Category Archives: Literary Criticism



Albatross Funnybooks

As an enormous fan of Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell’s From Hell, Derf’s My Friend Dahmer, a weekly Last Podcast on the Left listener, an owner of a framed Texas Chainsaw Massacre poster in his office, and an overall true crime junkie – to say my expectations and excitement were high for Eric Powell and Harold Schechter’s Did You Hear What Eddie Gein would be an understatement. And while Alan Moore’s classic and profound exploration of Jack the Ripper still towers above the rest (and is perhaps unfair to compare considering the scope of that work) this new graphic novel’s examination of Gein deserves quick consideration as a contender for one of the best in the serial killer / true crime genre pantheon.

Gein, in particular, is an especially tricky character to tackle. He is at once of the most truly depraved and bizarre in his crimes, while also perhaps the most atypical in his motivations. Unlike a Bundy, Dahmer, Gacy, etc, that had much more sadistic compulsions and rationalizations that – as twisted as they may be – would allow an audience member reading about their works in fiction to cast them in a more black-and-white manner, Gein’s underlying psychological complexes are much more difficult and obtuse to translate across the screen or page.

While the fictional characters that he has inspired – most famously, Norman Bates in Psycho, Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Buffalo Bill in Silence of The Lambs – all retain certain aspects of his notorious practices, it’s worth noting that each mostly takes one particular facet but leaves out the entire composite of his psychosis, as though the entire gestalt of Gein’s insanity would be too much for audiences to absorb. Psycho dramatizes the toxic relationship between Gein and his mother, along with aspects of the cross-dressing. Silence of The Lambs’ Buffalo Bill escalates the cross-dressing and introduces Gein’s skinsuits, but the grave robbing and “house of hell” aspect is left out (Bill’s pit is not quite the same).

Outside of the 1974 AIP movie Deranged loosely based on Gein’s life (which is compelling but has wild tonal shifts that ruin many of its otherwise ambitious and admirable attempts to adapt the story), Texas Chainsaw Massacre perhaps comes closest to fictionalizing the horrific reality of Gein’s daily life – that his practices were not just limited to the killing of his victims, but also in his compulsion to anthropomorphize the interior of his home as an extension of his inner reality. Coupled with the Sawyer Family’s practice of maintaining their dead and Leatherface’s generally confused sense of identity, the chainsaw-wielding slasher has perhaps come closest to depicting the truly otherworldly sense of horror that awaited victims within a isolated house surrounded by acres of empty land in the middle of nowhere.

And while that movie still retains its position as probably my favorite horror movie (alongside Rosemary’s Baby), and this is not a criticism of it whatsoever artistically but instead as an examination of Gein depictions in fiction, the Sawyer family is given motivation in its taking of victims for cannibalistic purposes that – again – almost reads as though the actuality of Gein’s otherworldly psychosis would be too vague and bizarre for audiences to grasp without including some extra motivation for its slasher. With Did You Hear…, however, Powell & Schechter’s for the first time present a full portrait of Gein that conveys a wide range of emotions and contexts for a glimpse into Gein’s psychology that is not only absent from those famous fictional characters based on him – but that is not often seen in the true crime medium at large.

Presented in atmospheric black-and-white, Powell’s drawings are an evocative exploration of the era, setting, and origins into Gein’s relationship with his parents that all contributed to his troubled interior makeup. Reminiscent again of Campbell’s work in From Hell – wherein the 1888 landscapes of London were rendered in panels that altered between stark black-and-whites and others that instead transported the readers into a more dream-like version of the Victorian era responsible for the birth of Jack the Ripper – Powell’s work similarly mixes moods that fluctuate between ethereal depictions of Wisconsin’s post-World War II landscape of Fargo-esque false niceties and Midwestern manners that are then often juxtaposed against harrowing panels inside the actual Gein home that are rendered with incredible attention to their horrific details.

