Friday, February 25, 2011

The Penalty by Gouverneur Morris

The Penalty
by Gouverneur Morris

"Why don't you do some of your dirty work yourself?"
"I do all I can," said the legless man simply; "I can't find time for everything."

The Penalty is rarely thought of at all today, and in those rare instances when it is, it is more than likely the darkly melodramatic film version of the tale, a rarely-seen screen gem starring Lon Chaney. I first learned of this movie while researching my Horror Explorer series of articles, and was fascinated by the subject matter. While sitting down to watch the 1920 movie would definitely be kicking it old school, I wanted first to kick it REALLY old school by actually reading the source material from 1913.

Nevermind the fact that I was doing so on my new-fangled Kindle.

The setting is New York, where our characters range from denizens of the slums to the upper crust, and everything in between. Barbara is a well-to-do sculptress in search of inspiration. She finds it in the face of a legless beggar named Blizzard, whom she plans to craft into the figure of Lucifer, moments after his fall from grace.

Barbara has no idea just how astute her artistic eye is. Blizzard is no mere beggar, but rather some Great Pretender. He may not have his lower limbs, but he seems to have limitless wealth, limitless reach, and limitless power. He is a kingpin of crime, a man to be feared and revered, with his ear to the ground and a hand in every crooked enterprise imaginable.

At a distance you might have mistaken him for an electrician or a sewer-expert coming into view through one of those round holes in the sidewalk by which access is provided to the subterranean apparatus of cities. But, drawing nearer, you perceived that he was but half a man, who stood upon the six-inch stubs of what had once been a pair of legs. But what nature could do for what was left of him nature had done. He had the neck, the arms, and the torso of a Hercules. His coat, black, threadbare, shining, and unpleasantly spotted, seemed on the point of giving way here and there to a system of restless and enormous muscles. But that these should serve no better purpose than ceaselessly to turn the handle of an unusually diminutive and tuneless street-organ might have roused in the observer's mind doubts as to the wisdom and vigilance of that divine providence which is so much better understood and trusted by the healthy and fortunate than by the wretched, the maimed, and the diseased.
Barbara's sometimes-love interest has firsthand experience with Blizzard, as does Bubbles, the charity-case orphan that she employs, but their warnings go unheeded. She is willing to make sacrifices for her art, and indeed develops a strange friendship with the repugnant fellow. Perhaps even a twisted attraction to him. Even her father, a reknowned surgeon, can't keep her away, and he has a dirty little secret all his own.

His carelessness as a young man was responsible for Blizzard's physical condition, and thus possibly his current mental state. Is Blizzard befriending Barbara as part of some sick revenge scheme? And with her father's cutting-edge experiments in the field of limb transplants, could he really just be trying to get a leg up, as it were?

But where would he find a donor?

While the majority of this novel may play out like a potboiler romance, as Barbara scatters her interests and affections from sea to shining sea, don't be fooled. There is a very dark, and very pulpy, tone that echoes behind everything that happens here. And this is what pushes you through to the end: because you know, sooner or later, Blizzard is going to come undone. And when he does, watch out.

It's a decent story that unravels (perhaps not quickly enough) into a twisted, manic episode that would have felt right at home on FX's sleazetastic surgery porn show Nip/Tuck. It's just too bad that the resolution was such a cheap cop out. But this was back in the day when people believed in messages.

Pssht, whatevs.

The characters are colorful and amusing, especially Bubbles with his antiquated street hustler argot. Much of the dialogue seems forced and unnatural, though, at least to modern ears. Still, that's easy enough to get accustomed to after a few dozen pages. My only real qualm with the body of the story is that a certain political scheme of Blizzard's, which seems as if it is building into a major plot point, is never brought to fruition, turning it into unneeded padding.

With romance, horror, art, crime, revenge, and even a secret organization of crimefighters, there's bound to be something in this wild recipe that you might enjoy.


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