Saturday, January 19, 2013

Lovecraft in Smithsonian

It isn't often that a writer for Weird Tales is mentioned in a mainstream magazine, but H.P. Lovecraft has made an appearance in Smithsonian. The occasion was Halloween 2012 (Smithsonian, Oct. 2012) and the publication of an article called "The Great New England Vampire Panic" by Abigail Tucker. The story is a fascinating one and tells about a panic in nineteenth century New England in which the bodies of suspected vampires were exhumed and sometimes treated in gruesome ways in attempts to banish them. The central part of the story concerns Mercy Lena Brown, a young girl of Exeter, Rhode Island. Called Lena, the girl died of tuberculosis in January 1892 (when Lovecraft was not even two years old). Suspected of "feasting 'on the living tissue and blood of Edwin'," her sickly brother, Lena was removed from her grave and had her heart and liver burned by villagers. The ashes were fed to Edwin Brown, who nevertheless died two months later.

Exeter, located southwest of Lovecraft's hometown of Providence, was considered "one of the border towns" and called "Deserted Exeter." Apparently it was just the kind of place in which Lovecraft liked to set his tales of backwoods people and their backwoods ways. In her article for Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker briefly discusses the possibility that Lucy Westenra, the teenaged vampiress in Bram Stoker's Dracula, was based in part on Mercy Lena Brown. Ms. Tucker continues:
Whether or not Lucy's roots are in Rhode Island, Lena's historic exhumation is referenced in H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shunned House," a short story about a man being haunted by dead relatives that includes a living character named Mercy.
The reference in "The Shunned House" comes in about the middle of the second section of the story:
It was Ann White who first gave definite shape to the sinister idle talk. Mercy should have known better than to hire anyone from the Nooseneck Hill country, for that remote bit of backwoods was then, as now, a seat of the most uncomfortable superstitions. As lately as 1892 an Exeter community exhumed a dead body and ceremoniously burnt its heart in order to prevent certain alleged visitations injurious to the public health and peace, and one may imagine the point of view of the same section in 1768. 
I don't believe Lovecraft mentioned Lena Brown by name. In any case, because of his reference to the tragic young girl, he earned a place on the periphery of her story and a mention in Smithsonian.

Original text copyright 2013 Terence E. Hanley

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! If I'm not mistaken, I believe this event was also covered in an article some time ago, in FATE magazine, I think.