The Lovecraft Reread

Henry James is Not Amused: Gertrude Atherton’s “The Bell in the Fog”

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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.

This week, we’re reading Gertrude Atherton’s “The Bell in the Fog,” first published the August 1903 issue of The Smart Set. Spoilers ahead.

“Of course you’ve fallen in love with Blanche, sir,” said one of them. “Everybody does.”

Summary

Ralph Orth, “great author,” emigrates from America to England after early successes. There he gains many admirers among those capable of responding to his “lofty and cultivated mind.” True, his “subtleties might not always be understood,” but failure to appreciate Orth was “to relegate one’s self to the ranks” of the literary hoi polloi.

Though family money allows him to mingle with London’s elites, Orth achieves his fondest desire when a bequest lets him purchase a country estate. Chillingsworth, formerly Church property, boasts the ruins of cloister and chapel. The manor house is a well-maintained Tudor complete with age-mellowed furniture, including portraits of its previous owners, the Mortlakes.

Despite many visitors, Orth realizes he’s lonely. In the gallery he’s drawn to two 17th-century portraits. The first portrays “a gallant little lad,” his expression “imperious and radiant.” What a “jolly little companion” he’d make, Orth thinks, then turns abruptly to the boy’s sister. She’s six or so,“angelically fair,” with dark blue eyes expressing a “beauty of mind which must have been remarkable twenty years later.” Against her white frock she clasps a doll. Chillingsworth’s ruins and woods rise behind her. Orth wonders if the girl lived to maturity and hopes not. Wouldn’t a mind like hers “flee in disgust from the commonplace problems of a woman’s life”?

Increasingly he wishes the children were alive, and his own. He learns from the house’s former owner that the boy was Viscount Tancred and the girl Lady Blanche Mortlake, heirs to the second Earl of Teignmouth. The current Lord Teignmouth knows only that the boy drowned and the girl died young; he mentions that his aunt is far more steeped in family history.

Orth abandons his work-in-progress to write a novel about Tancred and Blanche. He soon realizes he’s penning a masterpiece. For the first time his characters become more than “mere mentalities” but creatures who have “danced out alive” from his pen. He follows their pranks all over the house, reveling in Tancred’s “enterprising spirit” and Blanche’s “devoted obedience” to her brother. In his imagination he’s their father; no mother appears even in memory. He lingers over the composition, must nerve himself to watch Blanche waste away. Tancred he can’t bear to drown but allows to live to prestigious adulthood. The “Mortlake” novel is proclaimed a work of genius. For a while Orth basks in London’s adulation, then returns to Chillingsworth. Everything lovely about the manor reminds him of his “children,” and he spends a “haunted night.”

Walking the woods, he meets a little girl whose absolute resemblance to Blanche Mortlake shocks him. She’s Blanche Root, from Rome, New York. She and her mother are visiting relations, tenants on the neighboring estate. Orth accompanies her home. The Root women are unsurprised Orth’s fallen in love with Blanche—everyone does. Orth tells them about the portrait and hints there must be a natural reason for the similarity. Grandfather Root leaves, unwilling to discuss family secrets. Apparently an ancestral Root went to ruin over a “fine lady.” Since then his descendants have been “blighted,” though not the American branch. Blanche’s mother sighs that her older children have done well enough, but Blanche is special, like a “lady’s child.”

Orth sends Blanche expensive toys, then visits Lady Mildred, the Mortlake family-historian. She explains that Blanche Mortlake didn’t die in childhood after all—she lived to twenty-four. The angelic child became a reckless coquette, who hated her husband and dallied with a neighboring yeoman named Root. Root killed himself over her ultimate rejection. Later Blanche committed suicide.

Returning to Chillingsworth, Orth gradually “monopolizes” Blanche Root. The girl comes to live at the manor, and Orth tells her mother he wants to educate Blanche and make her independent. Blanche sometimes seems prematurely wise and thoughtful, but Orth senses nothing uncanny despite his notion that she’s Blanche Mortlake, reincarnated to redeem her suicide. Eventually Orth shows Blanche her look-alike’s portrait. Blanche confesses she’s often crept into the gallery to study it; moreover, she’s discovered another portrait beneath. She touches a spring in the frame, and child-Blanche swings aside to reveal adult-Blanche, a young woman whose “very hands were tense with eager life, her whole being [breathing] mutiny.”

Orth regrets that Blanche Mortlake lived before a woman of her gifts could prosper. It’ll be different for his Blanche! Blanche’s response is a “long look of unspeakable melancholy” which returns whenever Orth speaks of her prospects. An expert pediatrician finds no disease, but acknowledges that she has the “spiritual” look of one who’ll die young.

