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.