The Thing on the Cheerleading Squad, by Molly Tanzer

“I’ll tell you what I did on my summer vacation.”

With the notable exception of the gut busting film “Tucker and Dale Versus Evil,” I don’t normally go in for horror-comedies. Something about it just doesn’t do it for me, or maybe better said, they are usually never done well enough. That Netflix movie released a while back, “The Babysitter,” supposedly a humorous homage to 80’s slashers? Yeah, it just fell flat. On its stupid face.

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Molly Tanzer
So, it’s safe to say that a few pages into Molly Tanzer’s story —collected here in the fantastic feminist-Lovecraftian anthology “She Walks in Shadows,” edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles which was published by Innsmouth Free Press in 2015—I was a little nervous. (Not near as nervous as I was, though, to go google-image searching for this post. Wow, that was an exercise in…well, “wincing avoidance” might be the best phrase.) However, I can safely say that Tanzer has pulled off a delightfully playful story that, though it borders on pastiche, manages to stand up to its more grim sisters in the collection. This was, above all, a fun read. It relies totally on, as you can likely guess, The Thing on the Doorstep, and if you haven’t read that one first, you’ll be missing so much that it’s probably not even worth it. But I know you all have the original HPL tale under your belts, no problem. (Sidenote: there is, on Amazon Prime video, a modern adaptation of The Thing on the Doorstep that I have not seen yet. If you have, I’d love to know what you thought of it.) Ok, onto the story with the title that begs to be read aloud in as sinister a voice as you can muster. In it we meet Asenath Waite, the high school cheerleader and her goody-goody-two-shoes cousin, Veronica Waite.

 

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“Asenath Waite” by Deviant Artist: MaryCountsTheWalls
The new school year is just starting up again and Veronica, fresh from Bible summer camp, can’t wait to have her shot at the varsity squad. Asenath’s summer was spent in less wholesome ways, shall we say. Our first glimpse of her is when she’s leaning against a car swapping spit with…gasp!…another girl! As the days go on, it becomes clearer and clearer to Veronica that Asenath isn’t herself. This is where Tanzer’s playfulness comes in. If you know the original story, you know how funny lines like this are: “Who did Asenath think she was? What she was doing, it wasn’t right—socially, academically, or spiritually.” Again, I normally don’t go for this kind of stuff, but I couldn’t help myself; I enjoyed this story. Later on we meet the mewling and drooling Uncle Ephraim Waite who comes to watch the cheerleading practice.  Studied readers will wonder at his seeming incapacitation, and why he goes about muttering things like “Thief…” 

Closer to the end of the story, Tanzer does include some Lovecraftian dread that added a nice seasoning to the work while not being so much as to be out of place. The girls’ strained relationship is coming to a head and Veronica, bless her heart, can’t figure out what’s going on with Asenath. She confronts her about her behavior and Asenath can’t take it. She makes fun of Veronica for frittering away her summer time at Bible camp and then tells her she can do all the praying she wants, because after what she’s seen, she knows none of that matters. She tells Veronica that over the summer, “I looked into a well of absolute darkness, a well without a bottom, full to the brim with writhing whispers blacker than the darkness. I looked—and I listened.” You can imagine how well this goes over with our Bible camp attendee. Asenath doesn’t tell Veronica that there’s nothing beyond this world. Quite the contrary. She tells her that what there is out there, doesn’t care about her, doesn’t hear her prayers.

 

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“Demon Cheerleader” by Deviant Artist: treystimpsonart
The story goes on to end about the way you’d expect it too, if you know HPL’s tale. How closely this story follows the original I suspect could actually be a divisive point. Some readers will wish it either did more or did something new with the original material. Other readers will take a lot of pleasure over how close it stuck to the blueprint. For my money, I’m in the latter camp. I appreciate what Tanzer does with the original material and how easily she translates it to this new setting. Now, I don’t think it’s going to win any awards for originality, but that’s not really the point I suspect. Tanzer’s prose is accomplished, and she does an admirable job capturing the diction and sentence structure of teenagers. I won’t say it’s a perfect capture, but then again if it was, it’d be indecipherable and involve emojis. I’d quite like to read something of hers that was more original because I believe there’s a pretty deep imagination at work here. I mean, I would never have read HPL’s story and then thought, “You know what would be great? If I took this and set it on a cheerleading squad!” I do have to say though, that unless I’m getting confused by all the…switching…that goes on in the end, this doesn’t end up having a particularly feminist ending. This collection, you’ll remember, is all about female characters, written by females as part of the unofficial redemption of Lovecraft movement that’s going on. It is definitely authored by a woman and is definitely about women, but women don’t totally come out on top in the end and perhaps that’s a twist that might have made for a stronger story as well as a more original one. All said and done though, this is a fun one. It’s not scary, not even particularly dreadful, nor does it feature a ton of cosmic futilitarianism (though it touches on it). There’s no big Lovecraftian baddies here lurking in the dark, interstitial places. But, it is extremely faithful to the original piece of writing, if in an impish fashion.

