The Curse of Yig was a collaborative effort of H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop. Bishop provided the idea of a pioneer in the Oklahoma Territory who was terrified of snakes. Lovecraft recrafted this basic concept, making it a psychological horror made manifest–and incidentally adding a new god to his pantheon: Yig, “an odd, half-anthropomorphic devil of highly arbitrary and capricious nature… not wholly evil, and was usually quite well-disposed toward those who gave proper respect to him and his children.”
But those foolish enough to harm the children of Yig (that is, snakes) could expect to feel the wrath of his terrible curse.
The text is online at https://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/cy.aspx
The story is one that I’d read some years ago, but not one of the Lovecraft stories that I could say I was extremely familiar with. I mean, I knew who Yig was when I first saw that Dark Adventure Radio Theatre was planning to do an adaptation of The Curse of Yig for their next audio drama, but could remember very little about who had been cursed, or why.
Listening to this new DART adventure before re-reading the text, I’m struck by how closely this adaptation has stuck to the structure of the original story, and I make note of the changes the DART guys have made to allow for the very different sensibilities of people nearly a century later.
The framing story that opens this audio drama is in the original text. In 1925, a young ethnologist (here named Kimball) is interested in the Yig legends of Oklahoma-area plains tribes; his researches have led him unexpectedly to an asylum for the insane, where a patient is kept isolated and attended only by two nurses with sturdy nerves.
“It’s very tragic and very horrible, but that is all,” says Dr. McNeill, a man who has been in charge of the hospital for quite some time and knows the whole history of the case. “Nothing supernatural about it.” Even so, he calls this patient a living victim of Yig’s curse.
He allows Kimball a peek into the room. What Kimball sees nearly causes him to faint:
The moving object was almost of human size, and entirely devoid of clothing. It was absolutely hairless, and its tawny-looking back seemed subtly squamous in the dim, ghoulish light. Around the shoulders it was rather speckled and brownish, and the head was very curiously flat. As it looked up to hiss at me I saw that the beady little black eyes were damnably anthropoid, but I could not bear to study them long. They fastened themselves on me with a horrible persistence, so that I closed the panel gaspingly and left the creature to wriggle about unseen in its matted straw and spectral twilight. I must have reeled a bit, for I saw that the doctor was gently holding my arm as he guided me away. I was stuttering over and over again: “B-but for God’s sake, what is it?”
Dr. McNeill tells him the story. With the phrase, “Clearly, you can picture the scene,” and an evocative sweep of music we are taken back to 1889, when land formerly occupied by the Wichita were opened up by the U.S. government and white settlers were encouraged to head west and make new homes for themselves. Well, historically, not all the settlers were white.
The main characters are a pioneering couple named Walker and Audrey Davis. In the text, there’s just a hint that Audrey may have some Native American ancestry–“a slight Indian admixture”–perhaps by way of an explanation for how the legend of Yig will affect her. There’s absolutely no mention that the Davises’ friends and neighbors, Joe and Sally Compton, are black; but the Comptons are in this DART adaptation. For a short period, freed slaves and other black people in the South were also encouraged to settle in the newly opened western territories.
Although Dr. McNeill pops in now and again to provide narrative context or have brief expositional exchanges with Kimball, most of the story is told in conversations between the Davises and other people. Which is good. I like characterization and plot development through conversations, and the DARTs that make me happiest use a lot of it rather than long sections of first-person narration.
The Davises and the Comptons first meet while on their journey westward. They’re a little shy at first, but both couples are from Arkansas, a little homesick and lonely on the trail, and inclined to be friendly. They share supper and make camp together for the night.
This is when we learn about Walker’s fear of snakes, which he’s had since childhood; an old woman at a county fair told his fortune and said that a snake would bring about his end. Unfortunately, Joe then talks about the legend of the snake-god Yig, which he learned from an Indian scout while he was serving in the army in the Dakota territories.
It’s no surprise that the Native American tribes and their customs are treated more respectfully in this adaptation than in the original text. The most irksome thing to modern readers in The Curse of Yig is that it seems as if, whenever the Native tribespeople aren’t beating “tom-toms,” they’re glugging whisky. This is, of course, expunged.
The worship of Yig is attributed here to one fictitious tribe: the Kitsawi, who are all but extinct by the 1880s, although their neighbors among the plains tribes are familiar with their beliefs and practices. In their time, the Kitsawi believed that if they harmed the children of Yig, the snake-god would punish them by tormenting them and them into spotted snakes; they used whistles to warn off the snakes so they wouldn’t accidentally harm them and draw Yig’s wrath. They also beat drums incessantly during the autumn months, when Yig was said to become “abnormally ravenous.”