Additionally, many panels are directly within Gein’s POV – positioning readers into his head with shots of Gein’s overbearing mother looming over him, or later, for Gein to hallucinate versions of his mother onto women that will be his eventual victims. And though almost comic at times, they allow for an interesting and intensely subjective portrayal of Gein’s world that takes advantage of the medium in a way that again recreates Gein’s world in a way yet to be portrayed.

These POV chapters reach their particularly intense apex during the eighth chapter “Isolation”. Following the nasty chapter “Archaeology in Hell”, which details the infamous mutilations of interior design seen throughout Gein’s house of horror, the next chapter deceptively walks the reader directly into Gein’s mind and the depths of his disturbed psychosis. Using the language and style of pulp novels that Gein apparently devoured and inspired some of his practices, the sequence culminates in an image on pg. 150 of Gein’s actual reality that is one of the most shocking splash pages that I have ever come across – right up there with the kind of unforgettable and disturbingly-detailed splash pages seen in the likes of Junji Ito.

Though Gein’s infamous reputation may cause readers to be impatient for more examples of these horrific images in the first hundred pages, the beginning takes its time contextualizing Gein’s upbringing and the almost unbearable dread of watching Ed’s disastrous home life and knowing its inevitable consequence. Never erring on the side of the melodramatic or necessarily sympathetic to Ed’s awful upbringing and directly blaming it for his later mental breakdown, these sequences depict his father’s constant anger mixed with Augusta’s inescapable religious zealotry during his developing years. More importantly, they depict how the latter parent in particular formed such an unbreakable bond on Gein’s brain. These pages slowly sink the reader into not only understanding, but feeling, the awful combination that warped the already mentally-challenged Gein into an increasingly unstable individual and eventually unhinged killer.

Moreover, unlike the other fictional characters listed above – this forces the audience to dwell with Gein in a way that most creators have unsurprisingly avoided, due to the almost unbearably uncomfortable nature of Gein’s inner world. Whether it’s Marian Crane in Psycho, Sally in Chainsaw, or Clarice in Silence, the typical approach – again, not a criticism of these works but an example of how this comic depiction yields a vastly difference experience – these female protagonists are stand-ins for the audience that progress away from the everyday world and then slowly discover (often unwillingly) the surreal nightmare that is Gein’s home.

Did You Hear…, however, takes the opposite approach. Except for the opening prologue and certain sequences near the end, Gein himself stands in for the audience – forcing the reader to watch his slow unraveling during his lowest, most isolated moments. These panels of Gein enacting his warped delusions within this unbelievably isolated house are particularly compelling and disturbing. For while Sally stumbling upon a couch of bones and face masks on the walls in the Sawyer house leaves the audience to privately wonder about the actual production of Leatherface’s grisly designs before her arrival, the comic’s presentation of such sequences are a deeply unsettling glimpse into the reality of their construction.

These dread-inducing sequence situate the reader alone with Gein during his darkest moments of delusion, where he was sure to be without interruption, and almost make the reader feel like a peeping Tom intruding on this deeply disturbed individual during his most private time.  Consequently, these chapter remove the ‘slasher’ / ‘haunted house’ expectations of Gein’s other fictional portrayals and instead recreate the everyday unraveling of Gein’s psychosis to an even more disturbing degree – the living in absolute filth, the actual construction of the skinsuits, and the cumulative effect of this total isolation from anything outside this monstrous world created as an extension of his psychosis.

Moreover, there are very few fictional works willing to situate the audience with such a disturbing character, through their point-of-view, for such extended periods of time like these moments in Did You Hear…

Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, and Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer are some films that come closest to a similar experience, while Jim Thompson’s masterpiece The Killer Inside Me and Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God are maybe the closest literary experiences. Derf’s My Friend Dahmer comic also overlaps with this type of material at times, but again, is a bit removed due to its ultimately being told from Derf’s point-of-view and before the peak of Dahmer’s monstrosities.