This review was composed while listening to the terrifying soundtrack to the (original) Dario Argento film, “Suspiria”. Now, the children are tucked into their coffins, the wife is stirring her cauldron one more time before she dreams, and I have to go let the shoggoth out.

 

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
~The Bibliothecar

Wicked lines to chortle at:Asenath was in Gifted, so Veronica hadn’t expected to see her during the school day.”

 

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Hairwork, by Gemma Files

“Ownership works both ways, you see. Which is why, even in its hey-day, Riverside was never anything more than just another ship, carrying our ancestors to an unwanted afterlife chained cheek-by-jowl with their oppressors, with no way to escape, even in death.”

41QCstEYmQL[1]Oh boy, there is a lot of background that we need to go into on this one.  I guess first I want to say a word on the collection in which this story is found.  She Walks in Shadows is an anthology published by the Innsmouth Free Press, released in 2015, that collects Lovecraftian stories, poems, and artwork by and about women.  Now, if you know anything about Lovecraft you know he didn’t hold women in a high regard generally, and he wrote very, very few of them into his stories.  (Off the top of my head, I can think of Lavinia Whateley, Asenath Waite (only sort of a female character, as she was possessed by a male character), and Marceline. Oh, and poor Charles Dexter Ward’s mom. If you can think of more, please, leave a comment.  Though I haven’t yet read many of the stories in this book, it is a collection I already treasure because it is participating in something that I call the “redemption of Lovecraft.”

Ole HPL was a famous bigot, as you likely know.  Basically, if you weren’t male, white (of Anglo descent even), and of New England stock, he didn’t want to give you the time of day.  I didn’t want to address this topic with my very first post, but I knew I wanted to get to it in short order, as it is very important.  Many people, scholars and lay-persons, have out and out written Lovecraft off on account of his bigotry that shows up in his writing in sundry places (“The Horror at Red Hook” and “Medusa’s Coil” being easy examples).  I won’t say they’re wrong to do so, but I do think they might be missing out and for that I am sorry.  Now, a number of modern writers who love HPL’s stories are tackling this head on.  Victor Lavalle, in his amazing novella The Ballad of Black Tom, for example, gives us a black man as the hero of his Lovecraftian story, and even sets it in Red Hook!  Ruthanna Emrys wrote a brilliant novel called Winter Tide (which I just finished) that flips the script on Innsmouth, giving us a female main character who is in the process of becoming a Deep One (!) and tells the story of how the citizens of Y’ha-nthlei were really just misunderstood.   Great stuff there.  And in this collection, women authors, poets, and artists give us stellar work featuring female characters, some familiar and some unfamiliar, who tell tales that would likely cause HPL to roll over once or twice in his grave, if he’s even in it.  So, I wanted to do a story right off the bat that participated in this redemption of Lovecraft.

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Zealia Bishop
“Hairwork” is a direct sequel to a short story Lovecraft collaborated on, or even just ghost wrote, with an author named Zealia Bishop. You may notice, she’s a she. Their story, and I’ve already mentioned it, is called “Medusa’s Coil,” and it is regarded by many to be Lovecraft’s most bigoted story.  So, three cheers to Gemma Files for taking it on!  When I first understood what “Hairwork” was, I panicked because I’d never read “Medusa’s Coil.”  I knew a bit about it and had avoided it (much like I avoided “Red Hook” for the longest time, but I finally did read that one). After some thought, I decided I didn’t need to read it. I knew the synopsis, and I certainly knew how it ended. To understand the power of Files’ story, you have to understand “Medusa’s Coil.”  In the original story, it tells of the de Russy family, a slave owning family in Missouri, and of how their prodigal son, Dennis, returns from Paris with a foreign wife named Marceline.

