Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Alchemist by H.P. Lovecraft

The Alchemist
by H.P. Lovecraft

Written when Lovecraft was only 17 or 18 years old, this short story was his first published piece, appearing in a 1916 issue of The United Amateur. As such, it features a few elements that would carry over into his later work (the black magic theme; an even-then archaic writing style) but is missing the otherworldly Cosmic Horror for which he would become most famous. I admit that I am not extremely familiar with Lovecraft's output, but starting right here, at the beginning, I plan on changing that.

Narrated in the first person by Count Antoine de C-, this tale recounts the trials and tribulations of his bloodline that dates back hundreds of years. It seems one of his ancestors murdered an evil sorcerer, witnessed by the magicians son. The son, filled with fury, placed a curse upon his father's murderer and all successive generations. Ever since that day, all male offspring have died at age 32.
"May ne'er a noble
of thy murd'rous line
Survive to reach a greater
age than thine!"
His once-noble ancestral home was in shambles, as was his once-noble family--he was the last surviving member, aged 32 himself, and had made a pact with himself not to reproduce so that the curse would die with him. But like a classically trained Devon Sawa, Antoine was keeping his eyes open for any signs or omens, looking for some way to sidestep his inevitable and impending doom. He finds that way hidden in a dark and forgotten corner of the castle...

As mentioned above, Lovecraft's writing style and use of language is often purposefully dated, but here it seems even more antiquated than elsewhere, almost to the point of distraction. For example:
"A poverty but little above the level of dire want, together with a pride of name that forbids its alleviation by the pursuits of commercial life, have prevented the scions of our line from maintaining their estates in pristine splendour."
I suppose that this can be explained by its being told in the voice of a fancypants count (not to mention it being written roughly a century ago!), but there were times I had to re-read a section to figure out exactly what it was trying to say.

There's nothing particularly frightening or original here in this story, but the concept of a cursed bloodline is admittedly one I have a bit of an obsession with. The males of my family seem to carry a bit of a genetic curse themselves, having addictive tendencies, manic-depressive episodes and an increased likelihood of burning out early, if not outright snuffing their own flames. For this reason, I've opted to go the way of the count, and am bringing the Metro surname to a close.

So on some sick, symbolic level, I had a little something extra invested in this story, and because of this it held my interest more than it probably would have otherwise. I can't fully recommend it on its own merits, but Lovecraft completists and spooky Shakespeareans will probably find something here to enjoy.

"The Alchemist" is available for free download from Project Gutenberg, although it's part of a collection called Writings in the United Amateur, so you're going to have to sort through a lot of other works to get to it. Get your scrolling finger ready!


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  1. The Call of Cthulhu is my favorite one so far, so awesome. If you havent had a chance to check that one out, do so soon!

    I also enjoyed The Shunned House. Read it on a spooky stormy night and it worked wonders on my imagination.

    This story, the alchemist seems to have a bit in common with The Fall of the House of Usher, with the whole "lets terminate the bloodline" storyline.

  2. FC: Thanks for the suggestions! I'm hoping to get to them soon. I've decided to attempt quite a daunting task here: reading all of Lovecraft's work in the order they were published! So stay tuned for plenty more reviews, assuming I can keep with it.


  3. HPL gets *so much* better! I haven't read these early stories for, um, well, since high school. Long time.

  4. Will: Thanks for swinging by to take a look at my humble little site! I'm sure that HPL does get better...I'm discovering it now, in fact. I'm currently embarked upon a chronological journey of the man's work, reading (and reviewing) each piece in the order in which it was published. So keep checking back for more Lovecraft reviews.



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