellent facial expressions. The trailer suggests that the indescribable color, impossible for human eyes to process, is pink.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, 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.