History bears ample witness to this profound disquiet stirred in the human soul by bodies that stray from what is typical or unpredictable
—Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body 1
The first time I read “The Dunwich Horror” by H.P. Lovecraft, I was a nineteen-year old stroke survivor, confined to the couch in my mother’s living room, gripping the edges of an old library book like one loosened finger, one glance away would send me onto the floor. The works of Lovecraft came into my life at a time when I needed the utmost concentration to regain skills extending from the ability to read to being able to stand in front of the microwave without collapsing. It took months to be able to walk from the couch to the door, the door to the mailbox, the mailbox to the orange tiger lily in my mother’s garden. I had known disability since childhood, but never a horror quite like this.
It was cosmic horror that brought a fractured life back into focus.
My first deep exploration into the character of Lavinia Whateley was for my final undergraduate research paper, exploring the depictions of disabled women in 20th century horror fiction. Historically, Gothic literature has portrayed variations of health and bodily form as monstrous, asserting that the disparate form and function of disabled minds and bodies are to be feared and othered. As Pang Shi Hua states in their contribution to the Glossary of the Gothic: Deformity:
Part of the reason for our irrational fear of disability is that in any moment, a healthy body is one broken blood vessel removed from becoming a body with disabilities.
That is to say that the disabled body in the eyes of the abled witness is a harbinger of perceived limitation and ultimately, social ostracization and death. The characterization of disabled women as objects rather than subjects within the origin of the horror genre may be examined through interpersonal, temporal, and narrative elements via a contemporary lens of feminist philosophy and the burgeoning field of disability theory. They may also be examined to highlight issues that are primarily overcast in previous studies, including issues of embodiment, bodily autonomy and violation.
In H.P. Lovecraft’s 1928 short story “The Dunwich Horror” the character of Lavinia Whateley is an excellent subject to examine in this contemporary context. Also, as a fellow disabled New England woman living in poverty, I felt there was something beyond affinity forming between my eyes and the words on the page. I wanted to hear her, imagine her as more fully-formed than Lovecraft had made her.
I do not have albinism, though I have several chronic and disabling conditions that made me empathize with Lavinia, and wonder as to the complexities that would arise in such a life. In my pursuit of analyzing her character, it was important for me not to medicalize her, since the foundational aspect of disability theory is in defining the social obstacles, rather than physical and biological ones, that make life difficult for individuals. People with disabilities are as different as snowflakes, and it was my intention to observe and analyze while avoiding any projection.
Disability is presented in the Gothic as a “direct response to the long-held habit of Western culture to define the human norm, then to construe the non-normative as dangerously close to being non-human” (Hua). Associating the disabled more closely with monstrosity serves a social purpose in that it frees the individual from proximity and association with a person they feel represents an injurious threat to their own wellbeing. In Nancy Marck Cantwell’s “De-Composing the Gothic Body in Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent,” she says:
We commonly bear witness to the abject when we are confronted by the inevitability of our physical dissolution. (33)
When it comes to women, this is particularly poignant. The developmental origin of the horror fiction genre is complex, with the presence of horror elements in texts dating back to pre-Biblical times. Women in Gothic horror fiction, defined in this essay as fantastic works with macabre and haunting elements that arose within the first quarter of the 20th century, are portrayed and perceived through a particular lens; one that interprets the cultural ideals of feminine personhood and disabled embodiment through objectification, “othering,” and in consideration of 19th century idealism. In Nancy Cott’s “An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology” she states that:
The late nineteenth century was an era of contention over female sexuality, physiology, health, dress, and exercise, and one in which medical opinion had become an authoritative sector of public opinion. (219)
The realities of feminine suffering and their aftermath go largely codified or unspoken, with the narrative voices being predominantly male, and disabled women being relocated to the silent poverty-stricken realms of society.
The female body as “other” is a perspective with historical basis, as discussed in David T. Mitchell and S. L. Snyder’s Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse:
The othering of the female body—through the vilification of femaleness, female sexuality, pregnancy and childbirth—is not a new occurrence. Aristotle, like Freud and Lacan much later, identified women as incomplete or deformed males. (55)
The pervasive belief in biological essentialism was a key tool in the oppression of women, and so not only the state of the mind, but the condition of the body were determiners of ability, status, and the eventualities of their lives. In Mary Poovey’s Feminism and Deconstruction, the idea that “neither sexuality nor social identity is given exclusively in or through the body, however it is sexed” (51), a concept explored briefly below, was absent from gender discourse at the time as well. This is further discussed in Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today:
In every domain where patriarchy rains, woman is other: she is objectified and marginalized, defined only by her difference from male norms and values, defined by what she allegedly lacks and that men allegedly have. (87)
The dehumanization and “othering” of women was a means to maintain patriarchal power. In horror and fantastic tales that are largely narrated by men and written in an era of evolving gender and racial rights, there lies inklings of information that allow for contemporary interpretation which, in turn, elevate the humanity and validity of women disabled women, and their experiences beyond the stereotypical label of victim, among other terms denoting the inhuman.