The writing itself also presents an atypical structure. The first third unfolds in a fairly linear manner – examining Gein’s birth, upbringing, and slowly warping mental state due to his turbulent home life – while the middle and end, however, unfold in a somewhat unusual manner. They instead start with Gein’s arrest, then work backward to show the grave robbings, murders, the amplification of Gein’s psychosis into the house of horrors, then ends with his imprisonment and a new theory of analysis (at least to me) by Schechter as to Gein’s MO and its overlap with primal religious rituals that perhaps speaks to something in the collective unconscious that cracked open during Gein’s mental breakdown.

Again, all this helps contribute to a unique examination of this infamous figure that has been thoroughly depicted over and over again both in fiction and non-fiction. The book even postulates that Gein is somewhat responsible for the slasher genre at large – making his influence on the genre and the villains inspired by him obvious. And in non-fiction, that Gein was one of the first to terrify normal citizens of their next-door-neighbor and eventually elevate himself into the prototypical boogeyman of the new era. As Gein also stands out as such an anomaly amongst other true crime figures, this book balances new insight with memorable storytelling devices that make it highly recommended for other true crime and comic fans interested in the life story of this figure that has cast such a long, dark shadow over the rest of the genre and popular culture throughout the latter half of the 20th century.

The Devil in the White City


“I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing”

–H.H. Holmes

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood”

–Daniel Burnham

Erik Larson opens his book with these two quotes that function as a preview—and microcosm—to the essence of the two minds at the heart of his Devil in the White City. More than that, both men operated within the same city that spurred their minds to blossom in all their respective depravity and grandeur: Chicago. And more specifically, the author examines the single event that acted as the crucible for revealing both the best and worst that these men could conjure—that event being The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893—an event that would serve as a symbol to the spectrum of the human spirit in all its glory and monstrosity upon the advent of the twentieth century.

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Chicago of 1893 was a burgeoning American city determined to demonstrate itself against its metropolitan rivals to the East. And with the national decision to commemorate Columbus’ 400th anniversary—coupled by the renowned debut of Eiffel’s Tower at the recent Paris Exposition of 1889—America needed to utilize the upcoming Chicago World’s Fair as a monument and announcement to American’s unparalleled capacity for achievement and innovation.

Leading this endeavor would be Daniel Burnham—the architect responsible for overseeing its exhibits, maintaining production, and selecting the fellow men responsible for elevating the Fair into a phenomenon surpassing all expectations. After the death of Burnham’s professional partner, celebrated architect John Root, almost the entire burden of the assignment fell upon his shoulders. A task with the potential to cripple most men faced with the challenge, but one in which Burnham would work tirelessly to succeed—despite certain failures and shortcomings often out of his control—to exemplify the power of a determined mind coupled with an unceasing work ethic.


These obstacles of Burnham’s contention would often arrive in the form of inclement weather, bureaucratic battles, and internal squabbles with fellow department heads. Nonetheless, despite numerous delays and last-minute fixes, the Fair was a triumphant success. One that would leave behind such marvels as The Ferris Wheel, Tesla’s alternating electrical current, gum, shredded wheat, spray painting, the device that creates plates for printing Braille…the list goes on ad nauseam. But besides these tangible heirlooms still affecting present American society, the ambition and awe of by the Fair itself would prove to be perhaps its most profound legacy.

As one example, Larson relays an anecdote concerning one of the countless construction workers hired to help the Fair reach its nearly impossible deadline. This construction worker being an otherwise anonymous employee by the name of Elias Disney, who would recount stories of the overwhelming awe instilled by the spectacle of The White City upon the attendees to his young son Walt, which, Larson implies, would later be imitated in his designs of Disneyland.

Interspersed between these anecdotes of American achievement at its zenith, Larson weaves a parallel narrative focused upon the exploits of H.H. Holmes—America’s first true serial killer. Operating his nearby World’s Fair Hotel—which would later be infamously remembered as The Murder Castle—Holmes would seize upon the opportunity afforded by the Fair in the most monstrous manner imaginable: as a vehicle for his plans of murder and theft to be unleashed.


