I read a thing, not long ago, and it got me to thinking, and making notes for a story I’ll probably never write. I do that a lot. Ideas, and the notes that come with them, are a dime a dozen. I get five ideas before breakfast and five more after my first cup of coffee. Ideas are cheap. Time is expensive.
Anyway, “Medusa’s Coil”, by H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop. Like “The Horror at Red Hook”, I both enjoy and detest this story. It is, without a doubt, one of the most staggeringly, ridiculously, obtusely racist stories Lovecraft ever attached his name to. The denouement alone is infamous…
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 grovellers. No wonder she owned a link with that old witch-woman Sophonisba—for, though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a negress.– Medusa’s Coil (1939)
C’mon, dude. At least try and be subtle about it.
Rereading the story, I was struck by the thought that the whole narrative might be topsy-turvy. Antoine de Russy is the epitome of the unreliable narrator, as are his son, Denis, and the painter, Frank Marsh. The picture they paint of Marceline Bedard (pun intended) is one overwhelmingly tainted by bigotry, misogyny and jealousy. And even then, her on-screen crimes amount to…falling in love with an idiot, being a bit shallow, showing interest in the wrong men, and, well, being not-white. As far as eldritch horrors go, she’s not exactly scary, is she? Other than the thing with the hair, I mean. Even that’s more ‘Lady, you come right out of a comic book‘ than, y’know, evil.
Too, Marceline is far more interesting a character than the nominal protagonists of the story. Where did she come from? How did she come to acquire the occult knowledge she possesses? Or control a group of mystics in Paris? What’s the deal with that hair? What’s her connection to R’lyeh and Cthulhu, if any? Did she ever meet Harley Warren, or Randolph Carter? What about Charles Dexter Ward or Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee?
Questions, people. I have them.
For me, “Medusa’s Coil” is a story in need of, if not reclamation, then at least some reinterpretation. Especially the ending. Marceline Bedard is too intriguing a character to wind up on the wrong end of a machete and buried in quicklime. At least, not permanently. But physical death isn’t the end, in Lovecraft’s universe. It’s often just a gateway, to a stranger, bolder existence. Randolph Carter found that out. And King Kuranes. Probably better not to mention poor Edward Derby.
What if Marceline escaped to somewhere else? What if the gorgon-haired adventuress stalks a new and more interesting world, with new dangers?
Like I said, notes for a story I might never write.