Mythos: The Alchemist

I’ve never read these very early stories before, my reading of Lovecraft having previously been limited to very famous stories like Call of Cthulhu and Shadow Over Innsmouth. As such, I can’t say for sure when Lovecraft is going to really arrive in proper Lovecraftian style, but I’m pretty confident that he’s going to need a few more years to cook from this 1908 story, written when he was 18 (Lovecraft had the decency to be born in the nice round numbered 1890, making it easy to determine his age as of the writing based on a story’s publication date).

According to Barnes and Nobles’ intro (no specific writer is named as near as I can tell), this story is Lovecraft trying his absolute hardest to be Edgar Allen Poe.

High up, crowning the grassy summit of a swelling mound whose sides are wooded near the base with the gnarled trees of the primeval forest, stands the old chateau of my ancestors.

You Remember Our House, Opulent And Imperial

I don’t even know how much I’m joking here. Red Hook Studio’s name is a slightly obscure Lovecraft reference, which means the parallel between the house described here and the one in Darkest Dungeon may be a fully intentional homage.

It was in one of the vast and gloomy chambers of this remaining tower that I, Antoine, last of the unhappy and accursed Comtes de C——, first saw the light of day, ninety long years ago.

The anonymization of the narrator is allegedly inherited from Poe, but I think it’s obvious that General Mills won a legal scuffle with Lovecraft’s estate in order to scrub all reference to a character they now falsely claim to have invented: Count Chocula. In order to undo this terrible injustice, all shamefully edited references to “C——” will be restored to what I confidently assert was the artist’s original intention.

The narrator was born into the decaying wreck of the family keep, and due to being an only child whose father and mother both perished by the time of his birth (his mother in childbirth), he never knew of the family curse until he was twenty-one, and yet only eleven years out from when said curse would claim him. So the legend goes, back in the 12th century when the family was at the height of its power, the comte thought that an alchemist had murdered his son and killed the alchemist in a blind frenzy. Turns out the kid was just hiding in a nook in the castle, but the alchemist’s own (adult) son wasn’t super understanding about the miscommunication:

Then, slowly advancing to meet the Comte, he pronounced in dull yet terrible accents the curse that ever afterward haunted the house of [Chocula].

“May ne’er a noble of thy murd’rous line
Survive to reach a greater age than thine!”

So, seems pretty straightforward that Henri Chocula here just has to live as long as possible, ’cause if he dies in his sixties then really the curse just means his line won’t benefit from life extension due to modern medicine.

spake he, when, suddenly leaping backwards into the black wood, he drew from his tunic a phial of colourless liquid which he threw into the face of his father’s slayer as he disappeared behind the inky curtain of the night. The Comte died without utterance, and was buried the next day, but little more than two and thirty years from the hour of his birth.

Ah. So much for that plan, then.

Jimmy Protagonist Chocula spends his entire life investigating the occult to better understand the curse, and even entertains the notion that the alchemist and his descendants might just be hanging around murdering his ancestors, although he quickly realizes that he’s in a Poe pastiche and the idea that a centuries-spanning family curse could be anything but absolutely true is therefore patently ludicrous. He’s only a week out from his final, curse-appointed hour when he discovers a hidden passage with a heavy oak door that he cannot open. He turns to give up, but then…

I had proceeded back some distance toward the steps, when there suddenly fell to my experience one of the most profound and maddening shocks capable of reception by the human mind. Without warning, I heard the heavy door behind me creak slowly open upon its rusted hinges.

I don’t recall Lovecraft being this enamored of his own spooky imagery in his later, most famous works. Maybe my memory is just failing me. It’s been five or six years. I also have to wonder whether putting emphasis on the spooky part was just less cringey in the era than it is now. These days, if you put emphasis on the spooky part instead of just letting it stand, it feels like the story-teller overplaying their hand, like they’re holding up an applause light, except instead of applause it reads “gasp in shock.” But it occurs to me that this is based pretty heavily on context. But, y’know, I ain’t reviewing this for an audience of time traveling flappers, so either way, it comes across as kind of cringe-y overemphasis now.

Incidentally, this passage comes from a paragraph that spans just shy of two full pages.

The door has been opened by an ancient figure in medieval garb, who talks about how Charles le Sorcier – the son of the alchemist, and the guy what murdered Henri Chocula and initiated the curse – had personally assassinated the next two Choculas. Protagonist Chocula throws a torch at him and burns him alive, though, and realizes that this hidden passage leads out to a hidden ravine. Protagonist Chocula concludes that this must be how Charles le Sorcier gained entry to the chateau to perform his assassinations, but needs to return to the scorched “corpse” of his assailant, who returns to life in order to proclaim what is, by this point, obvious:

Suddenly the wretch, animated with his last burst of strength, raised his hideous head from the damp and sunken pavement. Then, as I remained, paralysed with fear, he found his voice and in his dying breath screamed forth those words which have ever afterward haunted my days and my nights. “Fool,” he shrieked, “can you not guess my secret? Have you no brain whereby you may recognise the will which has through six long centuries fulfilled the dreadful curse upon your house? Have I not told you of the great elixir of eternal life? Know you not how the secret of Alchemy was solved? I tell you, it is I! I! I! that have lived for six hundred years to maintain my revenge, FOR I AM CHARLES LE SORCIER!”

If we take the “in his dying breath” section at its word, this means that Charles le Sorcier was ageless but perfectly capable of being killed. Gotta say I’m not super impressed with the rest of the Chocula clan having failed to kill this guy, who apparently feels the need to monologue his vengeance before making his attack. It does mention that Protagonist Chocula had decided never to marry, that the curse would end with him, so maybe Sorcier is just getting it all out of his system now, since he’ll never have another chance.

Also, again with the “big reveal in all caps” thing. At least it’s only got the one exclamation point this time.

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