In stark juxtaposition to Burnham’s continued efforts to utilize his resources for the benefit of society, Holmes embodied the nightmare version of the American self-made man. Calculated, cold, and patient, Holmes worked with methodical ingenuity in his construction of the Murder Castle: a three-story hotel assembled from Holmes’ designs that would provide the perfect tenement to his abominable ambitions.

From assigning certain workers to only certain sections (limiting their knowledge to corroborate with one another), to his ability to charm creditors for money that would never be repaid, to his own manufactured public image of a well-to-do businessman that would attract his varied women of interest, Holmes exploited every conceivable aspect of the trusting American public in order to appease the commanding vices surging within him.

These vices would be numerous and varied. From insurance fraud, to theft, to murder, to kidnapping, Holmes existed as a personification of evil. At every turn—with Burnham working relentlessly mere miles away to produce a vision of America that would change and inspire the world—Holmes indulged in every act of depravity that he could conceive. As though possessed (a claim that Holmes would literally attest to after his arrest), H.H. truly lived up to his opening quote of being incapable of quelling his deviant impulses. Whether it was his numerous wives—all naïve women who sought out Chicago in hope of a new life within the burgeoning metropolis—or random hotel guests, or eventually the children of his accomplice…Holmes exhibited no mercy in satisfying the limitless depths of his immorality.

And, as Larson reminds the reader in the introduction, the book is not a work of fiction. Nonetheless, the author weaves this sprawling narrative with compelling and compulsive chapters—each one short and episodic so that the reader falls under the trance of believing that the work could be a fictional, historical thriller. More importantly and impressively, these chapters are written with such specificity and atmosphere as to completely transport the reader into the setting. Larson favors stark, smooth prose that paints a vivid picture of the subject and allows the reader to experience the range of emotions occurring within this revolutionary event: from the majesty of the Court of Honor to Annie Williams’ utter panic after Holmes locks her within a vault, turns on the valve for poisonous gas to be released, and listens to her final screams before death just outside the door.

The last third of the novel—with the Fair inexorably approaching its bleak end and the determined detective named Frank Geyer on Holmes’ elusive trail—Larson escalates the suspense to especially memorable and powerful effect. After Holmes’ many, many creditors finally coalesced to take him down, H.H. escaped from Chicago. However, the hotelier did not flee alone; instead, he absconded with three children belonging to his former assistant: the drunken henchman Benjamin Pitezel. As Geyer tracks Holmes across the northern states, locates him in Toronto, and discovers the gruesome remains of the children murdered and mutilated by Holmes, the storytelling morphs into a riveting chase across America and Canada to finally deliver retribution upon the killer. Geyer’s descent into the cellar of the climactic Toronto home reads with as much suffocating suspense and dread as any horror novel, and the brutal aftermath—wherein the mother must identify her horribly mutilated child at the coroner’s office—delivers the unbearable emotions of devastation experienced by the victim that are often glossed over by similar works in the genre.

By the finale, wherein Larson interweaves the rapid destruction of the Fair following the assassination of Chicago’s mayor with Holmes’ arrest and execution, the author provides perspective on how the immense scope of these events affected the American public. Burnham with the World’s Fair—a prodigious monument to the power of accomplishment in American creativity, innovation, and inspiration; then with Holmes and the Murder Castle—a material edifice containing the darkest conceptions of a man’s mind and a literal house of horrors that contributed nothing but carnage and chaos.

In this striking juxtaposition, Larson underscores how these two men—existing under the same time, place, and tested by the same opportunity—opted to forge the material legacy of their lives. And in demonstrating these expanded boundaries of American accomplishment and depravity upon the advent of the twentieth century, Larson impresses a larger understanding of the scope of human nature; and more importantly, the significance of how each man chooses to actualize his own nature, despite his limited time, and how profoundly the consequences of these actions continue to echo beyond the ephemeral present.



