This is very much an unplanned and unexpected addition to my Wyrd & Wonder reading, though I dunno how much of a review of this particular story this is gonna be and how much it’s just gonna be me talking about embarking on a new obsession with cosmic horror. In any case, in an attempt to stay on track, The Alchemist is not a tale of the kind of cosmic horror Lovecraft is famous for, more a dark little fantasy story about a sorcerer who puts a curse on the family of a French count down through the generations of his family. I’m not gonna say more than that because it’s a very short story and I’d essentially just be retelling it if I went into any more detail.
Honestly, ithe story itself isn’t all that interesting or revelatory. It’s entirely predictable and unoriginal and the prose has that trademark jankiness and verbosity and weird syntax that I recognise from Lovecraft’s other stories. It’s a style that works well for his cosmic horror, but perhaps not as well for fantasy. Or perhaps it’s just that I’ve decided to read through his stories in publication order and, this being his first story, he just wasn’t a very good writer at this point. What Lovecraft was good at though was creating a great sense of atmosphere. Heavy, repressive and menacing, it’s a vibe that would pervade his more famous and horrifying stories, like Dagon and The Call of Cthulhu. The settings of The Alchemist feature high castle walls, looming forest trees and confined subterranean tunnels, combined with the looming threat of the imminent and premature death of the protagonist, giving the reader a feeling of exposure and vulnerability that was unsettling in a darkly fantastical and horrifying way. I’m not steeped in Lovecraft’s later works, or with cosmic horror as a genre particularly, but the ending is not what I expected given what I think I know about how Lovecraft treats his characters in his later works. Victory and happy endings don’t sound very Lovecraftian to me but, as I say, this was his first ever published story so you can hardly expect his earlier work to exist as fully formed as the stuff he’s most famous for.
There’s not much more to say about this particular story actually. It’s very very short, I read it in like 10-15 minutes and I’ve mainly ended up talking about it because I’m feeling a big urge to get into cosmic horror right now. It’s a genre I’m endlessly fascinated by. Gore and slasher horror has never really interested me, though ghosty stuff I’ve always had a fondness for because of it’s creepiness and power to unsettle. But cosmic horror, with it’s themes of fear of the unknown and the unknowable, the tendency towards protagonists who are often helpless in the face of unfathomable and inescapable powers and the very modern idea that technological progress has laid bare the sheer vastness of the cosmos and our insignificant place in it, that is true horror. And yet I’ve only ever dipped my toes into the genre, despite having absorbed most of its tropes and motifs through an unconscious kind of cultural osmosis.
I probably wouldn’t recommend reading this particular story though to be honest; the only reason I started here is cos I’m making a conscious effort to get into cosmic horror and, because I’m a crazy person, decided the best place to start is by reading the complete works of H.P. Lovecraft. That’s just cos I have an interest in seeing how the genre started and developed and I’ll obv be going on to read what will arguably be better and definitely less reactionary stuff from modern writers, just that when I do I’d like to be able to recognise what tropes they’re riffing off of or deliberately subverting. So by all means give it a go, it’s hardly a big time investment and is available for free, but don’t expect to have your mind blown.
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