One thing—you may be sure that if I ever entitled a story The White Ape, there would be no ape in it. There would be something at first taken for an ape, which would not be an ape. But how can one ever get those subtleties across?
—H. P. Lovecraft to Edwin Baird, 3 Feb 1924, Selected Letters 1.294
The story opens with a reflection on the essential narcissism of homo sapiens as the nameless female protagonist approaches the British Museum, sometime in the 19th century. A good time to reflect on the species. Anthropologists and biologists began to re-evaluate what it meant to be human, and racialists muddied the waters.
Evolution, that gentle assertion of gradual change in a species over time, had proved both contentious and poorly understood well into the 20th century—put on trial and lost when John Thomas Scopes was found guilty and fined in 1925. Evolution resisted hierarchical relationships, defining human beings as just one animal among many; racists depended on hierarchies to support their prejudices of superior and inferior, measured skulls and facial angles to “prove” their claims. It was common, during Lovecraft’s lifetime, to classify black people as biologically primitive by ascribing them ape-like qualities or directly inferring close kinship:
The negro is obviously a link betwixt apedom & man; though all species do not show equal affinity to the beast. The Bantu of Central & Western Africa (The Guinea Coast nigger) is the most gorilla-like; whilst the tribes of Eastern & Southern Africa are more or less permeated with blood from other races. The Bantu is undoubtedly the purest negro type—the ape-man in all his sweet simplicity.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 22 Jun 1917, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner 111
Sentiments like these can sometimes lead to reading of Lovecraft’s fiction as racial allegory. “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” can be read as a thinly-veiled parable of miscegenation, with the mysterious bride out of Africa and the social and biological degeneration of her descendants among what was an upper-class British family. Yet that reading is too simple by itself: there are distinct parallels between “Arthur Jermyn” and the Tarzan stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example, including the white or grey apes, the lost city in Africa, and the princess of that lost race—and the cultural complex of ideas surrounding eugenics, devolution, and the blurry line between hominid species popularized by “missing links” like the Piltdown Man hoax.
Missing links are a subject that weighs on the nameless protagonist of “Magna Mater,” as she bewitches her way into the depths of the British Museum. The story bares similarity to “ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” (2012) by Molly Tanzer, not just for the common setting, but because it is predicated on the reader being familiar enough with the references to Lovecraft’s fiction to understand what is going on—Dembo doesn’t reiterate the entire plot of “Arthur Jermyn.” She doesn’t need to. The story wasn’t written to re-package Lovecraft’s mysteries, or to rebut them, but to expand on and explore them in a new way. “Homo jermynus” is enough to clue in readers to the story’s background as the narrator narrows in on the common object that binds “Magna Mater” and “Arthur Jermyn.”
Virginia Richter in Literature after Darwin (2011) identifies several tropes of popular Victorian and early contemporary fiction, including regression (the fear of devolution), simianation (the blurring of boundary between human and ape), and assimilation (the threat of contamination through contact with the evolutionary Other, through regression, miscegenation, etc.) Several of these play out through “Arthur Jermyn,” and by extension needed to be addressed in “Magna Mater.” Not reiterated, exactly, but revisited, reimagined, and reworked. Lovecraft’s story is one of anthropological anxiety, the biological doom that cannot be escaped save through self-destruction; Dembo’s story is one of anthropological otherness and acceptance.
Regression is a problem of perception: the stress is made that jermynus is a hominid species, evolutionary equal to homo sapiens, separate and distinct from apes. Simianation is addressed through an almost scientific examination of jermynus, anthropological anxiety giving way to anthropological voyeurism—not just of mere biology, but of culture. Like homo sapiens, homo jermynus is an intelligent, social animal. Yet the crux of “Magna Mater” is assimilation. Where Lovecraft wrote:
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.
Dembo’s nameless protagonist expresses empathy:
Things are always hard for mixed children.
Assimilation still proves a threat to homo sapiens, but the manner in which it is achieved is more akin to Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch. Rather than being a source of degeneration for the human race, homo jermynus:
The women of a superior race are always ‘beautiful.’ You want to make with me and make strong children. Offspring who will inherit my superior genes […] Our children pass on the traits for golden hair, for blue eyes, or stronger bones. Wherever you see those features, you are seeing our descendants among you.”
There’s a reversal of expectations here: racists of Lovecraft’s vintage denigrated black people as being primitive, more closely akin to apes because of their physical features, while in “Magna Mater” the script is flipped so that the stereotypical “Aryan” traits of blonde hair and blue eyes is revealed to be because of their intermarriage with homo jermynus, rather than any innate quirk of evolution. As a story element, it is problematic: making white people special isn’t the opposite of claiming black people are inferior. While it is doubtful Dembo intended the reading in that way, since it is really an elaboration of Lovecraft’s emphasis on “white apes,” it is an exemplar of the difficulties that can come from trying to address racial text and subtext in extant works. Dembo’s approach bears similarities to certain readings of “Arthur Jermyn,” notably:
What Lovecraft appears to be suggesting is that the inhabitants of the primeval African city of “white apes” are not only the “missing link” between ape and human but also the ultimate source for all white civilization. The entire white race is derived from this primal race in Africa, a race that had corrupted itself by intermingling with apes.
—S. T. Joshi, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (1999, 365)
The nameless protagonist doesn’t go quite so far in her claims, but just as the Übermensch manages to destroy the normal man by their very presence, her very presence destroys many of the narcissistic precepts which homo sapiens had of themselves which she had commented on in the opening paragraph.
“Magna Mater” packs a lot into a relatively short and simple story. The plot is exhausted in a few pages, the challenges that the narrator encounters are few and relatively easily overcome; she enters the story with a single motivation and there is never a sense that she will be stymied from accomplishing that, nor is she. Much of the conflict occurs not with the characters in the pages but in the reader as they work to assimilate the new information—and it works. Every setup in the story has a payoff, the characterization is en pointe throughout, so that the very ineptitude of the human characters underscores the overt exposition regarding homo jermynus. Even the brief action scene is well-played to contrast the sapiens and jermynus characters, in action and reaction, and reinforce the central themes of the story, revisiting and reworking those introduced by Lovecraft.
The nameless female protagonist is, in more ways than one, a good example of the complementary nature of the “Magna Mater” and “Arthur Jermyn.” In Lovecraft’s story the ancestral mater familias is an unnamed, veiled figure, whose very existence drives the plot. Yet she is a figure without agency, unspeaking, unable to act in life, and in death represented only by her descendants and her preserved corpse. The lead of “Magna Mater,” while still nameless and veiled, is the active figure that the nameless grandmother was not, and it is her will and actions which accomplish things, her knowledge that enlightens the audience—and her reaction to the body of that ancestral African princess markedly different than Arthur Jermyn’s.
“Magna Mater” was first published in She Walks in Shadows (2015), an anthology of Lovecraftian fiction by female writers, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles. Arinn Dembo’s other Lovecraftian stories include “Between the Lines” (2003) and “ICHTHYS” (2009).