‘The Alchemist’ is one of the better known early tales written by the H. P. Lovecraft. Like the first tale, I reviewed it is considered to be one of his Juvenilia works as Lovecraft wrote ‘The Alchemist’ when he was still only 17, in 1908. Also like ‘The Beast in the Cave‘, it was not published until several years later, in this case in 1916, two years before ‘Beast’ when it appeared in the November issue of the ‘United Amateur‘. Which as the name suggest was another small press magazine in the north-eastern US.
Compared to the first tale I reviewed it is, however, a far more accomplished work, with a darker edge to it than ‘The Beast in the Cave‘. Rather than a simple tale of a man in a singularly terrifying situation, this is a story with real depth to it. One which can be read on different levels, making it more the Lovecraft you expect, than the admirably well-written story of ‘Beast‘ which lacks maturity in comparison. This is no great surprise, as while it is only written by a man three years older, the three years between 14 and 17 are relatively big years in the development of anyone, not least a writer.
The scope of ‘The Alchemist’ is much more ambitious, as it is a tale spanning hundreds of years, but it starts with us being welcomed into the crumbling dust-laden world of Count Antoine de C-. It is through the eyes of the Count that Lovecraft envisions the dwindling fortunes of the de C- family, and the crumbling family pile which mirrors that demise.
(note. Lovecraft is fond of the device of hidden surnames. he uses it often in his fiction. This stems from the scandal sheets of his day often redacting names to avoid been sued. It seems odd to modern eyes, used to modern media’s less care approach to libel laws. As a literary device, it is unusual to see now but was designed to draw in a reader and encourage them to suspend their disbelief.)
The Count, with his family’s last loyal servant, reside in the last solitary tower among the ruins. And when the servant dies the count is alone with his brooding’s and the family histories of his sadly depleted line, it is there he first encounters knowledge of the family curse. A cruel and desperate one at that. Each son of the family is cursed to die before they reach the tender age of thirty-two. With this discovery, the Count dedicates the rest of his ever shortening life to discovering the secret behind the curse and evading its impending embrace.
This then is a tale of obsession, the kind of story that Lovecraft excels at telling. Told, as it is in the first person, the Count shows little perspective on his plight. But then the Count is the one obsessed, so his perspective is, by its nature, a grim one. Faced with a curse which gives his life the equivalent of an expiry date, rather than living the life he has to the full, he hides himself away in the ruins of his family fortunes seeking desperately an answer to the curse, while the tale explores it further.
One can not help thinking he would have been far better off taking what little fortune remained and living hard and fast in the streets of some of Europe’s capital cities. Paris, Vienna or Rome perhaps. After all, if you know, you’re going to die young, then living fast and leaving a good looking corpse is generally the raison d’etre.
His obsessions drive him to delve into the vaults of the family library, which hold an interesting collection of treatise on alchemy, dark arts, and oddities, as well as the family histories. A collection which suggests he is not the first Count de C- to seek an answer to the curse. While doing so he reveals the history of the house de C-, and the root of the curse in the murder of one of a pair of black magicians by a distant ancestor of the Counts.
It is here, viewing the world through the eyes of one in the grip of obsession that Lovecraft’s writing excels. Yet the Counts obsession is not the only obsession in the tale. Indeed there is a far darker obsession waiting to be revealed at the end. You can feel the crumbling remains of the castle around you, the layers of dust on the ground, the dark passageways and secret ways within the ruins which Antoine explores in his obsession as it turns into a madness, the clock of his life ticking slowly and relentlessly down.
Yet this could have been far more than it finally becomes, which is perhaps my one disappointment with the tale, much like the first story, the ending and big reveal is a little lacklustre. Though it is carefully crafted it is jaded with a predictability about it, which may be tempered by this been one of the tales I have read before (several years ago.) The ending I imagined was coming as I read had a sharper twist to it, which blunted the actual ending a degree.
All the same, this is once more one of Lovecraft’s Juvenilia works. He was still finding his feet and his style. The darkness that was to come and the edge to his stories is not quite there yet. It is, however, a far more deeply engaging and troubling tale than the first. As such, I’ll give its a 3 out of 6 tentacles, for the promise of darker more disturbing things to come it contains within it.