Saturday, December 16, 2017

H.P. Lovecraft’s Femme Fatales: Monstrosity, Race and Sexuality

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the author’s master’s thesis. It has been edited for style and length. To read the full work, go here.

At the beginning of “The Thing on the Doorstep,” Daniel Upton, the story’s narrator, has murdered his friend Edward Derby. Years before, Derby met Asenath Waite, daughter of Ephraim Waite. Eventually we learn that Ephraim, an occultist, found a way to become immortal by transferring his mind and had thus placed his mind into his daughter’s body. It is then Ephraim in Asenath’s body who marries Derby. However, unsatisfied with Asenath’s body – Ephraim regards her body as inferior – Ephraim seeks to transfer his mind once more, this time into Derby’s body. Derby, realizing what was happening (and that Asenath has been Ephraim all along, a fact which seemed to escape him although he realized his wife could switch bodies but not that she was Ephraim), murders “Asenath” and buries her in the cellar. Ephraim manages to transfer his mind once again. Thus, Derby finds himself trapped in the rotting body of Asenath while Ephraim inhabits Derby’s body. Near the end of the story, Derby rises from the grave and reveals the truth to Daniel, who murders “Derby,” putting a stop to Ephraim’s body-hopping.

A representation of the “Innsmouth look”

Physically and intellectually, Asenath is an attractive woman. She is “dark, smallish, and very good-looking except for overprotuberant eyes,” though “something in her expression” alienates sensitive people. She also seems to be rather precocious. During her school days, she utilized language that was shocking for a young girl, and frightened her schoolmates with “leers and winks of an inexplicable kind.” She also gazes at her future husband with “an almost predatory air”.

In short, Asenath is corrupt both physically (her expression and her eyes serve as warnings) and mentally (her body is inhabited by her evil father), with hints of sexually deviancy (her leers and winks). As the story advances, we are told she looks older, with more wrinkles, as if her interior evil is taking a toll on her physical body – an inferior body.

She [Asenath/Ephraim] wanted to be a man – to be fully human – that was why she got hold of him [Derby]. She had sensed the mixture of fine-wrought brain and weak will in him. Some day she would crowd him out and disappear with his body – disappear to become a great magician like her father and leave him marooned in that female shell that wasn’t even quite human. Yes, he knew about the Innsmouth blood now. There had been traffick with things from the sea – it was horrible…

Asenath’s body is not fully human because she is the product of miscegenation, coded as human/inhuman sexual contact in this tale. Ephraim took as a wife a woman of Innsmouth and thus fathered Asenath. In Lovecraft’s stories Innsmouth is a town inhabited by half-human, half-fish people. These hybrids were created after a New England sea captain came in contact with Polynesian natives who worshiped a marine deity and interacted with amphibious creatures known as Deep Ones. The captain decided to strike a bargain with the Deep Ones: gold in exchange for the chance to mate with the humans of Innsmouth. The inhabitants of Innsmouth are thus of mixed white, non-white and non-human ancestry. The grandson of the sea captain is the son of “some kind of foreigner – they say a South Sea islander.” People from the seaside community have the “Innsmouth look,” facial characteristics which identify them as the product of such unions, though they try to pass as normal humans. As one character in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” notes, “[F]olks here and hereabouts always try to cover up any Innsmouth blood they have in ’em,” a remark which seems to echo fears of “white-passing” minorities.

Asenath/Ephraim wants to be a “man” which may mean a desire to become a human of pure racial stock instead of a hybrid. But it also indicates that the inferiority lies in the gender of the body Asenath/Ephraim inhabits. Asenath’s “crowning rage” is that she is not a man because the “male brain had certain unique and far-reaching cosmic powers.” It is therefore likely that Asenath/Ephraim wishes to switch bodies for both reasons: the fit body must be the body of an educated, wealthy, white man. Nothing else will do.

Some fans of Lovecraft’s stories have questioned whether Asenath should be considered a woman since it is her father who inhabits her body. There is also the fact that Lovecraft complicates Asenath by referring to her as both “she” and “it,” her husband declaring “I’ll kill her if she ever sends me there again. . . . I’ll kill that entity . . . her, him, it . . . I’ll kill it! I’ll kill it with my own hands!” Bruce Lord identifies her as “a complex and not entirely female character.” In a way, Asenath function’s as a literary Schrödinger’s cat: she can be interpreted as a man and a woman at the same time. But her body is that of a woman and Ephraim is enraged by the fact that he inhabits a woman’s body. In looking at Asenath from a biological and performative perspective, we may call her a “woman” and thus find in her a number of gendered eugenicist elements. At the same time, this melding of bodies, of the male and the female, also echoes Asenath’s racial ancestry. She is not quite a “woman” because she carries in herself male characteristics and also because she is of mixed racial stock.

Lovecraft’s other attractive femme fatale, Marceline of “Medusa’s Coil,” is, like Asenath, not quite human and not quite white. The character is the product of a collaboration between Zealia Brown-Reed Bishop and Lovecraft. Bishop and Lovecraft began corresponding because she wished to write stories for magazines such as Woman’s Home Companion in order to support herself as a single mother. Lovecraft steered Bishop away from the lighter, romantic fare she was most interested in and convinced her she might sell some stories to the speculative fiction magazines of the era. As a result, according to the book The Crawling Chaos and Others: The Annotated Revisions and Collaborations of H.P. Lovecraft, Volume 1, she came up with “synopses for three stories of a weird nature…the synopses, as far as we can gauge them, are quite weak and conventional; and Lovecraft has done an admirable job of expanding and elaborating upon them to make them genuine weird tales in their own right. Of all his revisions, the first two of the Bishop tales, ‘The Curse of Yig’ and ‘The Mound,’ are closest in texture and quality to Lovecraft’s original stories.” Though Joshi praises “The Curse of Yig” and “The Mound,” he views “Medusa’s Coil” as a much inferior piece. It is, however, one of the stories included in this analysis due to its important biological themes.

