Thursday, January 31, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family"

Spooky Synopsis: Some family trees wither away, but the Jermyn line went up in smoke -- literally. One night, Sir Arthur Jermyn, the last male member of his family, soaked himself in kerosene and set himself ablaze out on the dark moor near the ancestral manor. A nasty end, but not one entirely unexpected given the bad deaths of his progenitors. His father, who abandoned the family to become a circus performer, perished when he inexplicably flew into a rage and attacked the show's gorilla. Arthur's great-grandfather died in an institution after strangling his son (Arthur's grandfather) and all but one of his children (Arthur's dad). And his great-great-grandfather disappeared into darkest Africa during a naval expedition. The strangeness in the family seems to have started with great-great-great-grandfather Sir Wade Jermyn, a scholar and explorer of the dark continent. Sir Wade finished his days in a madhouse, yet not before returning home with mad tales of a vast Congoese city stalked by a strange race of white apes and a wife whom no one can remember ever seeing.

Lovecraftian Language: "Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous. Science, already oppressive with its shocking revelations, will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species -- if separate species we be -- for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be bourne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world. If we knew what we are, we should do as Sir Arthur Jermyn did; and Arthur Jermyn soaked himself in oil and set fire to his clothing one night."

Eerie Evaluation: I'm of a decidedly mixed opinion about "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family." On one hand, it owns the term slow burn. We know from the get-go that Arthur will end badly, yet we don't know why. Lovecraft did more here than just pen a horror story; he constructed a nasty little mystery, sprinkling progressively more revealing details as he unspools the Jermyn line's past. And let me say that the structure works beautifully. On the other hand, the final reveals is jaw-droppingly bad. Without spoiling anything, let's just say that Lovecraft turns a popular conception of the Darwinian theory of his day to misanthropist and (I think) racist ends. I read this story twice and found myself cringing at the description of "a loathsome black woman from Guinea" who served as a nurse for Sir Wade's son. That hit me as insensitive the first time through, but it horrified me when I read it a second time, knowing what that child was and what racial point Lovecraft was not-so-subtly trying to make.

Number of Sanity-Shredding Shoggoths (out of five):

On my first read, I would've have given "Arthur Jermyn and His Family" ...


But after the second?


To visit the story index for "An Eldritch Education" (my year spent reading H.P. Lovecraft's work), please click here.


B. Nagel said...

Agreed. There were times I struggled to grasp the horror of the story past the horror of Lovecraft's bigotry. And if I ignored it, did that mean I embraced it and became complicit with his racism, classism and nihilism?


Lovecraft was writing metahorror - the reader is horrified that he embraced the premise of the horror story.

Loren Eaton said...

Yeah, I don't think he's writing metahorror, although he could be. As you say, maybe metahorror is the best way to describe our reactions to it.

Myself, I can appreciate the structure somewhat, but the racisms really puts a dent in my enjoyment. And in this one, it's so blatant.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Nnedi Okorafor, whose ethnicity matches her name, was rather horrified when she received the World Fantasy Award--and found that it was a statue of Lovecraft.

China Mieville shared sympathy, and recommended putting the statue with its face to a wall--so she could always be doing her writing behind Lovecraft's back.

There is nothing in Lovecraft's personal correspondence to indicate metahorror--and lots to indicate his fervent racism.

Still...he can do creepy with the best of them. Maybe HE is metahorror, without even knowing it.

Loren Eaton said...

It requires a great bit of maturity to know when to evaluate artistic skill apart from ideology -- and when to not. So far, I admire Lovecraft's ability to create a spooky atmosphere, but I can pretend that his ideology doesn't impact my enjoyment. Almost fatally, in this case.