Walker’s ophidiophobia becomes obsessive with regard to Yig and his children and how to avoid bringing down Yig’s curse upon himself and Audrey. It doesn’t help that Audrey kills a nest of baby rattlesnakes along their way westwards; thereafter, “Walker kept after her with reproofs and prophecies of her impending doom.” When he meets a Wichita elder, he asks for help in warding off Yig’s vengeance and buys a song to keep the snakes away. He sings this compulsively.
Really, it’s a wonder Audrey didn’t take an axe to him at this point.
Anyway, the couple makes it to their new homestead alive. Their friends the Comptons settle a couple of miles away, so during the months that follow while they are establishing their farms, building homes, and growing crops, they see each other fairly regularly. Audrey and Sally have particularly become friends.
Sally has a baby soon after they’ve settled, and in a small but significant addition, asks when Audrey and Walker are going to get their own family started. Audrey answers that it’s not “for lack of trying,” but nothing seems to take.
Sally also mentions a horrible friend-of-a-friend tale she’s heard about a man who stumbled into a nest of rattlesnakes and was bitten so many times that their poison caused his body to swell until he burst. The two women agree that this is a story that Walker shouldn’t hear.
(Quick note: I enjoy Audrey’s conversations; once she’s in Oklahoma, she has a tendency to use lyrics from a song about that state not yet in existence in the 1880s: “The wind’s a sweepin’ down the plain.” “Sure smells sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain.”)
Walker, meanwhile, encounters an aged Kitsawi woman who tells him that Yig does not forget and will take his revenge for the killing of his children when “the time of the harvest comes.”
By the end of October, the Davises have built a home and harvested their crops. It seems like a good time for a celebration, and they invite all their neighbors over for a Halloween party. They roast a pig and the neighbors bring pot-luck dishes. Audrey bakes soul cakes, which are a pre Trick-or-Treat treat evocative of All Souls Day (Nov. 1).
This scene is extended from the brief description in the text, and it’s the part I enjoy the most. There’s some lovely fiddle music. An Irish immigrant farmer, after carving a few turnips to frighten evil spirits and referencing Samhain–“when the barrier between our world and the spirit world is thinnest”–turns his hand to carving his first pumpkin. The children wear “guises,” many of which are still fairly familiar: a witch, a cat, a bunny rabbit, celebrities of the day like Queen Victoria and President Lincoln… and one creepy little boy dresses as a sssssnake! His hissing performance unsettles Audrey more than it does Walker. She (and we) begin to hear the Kitsawi’s drums in the distance while no one else–not even Walker–do.
After the children have tired themselves out and gone to sleep in the bedroom, the adults gather around the fire and tell ghost stories. Big Jim Barrow tells a Headless Horseman story. Maggie, another Irish immigrant, recalls the strange circumstances of her grandmother’s death. Joe Compton tells a disturbing story about seeing the ghosts of a slaughtered tribe during his Army days.
The party breaks up and the Davises are left alone. Walker’s a bit tipsy and happy, and Audrey is still hearing those drums. They tumble into bed–and wake some time later in the night to the sound of slithering scales, hissing, and the occasional rattle of tails from the floor.
Dr. McNeill explains that what happened that night after the party is a matter of conjecture, based on what was found in the house the next day and lucid fragments patiently drawn from the shattered mind of the sole survivor. The sequence that follows gives us the conjectured events of that night through Audrey’s voice, intercut with comments from McNeill and Kimball, until she sees Yig rising before her.
The doctor will insist that this tragedy, ultimately resulting in his reptilian patient, is all a matter of psychology and science. Much of the story can bear that interpretation, if you allow for certain outdated notions like women giving birth to deformed or monstrous offspring that resemble something that frightened them during the pregnancy. But then this is a Lovecraft story, and there is Yig. And we are left with more horrific indications of how the snake-god revenged himself upon Audrey.
The DVD comes with a lot of wonderful props:
- A map of Oklahoma at the time of the land-rush, showing the Indian territories.
- A replica poster encouraging people, especially “colored people,” to settle in the newly opened territories.
- Walker and Audrey Davis’s claim certificate for their homestead.
- My favorite thing: A beautiful piece of ledger art, accompanied by a letter explaining just what that is. It’s only the second item I’ve ever received from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society that I wanted to frame.
- My other favorite thing: A page from an October 1889 Oklahoma newspaper featuring articles of interest, amusing advertisements, and an excerpt from a story written and illustrated by Frederic Remington. (The secret code, also in the newspaper, tells me that the Remington story was originally published in the Century Magazine in April of 1889.)