I shall watch for the tale, “Medusa’s Coil,” you mentioned. Regardless of the author, if you instilled into the tale some of the magic of your own pen, it cannot fail to fascinate the readers.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, Sep 1930, A Means to Freedom 2.43
Zealia Margaret Caroline Brown was born in Asheville, NC in 1897; in 1914 she married James Reed, and the couple had a son James. At some point in the 1920s the couple divorced, and Zealia Brown-Reed supported herself and her son in Cleveland, OH by writing articles and short stories, and working as a court reporter while taking correspondence courses from Colombia University and the Home Correspondence School.
In 1927, Zealia wrote to H. P. Lovecraft, inquiring into his revision services, beginning a correspondence that would see Lovecraft ghost-write three stories for her: “The Curse of Yig” (1928), “The Mound” (1929), and “Medusa’s Coil” (1930). In 1930, she would marry D. W. Bishop, and Zealia’s correspondence with Lovecraft appears to taper off, although it continued through at least 1936.
In her memoir “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” (1953), Zealia is appreciative of Lovecraft’s efforts advice and erudition—although in their letters, published in The Spirit of Revision (2015) it is evident that they had very different interests in terms of writing. Zealia’s interest apparently lay in confession pulps and love stories (“light, domestic fiction in the popular vein”); Lovecraft tried and failed to bend her toward weird fiction. The limit of their meeting-of-the-minds in this regard appears to be their collaborations: Zealia would supply the idea for a story, which Lovecraft would flesh out into a detailed synopsis and then write.
Their first such ghostwriting venture, “The Curse of Yig” was a success, and appeared in the Nov 1929 issue of Weird Tales. The next story however, the lengthy novelette “The Mound,” was rejected by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright, and was rejected again after Frank Belknap Long abridged it to make it more salable to the pulp market. While little correspondence regarding the story survives, this also appears to have been the likely fate of “Medusa’s Coil”—which Lovecraft recalls writing in the summer of 1930:
Have no record of dates of “Mound” & “Medusa’s Coil”, but am tolerably certain the former was written in 1929 & the latter in 1930. Indeed, I know the latter date is right, because I did most of the job in Richmond on one of my trips—afternoon after afternoon in Maymont Park. And 1930 was the only time I ever spent a liberal period—nearly a fortnight—in Richmond.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 24 May 1935, O Fortunate Floridian! 276
In November 1930, Lovecraft mentions the rejection of a revision story in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, which is presumably “Medusa’s Coil.” (Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 280). It was, from all evidence, their final collaborative effort. Zealia Bishop had a bill for Lovecraft’s revision services which she would pay slowly over the next few years, but the two stories he had ghostwritten for her had not sold.
As for the origins of “Medusa’s Coil”:
[…] I had picked up as an idea from a Negress who did some housecleaning for me and expanded into a story similar in treatment to my earlier horror tale.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 259-260
The letters to and from Lovecraft concerning the tale do not survive, but Lovecraft’s notes for the story do and read in part:
(1.) Son kills wife with hastily seized machete, hacks off hair in savage rage since he dems this the cause of Marsh’s attraction & also connects it with her hideous nature & malignly magical affiliations—also, with her newly discovered racial identity. But the hair* slithers out of the room of its own volition, as if transformed to some monstrous black snake. At this sight son goes half mad. follows hair up to studio, & sees it coil itself around the slowly recovering Marsh. Hair strangles Marsh—the evil voodoo sorceress having recognised M. as an enemy when she saw the manner in which he had painted her. Son, witnessing this, goes wholly mad. Cowers & mutters around room till father enters. Then the shrieking explanation & the struggle. Son either kills himself or is killed by father. (Attempts to kill both father & self because he thinks family blood contaminated by his marriage to negress.) Father left alone with portrait & bodies & hair. Buries victims of tragedy in cellar & settles down to live as hermit. Picture affects him strangely—he cannot break away from it. He fears hair will emerge vampircally from Marsh’s grave. Sophonisba is sullen—continually wanders into cellar & haunts Marsh’s secret grave, though the servants are not supposed to know that anyone has died there. Marsh, son, & wife supposed to have gone away. Later freed hands servants & chauffeur all changed, money wanes, Sophinisba refuses to leave. Finally dies on Marsh’s cellar grave, muttering. […] Symbols of horror—voodoo—black mass—Cthulhu-cult—&c. &c.—Hair alive with independent life—woman revealed as vampire, lamia, &c. &c.—& unmistakably (surprise to reader as in original text) a negress.