Ten months into this “idyll,” Mrs. Root announces she must return to her children in America who, though good-hearted, are running a bit wild. Orth asks to adopt Blanche, but Mrs. Root won’t leave her—Blanche is an angel to her siblings, so beloved they’ll do anything to earn her respect. Orth protests; Mrs. Root says let Blanche decide—young as she is, she’ll know best.

Orth tells Blanche her mother’s plans. She sobs in his arms that she can’t stay—she knows she influences her siblings for their good. Orth argues they’re old enough to benefit from memory of Blanche alone. Her cryptic reply is: “Not unless I died.”

Next day he finds her packing her dolls and knows his fate is sealed. A year later, he receives her “last little scrawl” and is “almost glad she went when she did.”

What’s Cyclopean: Orth’s originality, we’re told, is “as overwhelming as his style.” We don’t see any examples of his style, though his language has a “musical mystery” that produces “raptures in the initiated” (and only in the initiated).

The Degenerate Dutch: Terrible, terrible things happen when people of different classes mix—unless someone from one class is magically born into another class, of course, and probably even then.

Mythos Making: Orth is not-so-secretly intended to be M.R. James. [ETA: OMG Henry James. Ruthanna apologizes for getting her Jameses confused, leaving the Mythosian connection even more tenuous.]

Libronomicon: How on earth do we get through a story about a critically acclaimed author without learning a single one of his titles?

Madness Takes Its Toll: Orth’s ultimate state of mind is left as an exercise for the reader.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Before I whine about anything else, I’m going to whine about the fact that “The Bell in the Fog” is listed in several places as a horror story. I therefore spent the entire thing waiting impatiently for the horror. There are several horrible things—kids die off screen, Victorian authors get weirdly obsessed with little girls, everyone is terribly classist—but a distinct lack of horror. Implied reincarnation and family secrets painted beneath hidden panels are a wee bit gothic, but awfully tame. I honestly stopped reading several times to double-check that I wasn’t reading the wrong story. I haven’t been this underwhelmed since that time the elder gods took on human form and stabbed each other with forks.

Atherton was a well-known author of stories ranging from the overtly supernatural to a fictionalized biography of Hamilton. (One of her books is called The Aristocrats, a fact that by itself entertained me more than this week’s story—then again, I’m easily entertained. Clearly I shall soon be relegated to the hoi polloi.) She was a suffragist (whose advocacy for women’s independence shows up here) and a racist (whose views of Anglo-Saxon superiority were kin to Lovecraft’s, and whose issues with Breeding With the Wrong Sort unfortunately also show up here). She shared Lovecraft’s admiration for M.R. James, and used him as a model for Orth. [ETA: See above: Henry James. In future, authors are required to pick uncommon names to avoid embarassing bloggers.] James wasn’t flattered, and I can’t blame him—Orth seems like the prototype Critically Acclaimed Clever Author, more interested in driving off the Wrong Sort of reader than in writing good stories. It took me a while to realize he was supposed to be sympathetic at all.

The history of Victorian literature is full of authors obsessed with young girls in ways that seem unhealthy to modern sensibilities, but which probably come from the at-the-time recent conception of childhood as a time of purity, innocence, and unsullied beauty. (Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson’s relationship with Alice Liddell is the prime example and a source of controversy that falls entirely beyond my expertise—but I certainly thought of it here.) Orth’s obsession with both Blanches does seem entirely paternal—and entirely unhealthy. Class privilege does not include the right to adopt whatever kid strikes your fancy and pressure them to abandon mother and siblings, what the hell are you thinking dude. I don’t care if you’re a cornucopia of opportunity. If anyone tried this nonsense with my kids, the story would quickly develop a lot more horror elements.

Atherton may have meant Orth’s attempted adoption-by-bribery to be genuinely horrible. But then everything gets tangled with the above-mentioned class prejudice, which is definitely the author’s own bias. The class-as-species assumptions are so intense that I must assume a community of Jermyns or Deep Ones fixing up property just off-screen. Orth, dismissive of his neighbors as he is, certainly wouldn’t notice. The whole concept of reincarnation to atone for past sins is entirely overshadowed by the screwy idea that an upper-class woman reborn to a (*gasp*) middle-class American family would appear as an entirely unrelated sort of person, so distinct from her birth family that they assume she’s an angel. Not to mention that they freaking want to serve her every whim and that serving her every whim makes them better people.

There’s horror for you.

