Picture for a moment what it might look like if you could visualize the spiderweb connections of the Cthulhu Mythos, with each story a node, each line a connective thread. “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” “The Dunwich Horror,” and “The Call of Cthulhu” would be dense starbursts, referenced by dozens of successive stories…and further out from the “core” of Lovecraft’s Mythos tales would be the less popular tales, the revision and ghostwritten stories which contributed little to the collective mythology…or were simply less popular with fans and authors. Far out on the periphery, barely connected to anything else, is “Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft.
In 2015, Gemma Files added a few lines, a new nodal point: “Hairwork” is one of the very, very few works which dared to do anything with Marceline Bedard and “Medusa’s Coil.”
“Redbone,” he says. “She a fine gal, that’s for sure. Thick, sweet. And look at that hair.”
“‘Redbone?’ I don’t know this term.”
“Pale, ma’am, like cream, lightish-complected—you know, high yaller? Same as me.”Gemma Files, “Hairwork” in She Walks in Shadows 99-100
She Walks in Shadows is a collection of stories that revisits Lovecraft’s Mythos from the view of the often-ignored and neglected women characters. Marceline Bedard is arguably one of the most prominent and interesting of these, if only because so rarely did Lovecraft ever write a woman of color into his stories, much less give her a prominent role. There are many possible reasons for this: the story is only incidentally connected to the wider Mythos, for instance. Most important, though, is the failure of Lovecraft to develop anything of the internal life and motivations of Marceline. She is presented as a kind of femme fatale, an occultist, but why she does anything in the story is utterly absent. If she has any deeper plan beyond marrying Denis de Russy and posing nude for a portrait, it is never revealed. Likewise, her backstory and that of her great hair are left utterly mysterious.
From the perspective in which the story seed was first presented to Lovecraft, and the perspectives with which he told it—white man telling the tale to another white man—the absence of Marceline’s side of the story is perhaps understandable. Yet the absence is still present; the reader only gets one side of the tale.
So Gemma Files fills in the gap, providing something of Marceline’s side of the story, her motivations and background, and perhaps more importantly, what happens next.
It’s kind of odd to say that this is almost a familiar approach. So many stories in weird fiction of this era were written from a white male perspective and centering around the death of some supposedly-evil woman that the revisiting of these stories from the woman’s perspective is almost a mode unto itself. Stories in this mode include Helen’s Story (2013) by Rosanne Rabinowitz, “The Head of T’la-yub” (2015) by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas, and Lavinia Rising (2022) by Farah Rose Smith.
In comparison with those works, it has to be said that Gemma Files’ “Hairwork” stands up well. She does not directly work to contradict Lovecraft’s story, but works around the facts by providing a motivation and tying it into the background she supplies, one that works very well. References to the wider Mythos are still fairly thin: Lovecraft didn’t leave much to work with, and unlike Victor LaValle in “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) who chose to re-center the story around the Cthulhu-cult, Files appears content to have left it on the periphery of the Mythos.
The most substantial change is the vague suggestion that painter Frank Marsh may have familiar connections with the Marshes of Innsmouth—and who knows but that someone may pick up that thread someday? And probably the most radical change in the story is the suggestion of what the hair itself might be:
And then there’s the tradition of Orthodox Jewish women, Observants, Lubavitchers in particular—they cover their hair with a wig, too, a sheitel, so no one but their husband gets to see it. Now, Marceline was in no way Observant, but I can see perhaps an added benefit to her courtesenerie from allowing no one who was not un amant, her intimate, to see her uncovered. The wig’s hair might look much the same as her own, only longer; it would save her having to … relax it? Ça ira?
“Yeah, back then, they’d’ve used lye, I guess. Nasty. Burn you, you leave it on too long.”Gemma Files, “Hairwork” in She Walks in Shadows 100
Black hair is tied up in so many aspects of history, culture, fashion, and racial discrimination that it is a difficult to know where to start. The focus on hair as a defining trait of Marceline Bedard, given her biracial or multiracial heritage, is something that is rarely examined by critics and scholars. Lovecraft was vaguely aware of some of the efforts that went into hair straightening from his time in Harlem, but like a lot of aspects of Marceline’s life, he doesn’t focus on it. A blank spot on the canvas for some worthy writer like Files to fill in.
In keeping with the overall plot of “Medusa’s Coil,” “Hairwork” gives Marceline Bedard means, motive, and depth—but she is still the villain of the story if not necessarily the antagonist. Lovecraft’s tale casts Marceline as a victim, essentially blameless except for the one-drop rule, but Files gives her animus, and the deliberation in what she does makes her something other than an unfortunate woman trapped between two men. In many ways, that makes her both more terrible and more interesting than Lovecraft’s original portrait of the Paris priestess.
It is, overall, a very skillful take on what might be one of the most difficult Mythos stories to revisit, and the success of it is reflected in its publishing history: since first appearing in She Walks in Shadows (2015) and its paperback edition Cthulhu’s Daughters (2016), “Hairwork” has been reprinted in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2016 Edition, The Dark Magazine (Aug 2016), and Best New Horror #27 (2017).
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).
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