On “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

When Ancestry.com several impacts your mental health.

“Facts concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family” (full text) was first published in March 1921 in an issue of The Wolverine. The Wolverine was an amateur magazine that titled itself a “Free-lance journal” and while Jermyn was the first piece by Lovecraft to grace its pages, it would go on to host four further Lovecraft stories as well as work by members of the Lovecraft circle including Frank Belknap Long.

Jermyn is a story with quite a famous and interesting origin story as Lovecraft revealed in a letter to Edwin Baird that it was written as a response to a specific work. The work in question is a story cycle named Winesburg, Ohio written by Sherwood Anderson and first published between 1916 and 1918 in a number of different magazines. According to Lovecraft, he was badgered into reading the stories only to find them insufficiently grotesque and so he took it upon himself to draw on the history of Weird fiction to produce something altogether more horrifying and gothic. The problem, it turns out, is that “horrifying” is a somewhat moveable feast…

I remember once seeing a post by someone who happened to be teaching literature to a group of young people during one of the cyclical recurrences of the debate surrounding rape culture and the question of the acceptability of depicting rape in a fictional context. The poster carefully explained the difference between depicting and endorsing before talking through a number of hypothetical reasons why someone would write about rape and (more importantly) why people would choose to read about it. Most of the class welcomed the new ideas and saw their opinions soften but one person stuck up their hand and asked “Yeah… but what if someone drew a picture of something really bad. Like… a skull” at which point the entire class erupted into laughter. That is the entire vibe of this story.

Jermyn opens with lovely piece of gothic scene-setting

“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 borne 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.”

Lovecraft was a big fan of these kinds of openings and he returned to this particular well a number of times in his career. However, while this opening does a fantastic job of establishing the tone, the themes, and the narrative starting-point of the story, I feel that the prose and the syntax are just a little bit too cluttered and ornate. Compare it to the stark simplicity of what is arguably the greatest gothic riff opening in all of literature, that of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

In terms of their ideas, these two passages are almost identical. In terms of their structure, they are very similar. They both open with bold, pitch-black statements of existential fact and end with a flourish that sets up the story. The similarities are so blatant that I would be amazed if Jackson had not been inspired by Lovecraft.  The only real difference between the two is that Jackson uses somewhat simpler syntax and foregoes clunky, over-heated terminology like “daemoniacal” and “exterminator”. Jackson understood something that Lovecraft was still, at this point in his career, struggling to learn: Sometimes big ideas are best contained in simple language. The more you clutter-up your syntax, the more you are giving the reader places to hide from the force of your revelations.

The story is essentially a long explanation for why it was that Arthur Jermyn decided to set himself on fire. The Jermyn family was once both wealthy and prestigious, boasting not only a sizeable fortune but also ties to the British nobility through a baronetcy inherited by the eldest son. However, the wealth and stature of the family had slowly ebbed away as each generation produced a son that tended to behave in ways that seemed erratic and wildly self-destructive by the standards of both their era and their social class. Arthur Jermyn was the last scion of this once-wealthy family and he had decided to use his considerable erudition to try and learn some more about his family history. It is what he learned about his family and his biological heritage that drove him to set himself on fire.

The story begins several generations earlier with Sir Wade Jermyn who had explored the Congo and returned with some wild ideas about ancient African civilisations. Aside from his wild theories, Sir Wade also returned from Africa with a wife whom, he claimed, was of Portuguese descent. This woman was not allowed out of the house and bore children who were said to have had a somewhat distinctive appearance. For his eccentricities, Sir Wade was locked away in an insane asylum.

Though intelligent, Sir Wade’s children and grand-children all struggled to fit in with the expectations placed on them by their class and their race. One of them decided to join the Royal Navy as an ordinary sailor while another ran away to join the circus and devoted his life to training gorillas right up until the moment he attacked one of his charges and wound up getting torn to shreds. Sir Wade’s children also showed unusual taste in women as Arthur’s father himself married a music-hall performer before deciding to abandon her.

While all of Sir Wade’s descendants were smart, his scholarly tendencies would only re-surface in Arthur who took it upon himself to try and reclaim his family heritage by renovating his family mansion and gaining some reputation as a scholar in the humanities:

“It was the mind and character of Arthur Jermyn which atoned for his aspect. Gifted and learned, he took highest honours at Oxford and seemed likely to redeem the intellectual fame of his family. Though of poetic rather than scientific temperament, he planned to continue the work of his forefathers in African ethnology and antiquities, utilising the truly wonderful though strange collection of Sir Wade.”

One of the responses to Sir Wade’s work on the people of the Congo was that he had taken the words of the locals at face value. Wade’s critics pointed out that while the locals might well have spoken about a now-defunct tribe ruled by white apes, those legends were most likely little more than smears and propaganda put about by the people responsible for the extinction of the tribe in the first place. However, what Arthur discovers when he travels to the Congo is that the folklore actually went a little bit further:

“The ape-princess, it was said, became the consort of a great white god who had come out of the West. For a long time they had reigned over the city together, but when they had a son all three went away. Later the god and the princess had returned, and upon the death of the princess her divine husband had mummified the body and enshrined it in a vast house of stone, where it was worshipped.”

