Wednesday, September 17, 2014

3. The Sin of the Fathers

“Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”—Exodus 34: 6-7

After thousands of years, this Old Testament insight remains disturbing and, these days at least, politically incorrect.  However, it is a relatively easy concept to demonstrate when one looks at the sociology of the impoverished, or the origins of criminality, or the troubled and violent social history in some parts of the world. 

One can see it in the near mythological history of vengeful family feuds like that of the Hatfields and the McCoys.  There is an echo of the idea in Hindu and Buddhist concepts of karma, rebirth and reincarnation.  “What goes around, comes around”—even across generations and lifetimes.  Vengeance, or its more refined, procedural form, justice—must be done.  From a strict Calvinist perspective, the wrath of God, incurred by the presence of original sin that we all share as descendants of the original human father, can also be seen as an aspect of revenge.

Karmic vengeance—or justice, depending on one’s viewpoint—which is passed down generations, is an underlying theme of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s earliest stories, The Alchemist (1916).  Unlike his colleague Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft did not write many stories that featured revenge as the driving force of the plot.  Lovecraft's characters, who are typically versions of himself, tend to passively acquiesce in their fates.  They are genetically incapable of following such advice as “don’t just get mad, get even”.

The Alchemist is different in this regard; the protagonist defeats his vengeful attacker in a spectacularly gruesome fashion.  This story, along with The White Ship (1919) and The Silver Key (1929), is also interesting for its subtle expression of Lovecraft’s feelings about his family history. The Alchemist was discussed in these terms in an earlier post, (see There Is Gold in the Basement).    

As in Saki’s The Interlopers, which was reviewed in the previous post, the motivation for revenge is deeply rooted in family history.  However, the act—repeated through several generations of the “Counts de C—” was precipitated by an accidental murder for which the narrator centuries later is held accountable.  Here the desire for vengeance is so longstanding and incapable of being fulfilled that it has become a family curse: “May ne’er a noble of thy murd’rous line/Survive to reach a greater age than thine.”  (That is, 32 years old, the age of the first victim of retribution.) 

Though officially irreligious and atheist, Lovecraft made frequent and considerable use of this Biblical notion that the sins of the fathers are visited upon their children.  For example, it is the underlying framework by which the narrator of The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936) comes to a horrifying realization of his true nature.

Antoine, the narrator of The Alchemist, is the last in a line of male heirs to the estate, and is doomed by this ancient curse to an unnaturally short life.  Before he dies, Antoine’s servant Pierre provides him with a document that explains the origin of the curse: centuries ago, an evil alchemist was wrongly accused of kidnapping the count’s son, and was killed by the count in a struggle.  The alchemist’s son, “Charles Le Sorcier” put a curse on him, and all subsequent male heirs down through history. 

Growing ever more anxious about the passage of time, Antoine studies occult books and explores the ancient family castle, visiting rooms and passageways for the first time.  Eventually he finds a small trapdoor in the basement that leads him to the lair of the evil alchemist son.  Unlike his murdered predecessors, who were stealthily hunted and killed by Charles Le Sorcier, Antoine has actively pursued him instead, and found his secret laboratory.  He prevails against the alchemist’s son in a life and death struggle, and later discovers, in one corner of the laboratory a pile of much needed gold. This is probably one of the happier endings of a Lovecraft story:  an early death is avoided, and wealth is recovered.

Compare this to the fate of the combatants in the stories by Robert E. Howard and Saki described earlier in this series of posts.  In Lovecraft’s story, the narrator defeats his malevolent opponent. His victory is not accomplished through passion and violence but knowledge and cunning.  As is typical of many Lovecraft stories, the source of the threat—in this case familial vengeance—is initially unknown to the narrator.  He must piece it together, and discover that his family’s past is gradually and relentlessly bleeding into the present—it is “visited” upon him.  And isn’t revenge all about family anyway?


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