Posthuman Scale and the Care to Come / Non-optional intimacies / Rebekah Sheldon

View of Artifact Events. Photograph by Rebekah Sheldon.

There is a little story by Tamsyn Muir published a few years ago called “The Woman in the Hill.” It is epistolary in form: a letter dated Nov. 11 1907 discovered in the effects of a dead woman, Dorothy, and written to her by her friend Caroline B., both white, middle-aged New Zealand homesteaders. The letter concerns a mutual acquaintance, Elizabeth W, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Caroline tells Dorothy that she had seen Elizabeth a short time before the woman went missing, that in fact Elizabeth had come to her house in a frightful state. Once revived with whiskey, Elizabeth tells Caroline a strange tale. It seems that some time previously Elizabeth’s friend Alice had herself disappeared. Elizabeth had gone to look for her in the woods around her home and discovered a door where no door ought to be. After walking through countless passageways that declined steeply into the underground, she found Alice alone in a watery grotto, alive but wrong

Alice to Elizabeth to Caroline to Dorothy: I am sure you know the rest of the story. Elizabeth leaves Caroline’s house and sometime later she too disappears. Caroline goes after her, finds her where Alice was, writes her fateful letter to Dorothy, and is taken in turn. In her letter, Caroline begs Dorothy not to follow her. “I wish to be the last,” she writes. But of course she is not. Dorothy disappears and perhaps whomever Dorothy has told, and presumably also the readers of Muir’s story, and now me telling you.

The nested narrators, the sunken horror of the wrong Alice, the conceit of the story as codex or artifact, the colonial context of the New Zealand bush: all of these signs mark this story as one example of the many recent revisions of H.P. Lovecraft that queer, women, and BIPOC writers have been producing over the past decade. The common wisdom is that these stories allow writers to wrangle with their love of a writer who has no love for them. By inhabiting his story-worlds differently, these writers help to make those worlds what we needed them to be all along. Their revisions are not just transformative critiques but forms of care for the communities that Lovecraft’s stories have fostered in spite of his own bigotry and misogyny. In flipping the script from horror to wonder, these writers strip the hard shell of cosmic indifference from the ecological enchantment folded inside. 

This story is not that. Except for the gender of the protagonists, Muir changes nearly nothing of Lovecraft’s characteristic gestures. The codex form recalls the structure of “Call of Cthulhu,” the setting borrows from “Colour Out of Space,” the underground passageways “The Horror at Red Hook.” If anything, it is formally too-precise, a near-repetition of Lovecraft. And it is of course a story about repetition: we find ourselves in the middle of a chain of events that reaches into the past and the future, intimately connected to a line of other women whose compulsory participation no knowledge or warning could undo. In this sense, Muir’s story is about the occult power of narration to instill what it describes. It is not only a vicious rejoinder to the idea that the exposure of truth will liberate—certainly the truth doesn’t help Dorothy to evade the fate of her friends!—but also a warning against the celebration of storytelling as prefiguative politics. After all, prefiguration might as easily be greeted with terror as with jubilation. 

By repetition, I do not mean the one that Freud made famous as the uncanny, though we are certainly never finished with the unconscious. I mean repetition as infection—invasion, replication, transmission. In Muir’s story, the past doesn’t get revised by the present in an act of historical correction, the past and future infect each other in an ouroboros of folding time. This, I conjecture, is the point of Muir’s story—that our intentions matter very little, that our intentions may not even be our own, that we do what we are compelled to do whatever we tell ourselves about our reasons. 

While Muir’s story thus does not return to us a more loveable Lovecraft, its too faithful rendition might offer us a queerer insight about the Lovecraft we already know. One of the central tensions of the tale concerns the degree to which each of these women choose to embark on her fateful quest to care for her friend, or rather whether we are to see each as the victim of some shadowy evil that has twisted her to its will. You are wondering how compulsion could possibly be a form of care. I’d like to suggest, too hastily, that the story stages the question of will because it is important and just as profoundly beside the point. 

These don’t cancel each other out. That we may be fated to repeat something we did not choose, or that we might find ourselves in non-optional intimacy with a something whose goals overlap only very marginally with our own—these are crucial first principles for ecological responsibility in the Anthropocene. That we might want to exert some force over the future, that we might indeed want to be in the position of the shadowy puppet-master who dictates future events—well, what else is prefiguation? That we might be willing something for the future in our politically engaged scholarship seems to have little in common with Lovecraft’s monster. But Muir’s story is very careful never to mention monsters or really anything besides the women themselves and their setting. What might it take for us to see the chain of women in the hill as exactly what the story says they are: women who create each other in the creation? Creator and creature, fated and willful, lured and alluring scribblers of mad prose: What better account could we have for the work of writing that takes us out of time and makes us a little wrong? 

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This is part of the cluster Posthuman Scale and the Care to Come. Read the other posts here.

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