The Maltese Falcon: From Book To Film



With Dashiell Hammett’s novel serving as a literary prototype for the hard-boiled detective genre, and the film adaptation arguably considered a model—if not the very first—of the film noir genre, both versions of The Maltese Falcon deserve examination for their consideration and influence within their respective mediums. Starring Private Eye Sam Spade at the center of this byzantine narrative, the almost comically convoluted plot revolves around the eponymous statuette of The Maltese Falcon—a bejeweled figure worth a significant sum of money that fuels the motives of each character. More importantly, the Falcon functions as an archetypal MacGuffin—a plot device term famously popularized by Hitchcock—as an object whose inherent nature bears little importance, so much as it catalyzes the characters’ pursuit of this object to reveal their true nature.

Nonetheless, as in so many of the film noirs to come, the story begins with a mysterious woman asking for help. The woman—Brigid O’Shaughnessy—enters the investigate offices of Archer & Spade for their assistance in apparently tracking down her sister. Though the two are suspicious of her story, Archer trails the man in question—only to be later shot dead. With the police now fingering Spade as a possible suspect, he begins his journey into both proving his innocence and avenging his partner’s death.

But first, he must contend with the peculiar character of Joe Cairo (Peter Lorre). While the book’s descriptions make the character’s homoerotic undertones undisguisably clear, the film must hint much more subtly toward such controversial character ideas for a film produced in 1941. Instead, Peter Lorre’s performance of Joe Cairo emphasizes such affects through his high-pitched voice, extremely polished attire, and scented handkerchief. That aside, Cairo first introduces information regarding the bird while searching Spade at gunpoint. Though Sam outmaneuvers him, he soon realizes that he is being trailed by a companion of Cairo named Willet—commonly referred to as the kid in the book—who doggedly trails the private eye throughout San Francisco in his search to reconnect with Brigid and determine her connection between his partner’s death and this strange statue of the Maltese Falcon.

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Eventually, Spade locates the looming figure operating behind the scenes of both Brigid and Cairo in the form of “The Fat Man” aka Gutman. Played to marvelous, memorable effect by Sydney Greenstreet, the perpetually jovial crime figure attempts to manipulate Spade in finding the valuable Falcon. As can be found in similar, heavily-plotted noirs of the time, the narrative from this point forward mostly allows for a series of tense dialogue exchanges, double-crossings, and a climactic confrontation for all parties in which their object of desire—The Falcon—serves to illuminate the true intentions of each character and challenge those aspects of their personality formerly considered resolute.

Besides these genre precedents, the film also helped initiate the careers of both director John Huston and star Humphrey Bogart into those iconic roles which would later cement their legacies. Having collaborated with Bogart as a writer on the early heist film High Sierra (1941), where the young Bogie owned his first true staring role as the leader of the heist, Huston and Bogart would use the successful reception of this first partnership to ascend both their careers in The Maltese Falcon. After the critical and box office success of this picture, Huston would pursue similar movies that would define his career, mostly in the crime genre; specifically: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, and The Asphalt Jungle. Meanwhile, Bogart would grow into an actor of legend just a year later when starring in the most famous film of his career: Casablanca.

Though two previous, failed adaptations of Hammett’s novel had already come to fruition, Huston managed to convince Warner Brothers into financing another by meticulously mapping out each shot beforehand in detailed storyboards and keeping the budget down to $300,000 on an eight-week-schedule. Perhaps more importantly, he also remained extremely faithful to the source material—reducing the already lean narrative of the novel into an almost word-for-word transformation from prose to picture.

Still, the single filmmaking aspect most worthy of praise that exalted the picture into a detective mystery far more compelling than its predecessors can be pinpointed to the cinematography. Roger Ebert and others have argued that cinematographer Arthur Edeson’s work deserves praise on par with that of Welles and Gregg Toland in Citizen Kane for its use of deep-focus, long takes, and low-angle shots. These low-angles are noteworthy for their inclusion of ceilings within interior rooms—a major achievement for the field since lighting and equipment were normally kept above this region of the frame to hide equipment. While also praiseworthy for their invention in this regard, these shots also work to thematic effect in visually enhancing many ideas about character. Most notably, these are utilized in shots of Sydney Greenstreet’s Mr. G, wherein the massive man of wealth and influence is continually framed from low-angle shots that emphasize his power and domineering influence upon the frame.