Final whine: WTF is up with the title? Like Orth’s work, its subtleties might not always be understood. My best guess is that Blanche Junior is meant to be the bell, leading the other characters through the fog of their lives like an innocent young lighthouse trying to make up for, in a previous life, killing Jason off and all his screaming Argonauts. Then again, maybe it’s just meant to be musically mysterious language.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Unlike angelic Blanche Root, Gertrude Atherton was a rebel from childhood. She grew into a defiant womanhood surpassing Blanche Mortlake’s, writing controversial novels and espousing causes as diverse as women’s suffrage, anticommunism and white supremacy. Lovecraft and Atherton “meet” frequently in anthologies of great supernatural stories; if they’d met face to face, I imagine they could have had “interesting” conversations on both craft and the sadly flagging influence of the Nordic races on modern culture. They could have chuckled, too, over the joys of fictionalizing literary acquaintances. We’ve watched Lovecraft cheerfully kill off friends like Robert Bloch (“Haunter of the Dark’s” Robert Blake.) In “Bell in the Fog,” Atherton comes both to praise and to bury Henry James.

Atherton dedicates The Bell in the Fog and Other Stories to “The Master Henry James.” In a letter to the San Francisco Argonaut, she writes that James “cannot suppress his great gift of objectivity; he may whimsically attempt to smother a character in words, and the character lives and breathes as vigorously as a woman under a veil on a windy day.” Atherton read James’s work as a young woman; she met him a few times in London in 1904, the year when she embodied her impressions of “the Master” in Ralph Orth.

James summarized his assessment of Atherton as “I abominate the woman.”

No Jamesian ambiguity there. Still, I give Atherton the win. Orth wonders if Blanche’s painter idealized her as “his own dream of exquisite childhood.” Atherton clearly hasn’t idealized James, for Orth is a character as complex as a trapezohedron, and not all his facets are polished to shining. Some, in fact, seem windows into places of dark potential.

James’s “Turn of the Screw” is celebrated not only for its eeriness but for its ambiguities. The core question is whether its appealing children are really threatened by malignant ghosts or whether the ghosts are delusions of their (maybe dangerously insane) governess. Atherton puts her fictional James among similarly questionable supernatural elements. Is Blanche Root the reincarnation of Blanche Mortlake, a flesh-robed revenant, or is Orth deluded? Plus, is he any more reliable a caregiver than Screw’s governess?

Orth makes me nervous. I don’t know how readers in 1904 would have reacted to him, long before the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandals went big-time public, before Michael Jackson at Neverland. But has humanity ever enjoyed an age of innocence—one in which innocence was universally respected and child abuse just didn’t exist? Or even one in which people lived in relatively blithe ignorance, believing abuse happened to people not in my family or school or church. People not like me.

(Except when they are like me. Except (as Mildred Mortlake puts it) when they’re exactly me.)

Now we’re talking horror story.

Orth initially strikes me as hermetically self-centered, if relatively harmless. I start getting skeeved when he notes in six-year-old Blanche’s portrait her preternaturally mature eyes, her pouty scarlet-serpent lips, her tender bare shoulders. After which, he tries to self-justify his attraction. Sure he likes children. When they’re pretty enough. Come on, doesn’t EVERYONE like pretty children? Isn’t it natural to want to possess them? Which is what Orth does in his novel, shoving aside the real father and inventing no mother at all for the Mortlake children.

My hackles start rising when Orth meets Blanche Root and begins to (Atherton’s brilliant word) monopolize her. He buys her expensive toys. He separates her from her family and sets her up as his own little princess. His to educate. His to enrich. His to render independent as Blanche Mortlake should have been. Only, not independent from him.

Say Blanche Mortlake is seeking redemption through Blanche Root. Can Orth help her to this redemption? He believes he can, by giving the new Blanche every opportunity the fiercely vital old Blanche lacked—so long as new Blanche wears him as her anchor. Prettily.

“Anchor” leads back to the cryptic title “Bell in the Fog.” What bell? What fog? Neither thing figures in the story, so what’s up? A story-encompassing metaphor is my take. The “Bell” isn’t what, it’s who, specifically Blanche Root. Several characters call her an angel, implying a guardian one, so pure an example to others that she can redeem their vices. Atherton’s title makes her instead a warning clang, a beacon for ships—souls—caught in the fog of circumstance or character. Like her siblings. Like Orth.

Blanche may work out her salvation by retaining her childhood “spirituality” and casting it as a net to others. But only if she dies a child—whatever her advantages, an adult Blanche gives up that purity, as Blanche Mortlake learned in the 17th-century. Blanche Root can’t save Orth, because he can’t give her up, can’t stand the pain of her loss to earn the blessing of her memory. It’s beyond his essential selfishness—when she leaves, she’s dead to him. Her actual death a year later is anticlimax. Orth is almost glad she went when she did.

But Atherton proves herself up to Jamesian nuance by including that qualifier almost. One word renders Orth the prevailing ghost of Chillingsworth, alone and lonely among his fictions and the portraits which he’s exorcised of their glamour.

 

Next week, we set the “creepy children” bar higher with Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life”. You can find it in many anthologies including The Weird.

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.

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