Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
Today we’re looking at Lovecraft’s own “The Alchemist,” first published in the November 1916 issue of The United Amateur. Spoilers ahead.
“It told of a certain ancient man who had once dwelt on our estates, a person of no small accomplishments, though little above the rank of peasant; by name, Michel, usually designated by the surname of Mauvais, the Evil, on account of his sinister reputation. He had studied beyond the custom of his kind, seeking such things as the Philosopher’s Stone, or the Elixir of Eternal Life, and was reputed wise in the terrible secrets of Black Magic and Alchemy.”
Antoine is the last of the Comtes of C. From a hilltop chateau centuries crumbling, now ninety years old, he recounts the strange history of his accursed line.
His own father died shortly before his birth, his mother shortly after it. Old Pierre, last of the family servants, raised Antoine in isolation, for the neighboring peasants were no fit company for his noble ward. Besides, the simple tenantry told such ignorant and disturbing tales about the family curse.
So Antoine grew, wandering gnarled woods alone, poring over ancient tomes in the chateau library. Little wonder he tended toward the melancholy and occult. On his twenty-first birthday, Pierre gave him a document handed down from the thirteenth century Comte of C, Henri. In those days the Cs were one of the richest and most powerful houses in France, and yet their estates were not free of trouble. Alchemist Michel le Mauvais and his son Charles le Sorcier practiced their black arts near the chateau and were whispered to be responsible for the disappearance of many peasant children.
When Henri invaded the sorcerers’ cottage in search of his own missing son Godfrey, he found Michel busy over a huge cauldron and throttled him to death. Shortly after, young Godfrey was found unharmed, but oh well, not a lick amiss, right?
Except to Charles, as loving a son as Henri was a father. He appeared and cursed Henri with these terrible words:
“May ne’er a noble of thy murd’rous line
Survive to reach a greater age than thine!”
Charles then threw a vial of clear liquid into Henri’s face and fled, never to be found. Henri dropped dead, aged thirty-two.
From that ill-fated night forward, no Comte of C has lived much beyond his thirty-second birthday.
Having learned how brief is his allotted time on earth, Antoine begins to study black magic in earnest. In rare rational moments, he tries to attribute his forebears’ deaths to plain old natural murder at the hands of Charles and his descendents—except he can’t find that Charles had any children. Old Pierre dies. Utterly alone now and nearing the fatal age, Antoine explores chateau ruins untrodden by human foot for four centuries. He encounters only rot and dust, cobwebs and bats.
Less than a week before his supposed last day, he descends to the lowest level of the most dilapidated turret, where he finds a trapdoor. Antoine raises it and descends still farther into the earth, to a stone-flagged passage terminating in a massive oak door. The door defies his efforts to open it, and he begins to retrace his steps, only to hear the door open of its own accord! Cold with horror, he turns and sees an aged man, bearded and bent and skeletal, dressed in a medieval tunic and skullcap. The apparition’s eyes are “twin caves of abysmal blackness, profound in expression of understanding, yet inhuman in degree of wickedness,” and he speaks in a voice of “dull hollowness and latent malevolence,” using the Latin of medieval scholars.
Luckily Antoine is well-versed in medieval Latin, and easily follows the figure’s long monologue about how Charles le Sorcier himself killed each of Henri’s heirs. How was he able to do this over such a span of time? Why, had he not engaged in deep alchemical researches into “the elixir that would grant to him who partook of it eternal life and youth”?
He tries to hurl a glass phial at Antoine, but Antoine breaks his amazed paralysis in time to throw his torch at the would-be assassin. It ignites his tunic, drawing “a shriek of fright and impotent malice.” Nerves shaken beyond endurance, Antoine faints.
When he revives, the assassin’s a blackened and distorted corpse. Antoine steps around it into the chamber beyond the oak door. It holds a pile of yellow metal—gold?—and an alchemist’s laboratory. Another door leads out into a wild ravine—so this was the assassin’s means of entering the chateau.