—H. P. Lovecraft, notes for “Medusa’s Coil” in Collected Essays 5.243
As with Lovecraft’s previous ghostwriting job for Zealia, “The Mound,” this story contains explicit references to the Mythos that Lovecraft had created in his own fiction, and which he was encouraging writer-friends like Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard to use. It is set in southern Missouri, far away from Lovecraft’s typical haunts, and is a story that deals very directly with the mores regarding interracial sex in Southern culture:
Romantic young devil, too—full of high notions—you’d call ’em Victorian, now—no trouble at all to make him let the nigger wenches alone.
—Bishop & Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”
Shorn of the weird elements, the story boils down to something like a confession-story: the young heir of a Southern plantation goes off to school and returns with a beautiful and vain wife, and a visit by an artist friend sets the stage for what might be a triangular love affair—and it is worth noting what a departure this work was from Lovecraft’s previous fiction. The whole beginning plot is dependant on human relations, love, courtship and marriage; the spectre of infidelity that lingers between Marceline and Marsh is a very human conflict. Even the macabre twist of murder and worries of revenge from beyond the grave is a Poe-esque touch.
Except for the final, culminating revelation.
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.
—Bishop & Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”
“Medusa’s Coil” is a horror story about a mixed-race woman passing in white society. As a plot germ, that by itself is not particularly novel in American literature: Mark Twain examined the cultural and personal impact of the “one drop rule” directly in his novel Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894); Eli Colter’s more macabre story “The Last Horror” about a genius black surgeon who flayed white captives and grafted their skin over his own was published in the Jan 1927 issue of Weird Tales.
Passing is very specifically a horror aimed at a white audience—and “Medusa’s Coil” is not a nuanced or clever take on the subject. The very mundanity of the reveal undercuts whatever weird atmosphere that Lovecraft had built up at this point. Terminal revelations in stories like “The Dunwich Horror” (written 1928) and “The Whisperer in Darkness” (written 1930) add depth to the horror, the last little piece of information that casts the events of the story in a terrible new light. In “Medusa’s Coil” the reveal bombs completely…although not for lack of trying.
When “Medusa’s Coil” is read with foreknowledge of the ending, it becomes clear that Lovecraft attempted to build up to Zealia’s revelation throughout the story. Her reluctance to speak of her origins, ties to the French colony of Martinique in the Caribbean, and association with African religion all hint at her secret without revealing it. Yet for all that Marceline Bedard comes onto the stage as a femme fatale and sorceress or priestess, her real motivations appear to be exceptionally mundane, straight out of a Brontë novel: to marry into wealth and settle into life as a gentlewoman.
The problem is, Marceline is not Keziah Mason or Asenath Waite; she might be a strange young woman in the household and the servants don’t like her, but she doesn’t appear to actively do anything malicious, or have any particular nefarious plot or intentions, aside from possibly designs on infidelity. Conventional romanticism is only undercut by recurrent mention of how subtly disturbing or off her appearance is to the older de Russy—at least until the affair bloodily ends, and a supernatural element finally enters the picture. The ending is reminiscent of both The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and “Pickman’s Model” (1927): in art is truth revealed.