Arthur takes it upon himself to track down the mummy and, upon having it delivered to his home, he cracks open the crate and realises that the ape-princess is none other than his own great-great-great-grandmother. In other words, he is one-sixty fourth ape, and everything from his poetic nature to his weird appearance and athleticism can be explained by the fact that he is directly related to some kind of gorilla. This drives him mad and prompts him to set himself on fire:

“The stuffed goddess was a nauseous sight, withered and eaten away, but it was clearly a mummified white ape of some unknown species, less hairy than any recorded variety, and infinitely nearer mankind—quite shockingly so. Detailed description would be rather unpleasant, but two salient particulars must be told, for they fit in revoltingly with certain notes of Sir Wade Jermyn’s African expeditions and with the Congolese legends of the white god and the ape-princess. The two particulars in question are these: the arms on the golden locket about the creature’s neck were the Jermyn arms, and the jocose suggestion of M. Verhaeren about a certain resemblance as connected with the shrivelled face applied with vivid, ghastly, and unnatural horror to none other than the sensitive Arthur Jermyn, great-great-great-grandson of Sir Wade Jermyn and an unknown wife. Members of the Royal Anthropological Institute burned the thing and threw the locket into a well, and some of them do not admit that Arthur Jermyn ever existed.”

Jermyn is one of those stories where, rather than trying to bend his talent to writing about a subject matter chosen by other authors, Lovecraft tapped directly into his lived experience and wrote about his own deepest and darkest fears. Lovecraft was a scholarly man with a poetic temperament and he came from a family whose fortune had disappeared. He was also the child of two parents who had both ended their lives in insane asylums. Jermyn is a fantastic example of Lovecraft grappling not only with his fear of being sucked back down into the proletariat, but also with his fear that whatever it was that happened to his parents would also happen to him. That opening riff about science revealing unpalatable truths is about as close to the metal as you can get with Lovecraft: He knew that his identity was built on shifting sands and that even the tiniest fragment of truth would bring his whole identity crashing down around his ears; the scholarly gentleman reduced to a penniless loser sponging off his female relatives. Lovecraft knew that his ego could not withstand the truth about his position in the world and so he wrote stories in which truth is always the harbinger of madness. The fact that Arthur Jermyn was an admired scholar who set himself on fire because he learned an unpalatable truth about his bloodline speaks to both sides of Lovecraft’s self-perception: He is both the gentleman scholar and the mentally fragile wretch.

Nowadays, Jermyn tends to be read as nothing more than an instantiation of Lovecraft’s swivel-eyed racism. However, I think it’s worth spending a little time to unpack the idea that this story is racist because Arthur Jermyn’s great-great-great-grandmother wasn’t a Congolese woman, but a literal ape.

Jermyn is a bit like “Polaris” in so far as its racism is a function of racist beliefs and stereotypes that have since been abandoned and replaced with others. “Polaris” can be read as a yellow-peril story because, at the time, Eskimos were understood to be Asian and Asian people were viewed as an uncivilised horde that threatened to submerge all of Western civilisation. Nowadays, we no longer think of Eskimo people as Asian, Westerners no longer view Asian people as an uncivilised horde, and so the story seems less racist but this is really only because we now have entirely new sets of prejudiced beliefs informing us why it’s acceptable to marginalise Eskimos and look with suspicion upon people from South-East Asia.

Jermyn’s racism can, I would argue, be located in two separate sets of (somewhat overlapping) tropes:

The first is that of the intelligent white ape. White apes were an absolute staple of the pulps and it seems reasonable to assume that Lovecraft took inspiration from old Tarzan stories for the story’s depiction of Africa. While the trope has since fallen out of favour (for obvious reasons), one of its last mainstream appearances was in Congo, a film based on a 1980 novel by John Crichton. Congo is about a tech company that goes in search of a rare blue diamond. The diamond is native to a particular area of the Congo and when the tech company send in a group to investigate they find that the diamonds are located in a mine beneath the ‘Lost City of Zinj’ whose human inhabitants were murdered when their specially-bread white gorillas rebelled and killed their masters.

Though made in the mid-1990s, the film version of Congo did make some effort to filter out the racism of the source material firstly by including a diverse cast and secondly by removing all suggestion that the white gorillas were human hybrids that had been bred for their intelligence.

In other words, rather than being a form of albinism, the whiteness of the apes is a by-product of their acquiring intelligence. In the pulps, intelligent apes have to be white because whiteness is associated with civilisation and the idea that a society might rise without whiteness was unappealing to racist minds.

The second set of overlapping tropes is the idea of blackness being coterminous with an animalistic nature. This trope is beautifully and powerfully instantiated in the 1932 adaptation of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde where Dr. Jeckyll drinks a potion and suddenly acquires a load of physical characteristics commonly associated with Black people:

The idea that Black people are more ape than man dates all the way back to the middle-ages and the idea of there being a great chain of being with (white) humanity at the top and all of the animal kingdom below us. While this handily justifies humanity’s mistreatment and exploitation of animals, it also provides a justification for first slavery and then racism. Even when the idea of the great chain of being fell out of fashion, people hung on to many of its trappings as a way of justifying institutional mistreatment that was already hard-wired into the existing social order. So while you could no longer get away with saying that Black people were sub-human, you could say that they were animalistic in so far as they supposedly struggled to contain their more primitive emotions in a way that is not true of civilised white people. The shape of the prejudiced beliefs may have changed over time but their exculpatory and dehumanising nature have not as made clear in this fascinating piece about the history of comparing Black people to simians.

So while Jermyn does not technically compare Black people to apes or suggest that Arthur Jermyn killed himself for having a Black relative, the entire story is draped in a set of tropes that contemporary readers would have immediately understood. Jermyn is not a story about discovering that your great-great-great-grandmother was a gorilla, it’s about setting yourself on fire because your blood is tainted by Blackness.

As is so often the case when Lovecraft drinks from his personal wellspring of racial insecurity, “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family” feels dated, silly, and more than a little pathetic. This being said, while the story feels under-powered because most people would not be all that bothered to discover that they have a non-white ancestor, the weirdly precise nature of the fears the story tap into say quite a bit about not only what Lovecraft feared but also how he saw himself.

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