“Medusa’s Coil” is the story of a young, wealthy American who is sent to study at the Sorbonne and meets a magnetic, mysterious woman named Marceline. He marries Marceline, returns to the United States with her, and murders her, though he is depicted as justified in doing so since she is revealed as both a monster, with Medusa-like hair, and a black woman passing as white.

The story is mostly the product of Lovecraft’s imagination. Brown-Reed Bishop provided the concept, but he executed it and “virtually all structural elements, character portrayals, and the prose” belong to Lovecraft. However, the final “horrific” revelation of the tale, which concerns Marceline’s African ancestry, was probably present in Brown-Reed Bishop’s original notes to Lovecraft so it might not have been an element he concocted by himself. Nevertheless, Lovecraft certainly utilized and emphasized the element of Marceline’s blackness.

Like Asenath, Marceline is also attractive. She is “beautiful,” has an “air of breeding” which must indicate some “strains of good blood in her.” Slim, graceful, in her early twenties, with a complexion of a deep olive and dark eyes, she possesses classical features “though not quite clean-cut” and “the most singular head of jet black hair.”

Lovecraft constantly exoticizes Marceline, mentioning distant locales and mysterious elements of her physical persona. With a certain hairdo, she might be an “Oriental princess,” for example. Marceline makes the narrator think of: “Babylon, Atlantis, Lemuria, and the terrible forgotten dominations of an elder world; her eyes struck me sometimes as the eyes of some unholy forest creature or animal-goddess too immeasurably ancient to be fully human.”

But just like Asenath, Marceline exudes something repellent. By the end of “Medusa’s Coil” we learn that the narrator’s misgivings are correct, since Marceline is a monster and more than that, a “negress.” In fact, the revelation of Marceline’s blackness is supposed to be more shocking than the discovery that Marceline’s hair has a life of its own (thus the ‘Medusa’ of the title) and is able to attack people.

How Marceline might have looked

It would be too hideous if they knew that the one-time heiress of Riverside–the accursed gorgon or lamia whose hateful crinkly coil of serpent-hair must even now be brooding and twining vampirically around an artist’s skeleton in a lime-packed grave beneath a charred foundation–was faintly, subtly, yet to the eyes of genius unmistakably the scion of Zimbabwe’s most primal grovelers. No wonder she owned a link with that old witch-woman Sophonisba–for, though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a negress.

There was much anxiety among proponents of eugenics about the physical body as a manifestation of the interior quality of people. As historian Wendy Kline notes in “A New Deal for the Child,” sound minds in sound bodies was the motto of the time, couching itself on increasingly rigid standards of beauty popularized by the media. I wish to emphasize one of the concerns of eugenicists: the conundrum of what they might do when a defective mind did not appear to inhabit a defective body. That is, when physiognomy was not a tell-tale sign of abnormality.

Since the nineteenth century eugenics proponents were plagued with the problem of identifying the unfit. Although physical appearance was seen as proof of good character, eugenicists feared it was not sufficient, as the unfit could pass as healthy. H. H. Goddard warned against being deceived by external characteristics of girls. As he explained, good-looking girls could seem “bright in appearance” but ultimately prove to be hopeless “high-grade feeble-minded” persons, “morons,” and “delinquents”. Recessive genes might create a large pool of asymptomatic carriers, meaning one needed to look back at several generations of a family. Genealogical studies and historical records were therefore crucial to establish good character. Eugenic proponents such as Francis Galton envisioned “anthropometric laboratories” in which all men and women were to be measured, photographed and classified.

Yet, despite its perceived limitations, aesthetics played an important role in eugenics. As the book Eugenics and Sex Harmony by Herman H. Rubin indicated, health is the basis of true beauty and thus one might imagine that the absence of health would mean the absence of beauty. Conversely the presence of beauty would indicate health.

If eugenicists believed like Gilman that moral goodness was “inscribed on the body,” then what happened when the body told a lie? Lovecraft has the answer: the destruction of the family, and thus, of the wider society. Moreover, the most monstrous element of Marceline and Asenath may be the ease with which they are able to infiltrate the world of the fit. They are both successfully passing as normal, healthy women.

Even though Asenath and Marceline manage to infiltrate normal society, both manifest some elements of ugliness: the over-protuberant eyes of Asenath, Marceline’s not quite clean-cut features. These tell-tale details serve as a warning that they are not normal. Normalcy, Lovecraft seems to indicate, can be imitated but not quite duplicated. For example, Asenath’s intense will, her decisive personality, brand her with premature wrinkles. Their behavior also makes the women suspect. Asenath’s reputation makes people shun her and Marceline is also shunned by the women who might be part of her social circle. They are treated as outsiders because their behavior is somehow inappropriate, though not so blatantly wrong that they are absolute outcasts.

The result is that through Asenath and Marceline, Lovecraft makes manifest a number of eugenics concerns tied to women. Asenath and Marceline’s racial ambiguity, deviant behavior

and sexual allure brand them as unfit and serve as markers of their Otherness. This Otherness threatens not only the bodies of individual white men, but annihilates the family structure as a whole. This, of course, was what eugenicists feared: the decimation of the family and ultimately the nation. Although Asenath and Marceline never speak a line of dialogue, their silent bodies ultimately narrate a story of biological terror and triumphant destruction.

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  1. Jeffrey Peters 9 months ago

    Lovecraft was repeatedly anti-Eugenics and most of his works show the problem of eugenics, from selective breeding leading to inbreeding and Shoggoths turning on their masters. This essay shows a complete misunderstanding of Lovecraft’s works and does a great disservice.

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