Wednesday, July 10, 2013

There Is Gold in the Basement

One of the very first stories that H.P. Lovecraft published was The Alchemist.  He finished the original story in 1908, when he was about 18 years old, but it did not see print until most of a decade later, in November of 1916.  This was a very difficult time in Lovecraft’s life.  Because of the collapse of his grandfather’s business and the man’s subsequent death in 1904, Lovecraft and his family were forced to sell the mansion on Angell Street and move to a much more modest homestead, a few blocks down the road.  A few years later, he struggled in high school, withdrew from academics, and then experienced a “nervous collapse.”  Yet it was around this time that he began writing what would later become his first published works.

The Alchemist, along with other early stories such as The Beast in the Cave, and Dagon are fascinating because they contain elements that appear in more fully developed form in later works.  Characters, situations and themes that first appear in these early works are echoed throughout his more refined stories.

The Alchemist opens with a description of the “old chateau of my ancestors”, a castle that would fit well in an Edgar Allen Poe story.  The edifice contains a glorious and heroic history, but has since fallen to ruin, along with the financial and political stature of the family.  Surely this is a metaphor for the economic demise of Lovecraft’s family in Providence.  The narrator, Antoine, is the last in a line of male heirs to the estate, doomed by an ancient curse to an unnaturally short life.

Antoine shares the castle for awhile with an aging guardian named Pierre, who shields him from contact with the rabble outside, but also prevents him from easily learning the terrible history of his clan.  Here again is the recurring grandfather character, an avatar of the family patriarch, Whipple Phillips.  Eventually, before he dies, Pierre provides Antoine with a document that explains the curse against his family.  Evidently, back in the thirteenth century, an evil alchemist was wrongly accused of kidnapping the count’s son, and was killed in a struggle.  His son, “Charles Le Sorcier” utters a curse that fells the count, and all subsequent male heirs down through history:  ‘May ne’er a noble of thy murd’rous line survive to reach a greater age than thine!’

Antoine, ever more acutely aware of the passage of time, studies black magic intensely and explores the ancient castle, visiting rooms and passageways for the first time.  This activity is a familiar dream motif: searching unfamiliar rooms of a house and discovering things of value and interest.  Eventually he finds a small trapdoor in the basement of one of more dilapidated turrets of the castle.  Now he goes down some steps beneath the castle to find a secret passageway, leading to a large oaken door.

Ironically, his researches and explorations of the castle have led him directly to the lair of the evil alchemist.  Unlike his murdered predecessors, who were stealthily hunted by Charles Le Sorcier and dispatched, Antoine has actively pursued the alchemist, and found his secret laboratory.  Antoine prevails in a life and death struggle, and later discovers, in one corner of the laboratory “an immense pile of shining yellow metal that sparkled gorgeously in the light of the torch.”

This would seem to be one of the happier, if wishful, endings of a Lovecraft story.  An early death is defeated, and wealth is recovered.  In future stories, Lovecraft would return to themes of decay and fallen grandeur, hereditary curses, treacherous old men, and evil architecture.  Sadly, he would not return to happy endings involving found wealth, safety and security.

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