We can only guess at how much of the plot was Lovecraft’s own contribution. Certainly he wrote the actual text, and all the references to Cthulhu, Clark Ashton Smith, and Great Zimbabwe in the story are characteristic of his tastes and such matter from his letters. It could well be that the bulk of the macabre elements of the plot were his conception…and whether or not it was contained in Zealia’s initial idea, the final execution is purely Lovecraft’s prose.
There is, at this late date, no point in assigning fault. Zealia apparently suggested an idea starkly mundane and rooted in cultural fears of miscegenation, Lovecraft apparently was willing to pick up that idea and try to write to it. Neither, apparently, was conscious enough of the realities to consider the story from Marceline’s point of view—or perhaps Lovecraft’s efforts to build her up as a genuine supernatural threat simply fall apart when cosmic horror is married so directly, and effectively dependent upon, racial discrimination…and it is worse, in hindsight, when seeing de Russy’s response:
“‘She thought we couldn’t see through—that the false front would hold till we had bartered away our immortal souls. And she was half right—she’d have got me in the end. She was only—waiting. But Frank—good old Frank—was too much for her. He knew what it all meant, and painted it. I don’t wonder she shrieked and ran off when she saw it. It wasn’t quite done, but God knows enough was there.
“‘Then I knew I’d got to kill her—kill her, and everything connected with her. It was a taint that wholesome human blood couldn’t bear. There was something else, too—but you’ll never know that if you burn the picture without looking.
—Bishop & Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”
The straight reading of this is that there was something more to the revelation than just Marceline being mixed-race; that perhaps is the “something else, too” Denis de Russy refers too. But knowing the end, it’s impossible to draw a clear distinction from where Marceline’s connection to the Mythos ends and the racial discrimination begins.
Lovecraft himself apparently didn’t think much of the result, although the typescript was shared with his young friend and correspondent R. H. Barlow, who was a collector of pulp manuscripts:
Do you suppose Mr. Barlow would be interested in reading Medusa’s Coil?
—Zealia Bishop to H. P. Lovecraft, 26 May 1934, The Spirit of Revision 177
Of course, “Medusa’s Coil” is a matter wholly separate from “The Mound”. It isn’t much of a story anyhow. If I were you I’d read it & send it back to Mrs. B. for the present, so that she can experiment with it as she likes. If she places it, well & good. You can get whatever it appears in. If she doesn’t, you can renew negotiations for the MS.—which she’d probably sell at a reasonable figure….although I wouldn’t give a dime for it myself. As you know, it isn’t a first draught or anything with any associational value.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 26 Jun 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 143
“Medusa’s Coil” was not published during Lovecraft’s lifetime. After his death, Farnsworth Wright made an effort to publish stories and pieces from Lovecraft—even collaborations and ghostwritten works—and in 1939 finally paid Zealia Bishop $120 for the privilege. However, the story that was published was not as Lovecraft had written it.
No wonder she owned a link with the old witch-woman Sophonisba—for, though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a loathsome, bestial thing, and her forebears had come from Africa.
—H. P. Lovecraft Collected Fiction A Variorum Edition Vol. 4: Revisions and Collaborations 298
The original manuscript of “Medusa’s Coil” is not extant. The surviving typed manuscript shows evidence of two different hands (presumably Frank Belknap Long and R. H. Barlow), with pencil edits by August Derleth dating to 1937—including the final line of the story. Bishop & Lovecraft’s original ending would not be read by the public until 1989, when the text restored by S. T. Joshi was published in the revised The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions.
It is an interesting edit, if for no other reason than all the other references to race in the story—more than is typical for Lovecraft, including some fairly lengthy bits of what are supposed to be African-American dialect by Sophonisba, and instances of the N-word—are all left intact. At best, it can be seen as a half-hearted amelioration, an effort to retain the substance of the terminal revelation without the specificity. Maybe that level of overt racial discrimination was too much, even by 1939 standards…or maybe it was simply an unsatisfying ending to a weird tale. We will never know.