For much of our cultural history, the female body has been viewed as imperfect: an aberration of the “perfect” male form and consequently repugnant or even dangerous, yet close enough to this “male default” to be familiar and even attractive. This has a destabilising force on both the male subject, who simultaneously experiences desire and revulsion, and the female object, when she discovers that she is being “othered” and is “no longer seen in her own right.”
—Jane Mitchell, Reclaiming the Monster: Abjection and Subversion in the Marital Gothic Novel 57
It is worth noting that there were authors that addressed themes of disability and sexuality in the gothic novel, namely Edith Nesbit, though this is a topic for another examination.
Disability imagery in the Gothic novel and short story often signifies “moral decay or the lack of a moral sense” (Longmore 1987, 67-68; Snyder and Mitchell 2000). This archaic view of the disabled individual denotes their use in society as a warning against that which may bring about disease and decay, but it also claims that those who are regarded as wretched on the outside are wretched on the inside, something we know to be unequivocally false. Contemporary disability theory recognizes disability as “an overarching, life-defining confluence of categories” according to Jan Grue in “Rhetorics of Difference : Julia Kristeva and Disability” (49). In In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing, Chris Baldick observes that:
The representation of fearful transgressions in the figure of physical deformity arises as a variant of that venerable cliché of political discourse, the “body politic.” When political discord and rebellion appear, this “body” is said to be not just diseased, but misshapen, abortive, monstrous. Once the state is threatened to the point where it can no longer be safely identified (according to the medieval theory) with “the King’s body”—that is, with an integral and sacred whole—then the humanly recognizable form of the body politic is lost, dispersed into a chaos of dismembered and contending organs. (14)
Baldick’s passage supports the idea in Lucy Sheehan’s article “Trials of Embodiment: Being a Gothic Body in ‘Mary Barton,” which states that:
A single body ‘embodies’ multiple objects, or, alternately, in which many bodies “embody” a single unified political consciousness. (37)
“The Dunwich Horror,” chosen to illustrate the central themes of this analysis, was selected for the presence of a female character that drives the narrative, inclusion or suggestion of the supernatural, and the cultural impact the stories have had on contemporary horror fiction. The only major female character in the tale is Lavinia Whateley, who shares her name with a character from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Born in 1878, she is the daughter of wizard Old Whateley and her late unnamed mother, who had a mysterious and violent death when Lavinia was twelve years old.
Lovecraft establishes Lavinia immediately as an outsider through her appearance, playing into the historical reality as described by Rosemarie Garland Thomson in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, that the “visually different have always provoked the imaginations of their fellow human beings” (1). Lavinia has albinism, which contributes to the alienation she already gets for being a part of a strange family. She is described as slatternly, and has inherited the weak chin of her relatives. Lavinia disappeared in 1926 on Halloween night. It is inferred throughout the story that she was a victim of matricide.
The mother was one of the decadent Whateleys, a somewhat deformed, unattractive albino woman of thirty-five, living with an aged and half-insane father about whom the frightful tales of wizardry had been whispered in his youth. Lavinia Whateley had no husband, but according to the custom of the region, made no attempt to disavow the child […]
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”
Lavinia’s depiction is as ableist as it is misogynistic. There is hardly a mention of her name that does not include a qualifier immediately before or after that she is deformed. Lovecraft’s characterization of Lavinia, meant to evoke horror and disgust, is also meant to be comparatively less offensive than the horror that is her son, Wilbur, a child described in both ableist and racist terms, as the “dark, goatish-looking infant who formed such a contrast to her own sickly and pink-eyed albinism” and “swarthy.”
While I do not wish to medicalize Lavinia, as stated above, it is still important to put albinism in context for the contemporary reader. The understanding of the condition today is far more intricate than in Lovecraft’s time. Albinism is a genetically-inherited disease indicated by the absence of melanin; skin, hair, eyes are characteristically faint, having little color or intensity, and affects vision. Raji Ade Oba in “Albinism: A Silently-Growing Disability that remains largely uncategorized and ‘uncelebrated,’” states that:
A 2014 South African Medical Journal found that in Nigeria, albino children experienced isolation, dodged social interactions, and were less emotionally stable. In fact, it was reported that affected individuals were more likely to drop out of school, be unemployed, and be unable to find partners.
Lavinia’s few interactions with characters outside of her family are strange, stemming from her limited exposure which most likely resulted from familial or self-isolation from the townspeople due to her albinism. Though it can be argued that this isolation could be, either solely or mixed with, the dark sorcery of the inhabitants of her house.