But wait! The assassin’s not quite dead! “Animated with his last burst of strength,” he lifts his head and screams, “…it is I! I! I! that have lived for six hundred years to maintain my revenge, FOR I AM CHARLES LE SORCIER!”
What’s Cyclopean: Nothing is cyclopean, but the architecture still receives pride of descriptive power: the “machicolated parapets” are a particular favorite.
The Degenerate Dutch: As always, the simple rural folk are extraordinarily superstitious. As always, the simple rural folk are 100% right.
Libronomicon: Antoine pours over ancient tomes in the shadow-haunted library of his crumbling manse.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Antoine encounters “one of the most profound and maddening shocks capable of reception by the human mind.” This being early in Lovecraft’s career, that shock is simply a door opening when nothing should be alive behind it. The door does open in italics, which might well increase the maddening profundity of the shock.
In Which: Anne ventures with a certain temerity and trepidation into the early life of Mr. Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
And why? Because it’s just too tempting, when delving into juvenilia, to try to spot those autobiographical insertions supposed to be peculiarly prevalent in fledgling efforts. Supposed by whom, you may ask. Well, by me and lots of others, too. Real literary scholars, I bet. Also people who have braved the exploding wilderness that is modern digital fanfiction.
Rereading “The Alchemist,” I was struck by its fore-echoes of “The Tomb” and “The Outsider,” also stories about young men (or creatures who believe themselves young men) who grow up more or less in solitude, more or less associated with ruin and darkness, the occult and melancholic. Antoine and the Outsider share a sole guardian who is aged. Antoine and Jervas Dudley share ancestral curses, different in detail, alike in that they feature past deeds tendrilling through time to strangle the future.
Young Howard wasn’t raised in a remote chateau or far beneath a graveyard, but it appears frequent illnesses often kept him out of primary school. Luckily, he was reading at three and had access, like Antoine, to tomes—or at least to such fine imaginative fodder as the Arabian Nights and Greco-Roman mythology. He had mother and aunts and grandfather around—Whipple Van Buren Phillips, teller of gothic tales, might be a good model for wise old Pierre. But father Winfield Scott Lovecraft disappeared from Howard’s life when the boy was three, committed to Butler Hospital for—? Nervous breakdown? Neurosyphilis? Some other psychiatric disease? All potential family curses. In modern terms, potential pathological/genetic time bombs.
Howard found friends and sympathetic teachers in high school, but grandfather Phillip’s death in 1904 would lead to financial disaster. The Outsider and Antoine live on in their ancestral homes, but they’re ruined, deteriorating. Howard, at fourteen, left the Phillips’ fine Victorian for the “ruin” of lesser quarters. Nobility fallen on hard times must have been a mordantly congenial theme for him.
Another blow: Nervous breakdown, whatever that means exactly, forced Howard out of high school just before graduation and prevented him from entering Brown University. His life for the next few years (1908-1913) likely felt as dragging and aimless as those of the Outsider and Antoine, without the redeeming glamor of being undead or a French count.
I’m not sure when in 1908 Howard wrote “The Alchemist.” Whether it was before or after his dream of higher education shattered, the tale has a happy ending. Antoine is, after all, the one to end his line’s curse. He kills the immortal (but not invulnerable or even eternally young) Charles le Sorcier and lives on himself to ninety. What’s more, he could have been living on pretty well if he calmed down enough to realize, yeah, that yellow metal probably is gold. And now I, Antoine Comte de C, claim it as recompense for the murder of my ancestors!
“The Tomb” has a happy ending, too, if a muted one. Jervas will fulfill his destiny by being buried in his predecessor’s tomb, in his predecessor’s place, after all. “The Outsider”? Even happier. He accepts himself for the ghoul he is and starts partying with all the other ghouls.
Ah ha, and back to “Outsider” in a second. First, more biographical stuff. In 1914, Lovecraft joined the United Amateur Press Association, a nation-wide organization. He published his own journal and contributed to others and—like the Outsider—he found his people and his way. Other “amateur pressmen” read some of the stories Lovecraft stopped writing in 1908, including “The Alchemist,” and urged him to start penning fiction again.
