Lavinia was one who would be apt to mutter such things, for 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 which were fast falling to pieces with age and worm-holes. She had never been to school, but was filled with disjointed scraps of ancient lore that Old Whateley had taught her. The remote farmhouse had always been feared because of Old Whateley’s reputation for black magic, and the unexplained death by violence of Mrs. Whateley when Lavinia was twelve years old had not helped to make the place popular. Isolated among strange influences, Lavinia was fond of wild and grandiose day-dreams and singular occupations; nor was her leisure much taken up by household cares in a home from which all standards of order and cleanliness had long since disappeared.H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”
There is a small cycle of stories involving Lavinia Whateley, spinning out from “The Dunwich Horror.” W. H. Pugmire & Robert M. Price suggested her survival in “The Tree House” in The Dunwich Cycle; Alex Picchetti went into explicit detail about her conception of the twins in “When The Stars Come” in Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica; Edward Lee was no less explicit in describing Lavinia’s relationship with her sons in The Dunwich Romance.
Yet these stories are all more or less unsympathetic—perhaps not surprising as they were all written by men, and accept that Lavinia was a more or less willing participant in the events leading up to the Dunwich Horror; a cultist who finally grew afraid of her children and quietly disappeared off the page when her part in the story was over. Few of them focus on what it was like to be Lavinia Whateley. Albinos don’t have it easy in life, even when they’re not uneducated and living in rural poverty under the will of a demented wizard intent on using her as a broodmare for a pair of cosmic horror antichrists. There is little of the realism of that hard life in their characterizations. As Smith puts it:
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.Farah Rose Smith, A Disability Scholar Looks At Lovecraft
Lovecraft’s model of Lavinia Whateley was Mary from Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan”—a young woman raised to be the subject of an experiment by an older, learned man, who gives birth to an enfant terrible, inhuman in aspect. Mary is barely there in Machen’s story, and Lovecraft gave her both more background and characterization—but not very positive characterization, and even the description of Lavinia is unflattering. Lavinia was “a somewhat deformed, unattractive albino woman of thirty-five,” a “slatternly, crinkly-haired albino,” with “misproportioned arms” and the Whateley chinlessness.
Some of Lovecraft’s descriptions are particular: why the misproportioned arms? Why an albino? Why crinkly hair? Readers and writers might gloss some of these: making Lavinia an albino helped to heighten the contrast with her “black brat,” Wilbur Whateley; crinkly hair can be a sign of dryness, suggesting she doesn’t wash it, which would go along with the idea that Lavinia was “slatternly” or unkempt, dirty, a common characteristic of poor whites in Lovecraft’s fiction. Yet Farah Rose Smith looked at these pieces of the puzzle and went a different way…
Ma was born in the back of a show wagon to a dyin’ hottentot (that’s what Barnum called ’em, she said, but said she’d slap me cross the cheeks top and bottom if I ever said it myself) and “New England’s tallest Negro.” When she was a little gilr, they told her to get out when she could, or else Barnum’d put her on display like them and even take out her body parts fer exhibition after she was dead.Farah Rose Smith, Lavinia Rising 21
This puts, to pun a phrase, an entirely different complexion on the matter. Lovecraft gives no attention to Lavinia Whateley’s maternal line except to say that Mrs. Whateley died violently when the girl was twelve years old. He has nothing to say about Wilbur Whateley’s maternal grandparents. Human zoos and human oddities were real—and often very exploitative—enterprises in the late 19th and early 20th century, as famously depicted in the 1932 pre-Code horror film Freaks. Making Lavinia mixed-race highlights a heritage of discrimination…and a life she didn’t want for her sons.
Like “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle, Lavinia Rising is an alternate point of view for “The Dunwich Horror,” but largely follows the plot of Lovecraft’s story. This changes the story from a horror to a tragedy; readers know what is going to happen, more or less, and the difference is that we get Lavinia’s point of view as she grows up, dealing with her illnesses and disabilities, the discrimination and misogyny of a rural New England town and a patriarchal household ruled by a twisted madman that sees her as no more than a means to an end. There is little happiness in that life, and we know how it is going to end.
Yet what Farah Rose Smith offers readers is one thing more: what happens after the end. A brief epilogue to “The Dunwich Horror” which focuses on her actions to understand what happened to her children, as opposed to what happened to Mamie Bishop or Wilbur Whateley. The domestic drama and very human grief may be completely counter to Lovecraft’s idea of cosmic horror…but that is rather the point. Lovecraft did enough damage to Lavinia’s reputation; it’s time to hear her own story in her own words, and her point of view makes her an outsider in her own family of outsiders.
The only book really comparable to Lavinia Rising in the corpus of weird fiction is Helen’s Story (2013) by Rosanne Rabinowitz—and while the stories are very different in how they turn out, there is a similarity in that both of these works revisit women in weird fiction who have been ill-served by the rather patriarchial attitudes of the late 19th and early 20th century. Both Machen and Lovecraft were fully capable of writing fiction from the point of view of women, and capable too of imagining them as sympathetic and intelligent beings—Machen’s “The White People” and “The Man of Stone” (1932) by Hazel Heald & H. P. Lovecraft showcase that, at least a little—but they rarely did so. In focusing on their supernatural horrors, Lovecraft and Machen largely overlook or choose not to detail the domestic horrors and psychological horrors of those women’s lives, except by inference…or, in the case of Lavinia, a single desperate conversation:
Through all the years Wilbur had treated his half-deformed albino mother with a growing contempt, finally forbidding her to go to the hills with him on May-Eve and Hallowmass; and in 1926 the poor creature complained to Mamie Bishop of being afraid of him.
“They’s more abaout him as I knows than I kin tell ye, Mamie,” she said, “an’ naowadays they’s more nor what I know myself. I vaow afur Gawd, I dun’t know what he wants nor what he’s a-tryin’ to dew.”H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”
Smith retains Lovecraft’s dialogue verbatim, but expands on the scene and the thoughts and events behind them. Like Rabinowitz, the main point of departure is the part of the story where the woman died or disappeared—and their survival marks the transition from the familiar to the unfamiliar. This is all about the parts of the story the reader never got to read about…and, it has to be said, Smith does it well. It is a compelling story, and if there are a few inconsistencies here and there, those might as easily be chalked up to an unreliable narrator and unreliable transcription as error.
Plus, we get to learn the name of Wilbur’s brother.