The medical aspects of albinism are not described in the story. Lovecraft delivers observations about Lavinia that illustrate her as hideous for an audience of the time that was likely just as uneducated and unsympathetic regarding genetic disorders. A more accurate or nuanced depiction of a character with albinism may have incorporated any of the following aspects, as described in The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine:
People with albinism may have one or more of the following eye problems: severe far-sighted or near-sighted, astigmatism, constant, involuntary movement of the eyeball called nystagmus, problems in coordinating the eyes in fixing and tracking objects (strabismus), problems with depth perception, and light sensitivity. People with a rare form of albinism called Hermansky-Pudlak Syndrome (HPS) also have a greater tendency to have bleeding disorders, inflammation of the large bowel (colitis), lung (pulmonary) disease, and kidney (renal) problems.
How much Lovecraft knew of these details is unknown. His characterization lends credence to the idea that the disabled should not procreate, seeing that Wilbur and his monstrous twin are evil and destructive beings. Lavinia’s impregnation can be seen as an inverse of the holy conception of Jesus Christ. It is also a direct reference to Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, where the formula “Et Diabolus incarnatus est. Et homo factus est.” is a deliberate inversion of “And God became incarnate, and made man.”
Lavinia was learned, affirming that the acquisition of knowledge was regarded as a peculiarity or trait that accompanied the makeup of a woman who could destabilize the patriarchal system at hand. “She was a lone creature given to wandering amidst thunderstorms in the hills and trying to read the great, odorous books which her father had inherited through two centuries of Whateleys” and “She had never been to school, but was filled with disjointed scraps of ancient lore that Old Whateley had taught her” (“The Dunwich Horror”).
Lovecraft plays into the medical model of disability with his characterization of Lavinia, which “frames atypical bodies and minds as deviant, pathological, and defective, best understood and addressed in medical terms”, an idea described by Alison Kafer in her pivotal text, Feminist, Queer, Crip (5). While it is stated that she is a woman of some learning, even if it is occult learning or familial oral history, it is most critical that you understand her as “deformed,” and therefore “other.” But impairment at the time this story was conceived was different than modern times. “What we understand as impairing conditions—socially, physically, mentally, or otherwise—shifts across time and place” (Kafer 7). As feminists and fighters against ableism, it is critical that we review texts with disabled characters, and disability overall, as “a site for collective reimagining” (Kafer 9). Lovecraft’s characterization of Lavinia also hearkens back to classical and medieval times, when, as Angela M. Smith discusses in Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema:
[…] unusual bodies and behaviors were viewed as evidence of divine or otherwise unknowable forces and read as portents of good will or ill, or manifestations of “earthly malignancy and witchcraft.” (3-4)
Her son, Wilbur, even began to regard her with a “growing contempt” eventually implicitly committing matricide. “Poor Lavinia Whateley, the twisted albino, was never seen again.” Here we have a supernatural being with disdain for his mother so great, that he murders her. One might look upon Lavinia’s cherishing of the child and see great injustice in this. That a woman of limited but enthusiastic learning, who perseveres beyond the so-called limitations of her condition, and still has some indefinable but present faith, as a discardable being. In David Punter’s A Companion to the Gothic he says that “The gothic uses and abuses a woman’s body; in this genre, she is ‘moved, threatened, discarded, and lost’ (257-268).
Women in Gothic fiction of the present day are afforded greater humanity. Through the mobilization of modern disability discourses, including the re-framing of disability as marginalized identity rather than defective being, and integrating concepts of disability futurity, it may be demonstrated that portrayals of disabled women in Gothic literature may be reframed with modern theoretical interpretations to cultivate nuance that better serves the future of disability discourse. That is an improvement that will benefit not only readers, but the people who inhabit the real world as well.
Farah Rose Smith is a fiction writer and scholar from Rhode Island. She has authored the novellas Anonyma, The Almanac of Dust, and Eviscerator, as well as the collections Of One Pure Will and The Witch is the Body. She lives in New York City.
Copyright 2022 Farah Rose Smith
6 thoughts on “A Disability Scholar Looks At Lovecraft by Farah Rose Smith”
This piece is brilliant! Thank you so much for a wonderful and insightful read.
I’ve always thought that “The Dunwich Horror” was largely influenced by Lovecraft’s eugenicist ideas. Eugenics was very popular in the late teens and twenties in the US. Especially in the north east, partly because of the Eugenics Institute at Cold Harbor. Many states enacted laws based on the “science” of eugenics, including laws effecting disabled persons and especially the mentally ill.
The description of Dunwich and its poor white residents as biologically and morally “degenerate” is clear from passages in the story, which reflects the physical anthropometry of recruiting officers in WWI and Lovecraft’s prejudices regarding poor whites – which is also evident in stories such as “The Lurking Fear.” For more on Lovecraft and eugenics, I would recommend reading Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Magna Mater: Women and Eugenic Thought in the Work of H. P. Lovecraft”:
Scholar, this is truly brilliant. Thank you, and bless you, for sharing your own personal connection.