December Belongs To Cthulhu

Lovecraft Fresh: “The Alchemist” and “The Outsider”

I have a dark confession to make. For all my love of the Gothic and weird, for all the Stuart Gordon movies I’ve seen, and for all the issues of Weird Tales and Innsmouth Free Press I’ve perused, I have never read  H.P. Lovecraft. Yes, I know, for shame! But I had a simple reason for avoiding him: power.

Already trying to break away from the infectious influence of Edgar Allan Poe, I have been hesitant to have another white man breathe down my neck as I attempt my own stories. As it turns out, Lovecraft would have completely understood. He wrote in a 1929 letter that “There are my ‘Poe’ pieces and my ‘Dunsany pieces’—but alas—where are my Lovecraft pieces?” This was a sentiment I could dig, and I became curious to know how H.P. overcame his predecessors’  mesmeric spells to cast a curse  of his own.

“The Alchemist”

I asked Lovecraftian friends to recommend their favorite stories to me, and after culling their suggestions, I have selected for this reading two stories from the Macabre phase “The Alchemist” and “The Outsider.” I have been told that I would be disappointed in the Poe stories, but I enjoyed seeing those aspects of Poe Lovecraft was most interested in: the Gothic atmosphere of “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” Within the first paragraphs of “The Alchemist,” not only is there an isolated manse, but the protagonist, Antoine, is last in the line of an accursed, ancient family.

Raised in isolation with the exception of an older family manservant who eventually abandons Antoine for the hereafter, books are his only friends. He develops into a well-learned scholar of the dark arts, even so, the mystery of his family curse remains unsolved. In the thirteenth century, Antoine’s great ancestor Count Henri murdered Michel Mauvais, a noted alchemist. In retaliation, Mauvais’s son, Charles Le Sorcier, vowed that every man in the C— line would die on the cusp of their thirty-second birthday (the same age that Henri died after Le Sorcier splashed him in the face with an unknown liquid). Since then, each patriarch died at the appointed age until only Antoine remained.

While I liked tracing Lovecraft’s Poepathy, I was disappointed in this story’s premature effect.   It tells on itself, giving the finale something of a tin ear. When Antoine finds in the remotest part of his castle a medieval man in his doorway he writes:

…The apparition spoke of the curse which had hovered over my house, told me of my coming end, dwelt on the wrong perpetrated by my ancestor against old Michel Mauvais, and gloated over the revenge of Charles Le Sorcier. He told how young Charles has escaped into the night, returning in after years to kill Godfrey…with an arrow…; how he had secretly returned to the estate and established himself, unknown, in the even then deserted subterranean chamber whose doorway now framed the hideous narrator…. At this point I was left to imagine the solution of the greatest mystery of all, how the curse had been fulfilled since that time when Charles Le Sorcier must in the course of nature have died, for the man digressed into an account of the deep alchemical studies of the two wizards, father and son, speaking most particularly of the researches of Charles Le Sorcier concerning the elixir which should grant to him who partook of it eternal life and youth.

Antoine sets his assailant on fire, and at that point I was confident that he knew who he had defeated. However, when Antoine returned to check on the charred body:

… “Fool!” he [the body] shrieked, “Can you not guess my secret? Have you no brain whereby you may recognize the will which has through six long centuries fulfilled the dreadful curse upon the house? Have I not told you of the great elixir of eternal life? Know you not how the secret of Alchemy was solved? I tell you, it is I! I! I! that have lived for six hundred years to maintain my revenge, for I am Charles Le Sorcier!”

I couldn’t tell whether I was supposed to be spooked by the daft narrator’s realization of the man’s identity, or whether the big bang was that Le Sorcier drank from the elixir of life, and therefore could not die.  But I shrugged the disappointment off with the understanding that this is one of his first tales, and its flaws would soon be polished away.

“The Outsider”

“The Outsider” continues with myriad Poe allusions. Again we have an isolated nobleman who grew up orphaned but sheltered in an ancient, Roderick Usher-like castle and, like Antoine, his only friends were the “mouldy books” within the castle’s library.  I especially love in this piece the hyper-Gothicism of the narrator’s setting:

… It was never light, so that I used sometimes to light candles and gaze steadily at them for relief, nor was there any sun outdoors, since the terrible trees grew high above the topmost accessible tower. There was one black tower which reached above the trees into the unknown outer sky, but that was partly ruined and could not be ascended save by a well-nigh impossible climb up the sheer wall, stone by stone.

Feeling adventurous, and overcome with desire to see what lies beyond his ancient domicile, the narrator scales the tower to see the moon and stars for a sublime moment, but clouds overcast the moon and he stumbles to get to the other side only to find what lies beyond is a church and graveyard.

Mystified, the narrator continues his journey and sets out onto the gravel path and “wandered through the open country…” until he came to “a venerable ivied castle in a thickly wooded park, maddeningly familiar, yet full of perplexing strangeness to me.” Inside, he discovers there is a Red Death-like masque ball. When he enters through the window, the revelers scream and vacate.  Across the room, he sees the source of their terror—a putrid figure.

In a “William Wilson” doff of the hat, it turns out the “carrion” figure is the narrator’s reflection in a mirror; it is dead, and so is he. He flees the perplexing scene but finds the trap-door sealed off. The narrator accepts this final token for its true meaning and accepts his death as a balm to having never been truly alive:

For although nepenthe has calmed me, I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men. This I have known ever since I stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame; stretched out my fingers and touched a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass.

Lovecraft got me at this last paragraph. While the narrator saw his rotting and desiccated reflection in the mirror, his calm acceptance was that the ugly, putrid thing was Truth. Here is where I feel Lovecraft breaks from Poe in a philosophy of death. The underlying fear in all of Poe’s death-work is its finality. His characters strove to ignore or defy death, only to succumb to its dark charms. There was nepenthe too, but it was sought in memory and therefore removed. However, in “The Outsider,” it is confronted as a simple truth and a transcendence. For the narrator, death is freedom from a isolated and lonely life:

…but I was not sorry, for I had hated the antique castle and the trees. Now I ride with the mocking and friendly ghouls on the night-wind, and play by day amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in the sealed and unknown valley of Hadoth by the Nile. I know that light is not for me, save that of the moon over the rock tombs of Neb, nor any gaiety save the unnamed feasts of Nitokris beneath the Great Pyramid; yet in my new wildness and freedom I almost welcome the bitterness of alienage.

The effect that “The Alchemist” lacked is mastered in “The Outsider,” which also breaks from the Poe prototype Lovecraft labored under.  However, Lovecraft will continue to excavate himself from the dust of former writers, and in my next reading I will look at what he took away from my favorite nineteenth century art movement, the Decadence, with “The Hound.”

S.J. Chambers is an articles editor at Strange Horizons.  In addition to that fine publication,  her work has also appeared in Fantasy, Bookslut, Yankee Pot Roast, and The Baltimore Sun’s Read Street blog.  When she isn’t writing, she is excavating artifacts as Master Archivist for Jeff VanderMeer’s The Steampunk Bible.  She’s really enjoying exploring Lovecraft, and encourages any suggestions in the comments.


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