Likewise, he and Edeson employ deep focus shots that ensure each detail in the foreground and background act in unison to highlight deeper thematic ideas—ensuring many long dialogue scenes are able to both convey necessary plot exposition and retain the viewer’s attention from a visual standpoint. Moreover, the use of a long take in a nearly seven-minute-long shot between Spade and Gutman deserves exceptional praise. Though the take does not call attention to itself in the manner that has made so many other long takes famous, the unbroken shot observes Gutman slowly waiting for Spade to pass out from his drugged drink. The viewer wallows in both the tension and patience of the scene, and Huston wisely never interrupts the shot to pander down to audiences as to the why this scene deserves to play out for such an extended time. Though this exact parallel between Toland and Edeson may be a bit of a stretch, the cinematography on display still deserves its reputable acclaim.

Still, though the film’s technical achievements are worthy of all the esteemed praise accumulated over the decades, the film’s genre and character precedents remain its most relevant legacy. Bogart inhabits the smug, cold, yet oddly charismatic character of Spade with confident swagger and delineates a portrait of the hardened detective that would inhabit the noir genre to the point of cliché. What separates Spade from the imitators, however, can be found in the stirring sense of pathos—one which will soon be starkly illuminated in the climax.

Like the novel, the final scene plays out as one long dialogue scene that begins as a negotiation and concludes in a cold arrest. The nearly twenty-minute long scene plays out almost identically to that of the novel, though the book includes a scene of Spade strip-searching O’Shaughnessy in an act of humiliation that truly reveals Spade’s hard heart—foreshadowing the dark aspect of this character to be crystallized within the climax.


After the Falcon has been revealed as an imitation, and the original “Fall Guy” of the Kid has escaped, Gutman and Spade mutually agree to depart with no harm to the other (though Spade manages to take a few hundred dollars from him “for his troubles”). Left alone with his love interest O’Shaughnessy, the woman who originally entangled Spade within the affairs of the Falcon, she appeals to Spade no longer as an ally or client—but as a lover. She raises questions of their relationship, of love, but Spade’s true nature finally reveals itself when he bluntly explains that he will be handing her over to the police. Though apparent true tears emerge from the woman’s eyes, begging him for mercy and for him to escape with her for a new life, Sam can only explain in his famous last lines:

“When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it…I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck…The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”

Despite Sam’s brutal message and Brigid’s look of absolute horror, the speech gives the best indication yet into Spade’s character and what separates this species of investigator from the others: a code.

While Brigid may have actually loved Sam, her ambiguous nature left little in the way for a man like Sam to love her back. Even though he may not have even liked Archer (and was holding an affair with his wife, as well), and though he may have liked Brigid in some other circumstance, his code dictates that he has a certain duty to fulfill—one that he has accomplished by the end of the story—and one that, for better or worse, leaves him back where he began.

The one major, final difference between the book and movie lies in the film’s famous last line. After a cop asks Spade as to what exactly the Maltese Falcon is, he replies: “The stuff that dreams are made of”. Though reports vary in crediting this line to either Bogart or Huston, the line works as a variation of dialogue from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” The line does not need much analysis in the way of deciphering its symbolic significance in relation to what the Falcon has represented: a device that fueled the dreams for those seeking greater glories, riches, and a happier life…only to come away with nothing but an imitation.


