“Medusa’s Coil“


“Medusa’s Coil“
   Novelette (16,950 words); ghostwritten for Zealia Brown Reed Bishop, May–August 1930. First published in WT(January 1939); first collected in Marginalia;corrected text in HM A traveler in Missouri finds himself in a deserted region with night coming on. He then spots a decaying mansion set back from the road and approaches it, hoping to find shelter for the night. The place is occupied by an old man, Antoine de Russy, who expresses alarm at the prospect of the traveler spending the night at his place. He finally agrees to house the traveler, and in the course of the evening he tells his tale:
   His son, Denis de Russy, had gone to Paris and had fallen in love with a mysterious Frenchwoman, Marceline Bedard. Without his father’s permission or knowledge, Denis marries Marceline and brings her back to Missouri to live. In Paris, Marceline had practiced what seemed to be relatively innocuous occultist rituals for the apparent purpose of increasing her tantalizing allure, but when she comes to Missouri she is looked upon with awe and terror by the black servants, especially one “very old Zulu woman” named Sophonisba.
   Then, in the summer of 1916, Denis’s longtime friend Frank Marsh, a painter, comes to visit the de Russys. He wishes to paint Marceline, thinking that her exoticism will revive him from the aesthetic rut in which he finds himself.
   He begins the portrait, but tensions rise as Denis believes that Marsh and Marceline are having an affair behind his back. To relieve the situation, Antoine contrives to send Denis to New York to attend his business affairs; but he is disturbed when he overhears Marceline clearly trying to seduce Marsh, who resists her advances.
   At last Marsh’s painting is done, but horror is in the offing. Antoine awakes one day to find Marceline in a pool of her own blood, her long, luxurious hair hacked off. Marsh must be the culprit; but when Antoine follows a bloody trail to an upstairs room, he finds Marsh dead, with his son Denis crouching next to him, “a tousled, wild-eyed thing.” Denis maintains that he killed Marceline because “she was the devil—the summit and high-priestess of all evil.” He had come back home because he continued to suspect that Marsh and Marceline were lovers; but as he saw Frank’s painting, he realized that Marsh was trying to warn him about his wife, conveying by means of his painting that she was a “leopardess, or gorgon, or lamia.” After he had killed Marceline, her hair continued to exhibit signs of animation, and as he hacked off her hair it wrapped itself around Marsh and choked him to death. After telling his tale to his father, Denis dies.
   Antoine buries the bodies of Marsh (with Marceline’s coils still around him), Marceline, and his son in the cellar. He has, however, preserved Marsh’s painting, and reluctantly he takes the traveler up to the room where it is kept. As the two are looking at it, the strands of hair begin to lift themselves from the painting and seem about to strike Antoine. The traveler draws out his automatic and shoots the painting, but Antoine curses at the traveler: the painting has to be kept intact, otherwise Marceline and her coils will revive and come out of their grave. Sounds from the basement seem to confirm that this is happening, so the two men flee; the house in any event is ablaze from a candle that Antoine had dropped in the studio. The traveler makes it to his car, but he sees Antoine overtaken by a “bald, naked figure,” and also dimly perceives some large snake-like form among the tall weeds and bushes. As he drives to the nearest town, he learns that the de Russy mansion had in fact burned down five or six years ago. The traveler then informs us of the ultimate horror of the matter: Marceline was, “though in deceitfully slight proportion,” a negress.
   Notes for the story survive (in AHT), including both a plot outline and a “Manner of Narration” (a synopsis of events in order of narration); here too it is made clear that the final racist revelation —“woman revealed as vampire, lamia, &c. &c.—& unmistakably (surprise to reader as in original tale) a negress”—is meant to be the culminating horror of the tale. The mention here of an “original tale” may suggest that there was a draft of some kind by Bishop, but if so, it does not survive. WTrejected the story. Later in 1930 HPL discussed with Frank Belknap Long (Bishop’s agent) the possibility of sending it to Ghost Stories(HPL to Frank Belknap Long, [November 1930]; AHT), but if it was sent there, it was again rejected. As with “The Mound,” the tale was heavily altered and rewritten by August Derleth for its magazine appearance, and he continued to reprint the adulterated texts in book form until the corrected text appeared in 1989.
   See Marc A.Cerasini, “Dark Passion: ‘Medusa’s Coil’ and ‘Black Canaan,’” CryptNo. 11 (Candlemas 1983): 33–36.

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