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Artist Keith McCaffety’s rendition.
She’s described by Lovecraft and Bishop thusly, “Her complexion was a deep olive – like old ivory – and her eyes were large and very dark.  She had small, classically regular features – though not quite clean-cut enough to suit my taste – and the most singular head of jet black hair that I ever saw.”  Dennis’ artist friend, Frank Marsh (of the Innsmouth Marsh’s) comes for a visit and Dennis catches him painting a nude of Marcelline.  So Dennis kills Marceline, but her hair seemingly comes to life and strangles Marsh to death in the commotion.  In horror, Dennis kills himself, leaving the gruesome scene for his father to find.  But the real horror of the story, as HPL intended it, comes at the end when it is revealed that Marceline, whom Dennis de Russy had married, “was a negress.” The strangulation scene then takes on airs of some deep-seated fear or disgust of the hair of people of African descent, a racist belief that still pops up today every now and again.

Pause.  Full Stop.  Lovecraft was a racist. Sure, he was a product of his time as many like to say, but that does not make being a racist any more acceptable.  It only made it more palatable to the dominant demographic. Racism is evil, no matter how you slice it, and it is the presenting sin of dominant American culture today.  So, I’m not here to apologize for or excuse Lovecraft’s racism and bigotry.  I will call it out though.  That said, to most of us today, the final line of “Medusa’s Coil” is so bad it’s almost like the joke is on HPL himself.

That brings us to Gemma Files’ sequel, told from the perspective of the buried but not yet truly dead Marcelline, who lies in wait under the mouldering earth to ensnare and kill every last de Russy family member in vengeance.  She tells of how the de Russy’s made their slaves bury their own dead after dark, in an unceremonious heap, because they couldn’t stomach it. She writes gorgeously, if with a deadly tone, when she tells of “how deep those dead slaves had sunk their roots in Riverside’s heart: deep enough to strangle, to infiltrate, to poison, all this while lying dormant under a fallow crust. To sow death-seeds in every part of what the de Russys called home, however surface-comfortable, waiting patient for a second chance to flower.” Into this long lain trap innocently walks a descendant of the de Russys and her guide (who has some de Russy blood as well), who will both meet a terrible, hirsute end.

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A hair work tiara.
The title of the story, and how it ends, is braided together with both an art culture and the unreasonable fear present in HPL and Bishop’s tale of black people’s hair.  Hair work is a type of art that uses hair of a loved one (mostly living but sometimes deceased) to weave a piece of jewelry or other accoutrement or decoration.  It was considered a great and intimate gift to give someone a piece of hair work jewelry, primarily during the Victorian era, though you can still find artists who will do it today.

The short length of Files story here belies the depth of her subject matter.  Frankly, it’s enormous, and of enormous importance.  Taking, head on, Lovecraft’s racism and sexism, from a fan’s viewpoint rather that purely as an antagonistic critic, is a true labor of love, and ultimately, even respect. It is as if to say, “Dear Howard, here is what you might have become, had you had the chance.”  Now others may disagree and say, he had every chance, and he still wrote these horrid, bigoted tales.  I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.  About this story, personally, I loved it.  I soaked in the raw emotion of it.  Just read this in Marceline’s voice, “I am your revenge and theirs. No one owns me, not anymore, never again. I am … my own.”  One gets the impression she’s speaking both as a black person and as a woman, and it is powerful.  You would do well, fellow Lovecraftians, to not only read this story, but pick up this whole collection.  And get Emrys’ Winter Tide, and Lavalle’s The Ballad of Black Tom while you’re at it.  Lovecraft may be dead, but his work, style, and genre live on.  It’s really amazing to see it transformed in this way. Let the redemption of Lovecraft continue!

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
~The Bibliothecar

Favorite line: “When my father-in-law disinterred us days after the murders, too drunk to  remember whether or not Denis had actually done what he feared, he found it wound ’round Frank’s corpse, crushing him in its embrace, and threw burning lamp-oil on it, setting his own house afire.”