Although the film is almost a word-for-word adaptation of a novel, it does leave out one chapter of significance that highlights this idea of chasing something better only to return to a similar life as that which came before. In the chapter titled “Flitcraft”, Spade relates the story of a case from early in his career, which involved a man named Charles Flitcraft. Spade had been assigned to track down this Charles Flitcraft—a successful businessman from Tacoma—who had seemingly abandoned his family. Following his private investigation, Spade discovers that Flitcraft was nearly killed by a falling beam from a construction site, and though the nearly fatal beam just missed him to spare his life, the businessman remained deeply shaken from the experience. As a result, he decided to leave this life behind in search of a new one. His new life, however, came to find Flitcraft as a man in charge of a new business, with a new wife, not far from his original town of Tacoma—clearly unaware how closely his new life resembled the old one.

The point of Flitcraft’s story—and one that makes Spade’s own ending with the Falcon all the more haunting—relates to the this theme of a man being unable to change his true nature, arguably due to the code which so defines Spade’s character. With the Falcon acting as The MacGuffin in this case—a thing that dreams are made of, whatever that may—each character comes to chase this idol of hope only to return to that original life from which they started their doomed journey. Cairo, Gutman, and Willet return to their worldwide search of the actual Falcon, Brigid remains a woman in fear for her life (now under a pending death penalty), and Spade returns back to his office—ready for the next case.

Now having experienced an episode in the career of Sam Spade, the viewer can better understand and contextualize the cynical weariness that has turned this private investigator into a shell of a human being. A man who understands the importance of a code above all else, and who’s able to recognize the futility of chasing a better life that will only return the pursuer back to a life not too dissimilar from the start. Ultimately, Spade recognizes that all these things under the umbrella of “stuff that dreams are made of” represented by the Falcon – a new life, a better woman, untold riches, the solving of a case—are only ever just that for men of a certain nature: ephemeral goals capable of casting the illusion of change, only to crumble over time when a man must return to his true nature and follow the law of his own code.

While the weary, detached detective would become a defining element of noir in the ensuing years, Spade’s sad fate as a man forced to return to a lonely lifestyle defined by a rigid code serves as a significant example of how this noir archetypes and his function within the larger narrative recontextualizes such ideas with profound thematic meaning that relates to dark ideas of both man and the mirage of dreams. As downbeat as such ideas may be, they represent the subversive tropes that came to define the film noir and detective genres at large—themes and characters represented in classic, captivating fashion as best found in the case of Sam Spade and The Maltese Falcon.

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Book Review: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt


Set against the historical backdrop of the California Gold Rush, Patrick DeWitt’s titular heroes are brothers Charlie and Eli Sisters, who are also assassins, on a mission to kill a prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm. This combination of memorably comic names, historical setting, and tone described within the premise completely encapsulates all one would need to know about this beautifully bizarre novel. Additionally, however, and to even higher distinction, the novel’s picaresque structure is wrought with exceptional creativity that further distinguishes this work from its many contemporary genre peers and deserves very high praise.

Narrated by Eli Sisters, the brothers serve as assassins for the Commodore—an authoritative figure that tasks the boys with jobs requiring more dangerous or fatalistic endings. The task at hand demands the brothers seek out and kill a one Hermann Kermit Warm—a prospector that has apparently stolen from the Commodore at the cost of his life. The novel is told with a picaresque structure of extremely short, yet memorable, narration of the brothers’ adventures and mishaps in their search for Warm across the Western landscape.

Tonally, the novel strikes a very rare and impressive balance between hilariously sharp dialogue and darkly comic situations that slowly navigate toward scenes of heartbreaking tragedy and acute poignancy. The only real tonal parallel that one may suggest is something close to that of the filmic works of the Coen Brothers, though DeWitt’s original voice still separates itself from those exceptional storytellers. Moreover, the tone complements the pacing of this episodic narrative to very impressive results. The book is an undeniable page-turner without ever losing the depth of its characterization or sacrificing any of the various emotional levels at play.

