On “The Alchemist” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

I may be living in a ruin and eating garbage but I’m still better than you miserable peasants.

I’m not sure what I expected from early Lovecraft but I certainly didn’t expect anything this evocative and candid.

“The Alchemist” was written ten years prior to HPL producing fiction with any regularity and it bears all the hallmarks of what you might call juvenilia: The narrative doesn’t so much conclude as stop, the characters all have ridiculously on-the-nose names, and the sentence-by-sentence writing is so clunky that it reads less like the definite article and more like someone trying to take the piss out of HPL’s famously ornate prose. However, despite being very much the work of an inexperienced writer, “the Alchemist” features themes and images that not only resurface in later stories, but also speak directly to HPL’s personal history.

Biographers tell us that while Lovecraft was born into an upper-class New England family, the family’s reserves of wealth and privilege were consumed by a series of premature deaths, disastrous business decisions and entire sections of his close family being locked away in Victorian madhouses. Forged by ill health and familial snobbery, Lovecraft was kept apart from other kids and raised to believe that he was inherently superior to the bulk of ordinary humanity; a belief that poisoned his soul, super-charged his fears, and left him completely unprepared for a life in which he would be expected to work with others, build mutually-beneficial relationships with people from different backgrounds, and generally make enough money to support himself if not a family.

 “The Alchemist” tells of a Frenchman born to a once-celebrated noble dynasty. Their fortune gone and their connections long-severed, the descendants of this family have been reduced to living in two rooms of a ruined castle with nothing behind them except for an archaic family title. Living in a set of ruins like some kind of post-apocalyptic scavenger, the protagonist of the story refuses to either get a job or go to school because he was always raised to believe that he was better than the miserable peasants who live in the surrounding towns and villages. Clearly, Lovecraft was writing from lived experience as “The Alchemist” is about someone being slowly crushed by the weight of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is what happens when people try to live with two mutually contradictory worldviews. On the one hand, the protagonist is intelligent enough to realise that while he is struggling to feed and clothe himself, the inhabitants of nearby towns and villages all seem to be taking this type of stuff in their stride. On the other hand, the protagonist believes himself to be so superior to other people that he never tries to ask for help, or engage with the world in a way that might help him to escape the life of a post-apocalyptic scavenger.

The story’s protagonist tries to resolve this emotional impasse by fixating upon an ancient curse that is said to kill off every member of his family by the time they reach the age of thirty-two. A sane man might have tried to sell the castle or get a job, but the story’s protagonist responds to centuries of toxic, claustrophobic, life-destroying privilege by devoting his life to the thing that is already preventing him from leading a normal life: Family history.

Crawling through the ruins of his family estate, the protagonist reconstructs his dynastic history and discovers that their problems began when a member of his family decided to do away with a local wizard whose son cursed the family line in vengeance.

At this point the story starts to run out of steam: The protagonist continues to pick over the ruins of his castle and while it’s never clear exactly what it is that this aggressive genealogy is supposed to achieve, you can’t help but recognise the bitter pathos of a man who, living like a homeless squatter in the ruins of an old castle while staring down the barrel of a curse that will almost certainly see him dead within the year thinks “Quick! To Ancestry dot Com!”

Pathos aside, “The Alchemist” also made me wonder about the fate of the women who had married into the family down through the centuries. Fair enough to say that all of the male heirs died by the age of thirty two but were there never any female siblings? What of the Dowager Countesses left to keep things running in the interregnum between one male heir dying and another one coming of age? I kind of want to write a piece of fic about the women in this family who are informed of the curse on their wedding night and have to devote themselves to keeping the estate ticking over while generation after generation of nobleman chokes to death on his own pig-headed sense of superiority. I don’t want to import too much Crusader Kings energy but what if some women are skilled at running the estates while others have better inter-personal skills and so take it upon themselves to select a future Countess and ‘steer’ their hopelessly incompetent and self-absorbed male children into the path of these future administrative giants. I can even imagine a way to make the whole thing sexy…

The story’s denouement comes when the protagonist decides to explore the dungeons situated beneath a particularly dilapidated piece of the castle. He not only discovers that the dungeon is inhabited but also that the man inhabiting the castle has spent centuries living in the ruins purely in order to murder the male heirs on their thirty second birthday.

I think this denouement works quite nicely not because it’s a twist in the tale but rather because we spend the entire story marinating in the self-absorbed bullshit of a man who literally refuses to look beyond the boundaries of his inherited privilege only to be presented with a man who is even more hopelessly chained to the past than the protagonist! Imagine being able to live for ever. Now imagine being able to live for ever and spending all eternity waiting for some impoverished aristocrat to turn thirty two purely so that you can murder him. Now imagine spending all of eternity waiting to murder aristocrats purely because, centuries before, one of their ancestors decided to murder your dad. The story’s protagonist is not exactly living his best life but the immortality of the titular alchemist is somehow immeasurably worse!

Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus features a man who makes a pact with the devil in return for unlimited use of a demonic servant named Mephistopheles. At first, Faustus asks a load of scientific questions but soon begins squandering his powers by either showing off in front of his friends or playing childish pranks on people he happens to dislike. The play is generally regarded to be a tragedy as, despite being given limitless power, Faustus shows no interest either in saving the world or saving himself. Watching Doctor Faustus one cannot help but be disgusted by the petulant stupidity of a man whose imagination is so perfectly constrained by spite:  Here is not one but two men who, gifted with enough brain to see the limits of their own worlds, choose not to transcend them.

When I said that you could make the background of this story quite sexy, I was thinking of a generational relationship between the dowager countesses and the alchemist-in-the-basement. A gifted romance writer might be able to do something interesting with the figure of a man who devotes eternity not only to butchering every male heir to a title, but also to shagging their wives and mothers. Killing generation after generation of deluded aristocrats seems to me like a bad use of immortality but ensuring that every single member of a noble family goes to their early grave a stone cold cuck? At the very least that seems a little bit more fun.

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