“The Alchemist” was first published in The United Amateur, November 1916. Not sure, but I think it may be the first of Lovecraft’s stories to see print. It would certainly be appropriate if that were true, if “Alchemist” were the first coin from the golden cache Antoine/Howard discovered. If it were, indeed, the first small tropey but promising fruit from the weird genius which had slept.
Ah, Lovecraft at 18. All the same angsty obsessions, none of the wildly original worldbuilding! The cost of being so famous that a century later people are still reading your work and dissecting every last detail… is that they’re also going to read your larval juvenalia and dissect every last detail. Probably a price worth paying for such a legacy, but I still feel like I ought to apologize to our friend Howard. Sorry, Howie: not everything that ends up in the Archives is something we wanted remembered. (Then again, given its 8-years-later role in getting him back to writing and into publishing his work, maybe our meanderings wouldn’t bug him so much after all.)
So as I said, not the most original of plots or settings this week. We have the fallen scion of a noble line, cursed to poverty because someone of his name couldn’t possibly descend to the ignominy of doing actual work. Also ACTUALLY CURSED because one of his ancestors killed an evil dude for something that, upon further examination, he hadn’t actually done. This is why we have due process, kids. Start compromising about giving evil people a lawyer and a fair hearing in court, and their descendants will curse your descendants to early graves. Hell, in this case, giving the guy time for a last meal would probably have caused enough delay to avoid the whole sordid mess. But we didn’t take any of those precautions, so Comte Henri murders/executes Michel Mauvais in unconsidered fury.
Doesn’t Michel Mauvais sound like a Marvel villain, by the way? Michel Mauvais is… The Alchemist! Drawn by Jack Kirby, obviously.
Anyway, Michel has a sadly non-alliterative kid, Charles le Sorcier, who has a “more than filial affection” for him. Ew. Charles isn’t thrilled that Henri killed his dad for no reason—which is pretty reasonable, actually—and curses his entire line to early deaths—which is not terribly reasonable. And then, da-da-dum, he uses the Philosopher’s Stone to live forever, setting his alarm clock to be sure of killing every Henri-descendant before their 32nd birthday.
The fear and expectation of an early death was certainly a wee bit autobiographical—and an obsession that will continue throughout Lovecraft’s work. It’s reflected in many dubious or dangerously effective attempts at eternal life, from “Cool Air” to “Charles Dexter Ward” to “Herbert West.” Too, a lonely childhood filled with more books than people is a repeated trope—“The Outsider” is the first to spring to mind, but one of many. Fallen, once-noble lines with some sort of curse or “taint”—we’ll see those again in “The Lurking Fear,” “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” “The Rats in the Walls,” and “Arthur Jermyn,” just to name a few. The trappings will get more creative, of course, and the scares concomitantly more impressive even when nastier issues arise to make stories far more problematic than this one.
Later Lovecraft stories also play with reveals that are surprising to the narrator but not to the reader. In tales like “Shadow Out of Time,” we can see the revelation coming a mile off, but the real interest is in watching the narrator’s defensive denial crumble, the psychological study of how someone gives up the illusions that—per Lovecraft—are necessary to happiness and comfort in an inhuman universe. In “The Alchemist,” though, there’s no such psychological study, only the dramatic reveal that caused me to go, “Wait, who else would it have been?” Apparently we weren’t supposed to realize right away that the scary figure was Le Sorcier? The closest Antoine comes to character development in response, alas, is a classic transitions-are-hard faint.
Charles, meanwhile, dies with a gloating monologue on his lips, proving that a lack of alliteration hasn’t given him too great a disadvantage in villainy.
Next week, Laird Barron’s “Shiva, Open Your Eye,” shines light in uncomfortable dark places.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots (available July 2018). Her neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Dreamwidth, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.