Though the book touches on a number of familiar Western genre staples—from assassins, to Mexican standoffs, to the larger themes of men imposing their morals upon others within a burgeoning civilization—the novel also successfully eschews many of these classical expectations to surprising and thought-provoking results. Despite the brothers’ job title of assassins, and the numerous violent acts that populate the narrative, the characters are imbued with a very touching and moving sense of pathos very unlike those found in the brutal landscapes occupied by traditional Western fiction. There are questions of moral ambiguity explored within this novel to incredibly successful results that bring to mind aspects of contemporary western writer S. Craig Zahler’s revelatory work (my favorite fiction writer: both A Congregation of Jackals and Wraiths of the Broken Land are masterpieces). Specifically, there are interludes wherein the protagonist confronts what may be the Devil/evil incarnate through the form of a little girl that remains one of the book’s most resonant and thought-provoking creations.

The Western genre stands as one of the best prisms for an author’s exploration of those thematic aspects of their obsession in tandem with those central themes to the American narrative at large. Themes of masculinity, spirituality, luck, the cost of success at the sacrifice of a man’s morals—these are all ideas embedded within the myth of American man and which the Western genre often explores through its setting of a terrain caught between civilization and barbaric tribalism. As the best Westerns are capable, The Sisters Brothers offers a fascinating and praiseworthy peak into DeWitt’s version of these central tenets: allowing a new perspective on both those time-honored traditions of the genre and those specific literary realizations brought forth by his imagination.

Book Review: The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft



After falling in love with Lovecraft following my experience with The Case of Charles Dexter WardI picked up The Dreams in the Witch House for a refreshing visit into the more fantastical side of the horror master’s oeuvre, along with S.T. Joshi’s invaluable notes accompanying each text.

As Joshi reminds in his introduction, Lovecraft has both been criticized and (as usual for him) remained grossly critical of his own work in writing “There are my ‘Poe’ pieces & my ‘Dunsany’ pieces—but alas—where are any Lovecraft pieces?” The Dreams in the Witch-House collection mostly focuses on the latter style of the author’s works. This Penguin collection—one of three companion pieces by Penguin Classics including The Things at the Doorstep and The Call of the Cthulu—focuses on the more fantastical “Dream-Cycle” of the author’s work that exemplifies the strong influence of Lord Dunsany upon his artistic prowess as expressed by the author himself.

Nonetheless, Lovecraft’s writing remains as inimitable and impressive as ever—arguably the finest horror author to grace English literature with a command of language unparalleled in the genre. Moreover, Lovecraft often demonstrates in these pieces, more so than in his more celebrated works, the unbelievable level of creativity and invention made possible through a combination of his own distinct mythos and his precocious absorption of literature across the genres. Lastly, as found through the best of all his horror tales, Lovecraft imbues an unprecedented control of tone and language to make palpable a feeling of dread and verisimilitude that turn all his best pieces into unbelievably transportive pieces of literature.


A short, poetic tale that many have critics have noted as being a large autobiographical piece for Lovecraft as an allegory of his experiences during WW1. Specifically, the fact that Lovecraft was sidelined from major combat (as with the protagonist in the fictional realm of Lamar), due to his own personal neuroses. Despite not having read Dunsany until a bit later, the piece rings with numerous echoes of the Dunsany aesthetic (along with Poe, who influenced both authors) that contributed to his later attitudes expressed above.

The short tale is also notable for being the first to mention Lovecraft’s Pnakotic manuscripts. Additionally, the prose itself imbues a beautiful dream-like and poetic quality (having been based on an actual dream—like many of his stories) that offers a quick, interesting gateway to the aesthetic of the “Dream Cycle” collection.

The Doom That Came To Sarnath

As Joshi notes in his footnotes, “one of the earliest tales written under the influence of Lord Dunsany, whom HPL had seen lecture in Boston in October”. Like “Polaris”, the tale exhibits a more poetic and fantastical version of Lovecraft’s imagination that also mixes aspects of horror. The city of Ib and the stone idol of their god are the central tenets of this similarly short tale that should be more noteworthy for its ability to convey mood, atmosphere, and Dunsanian fantasy that offers an short, enjoyable read filtered with hints to the power of Lovecraft’s writing in the Dream Cycles to come within the collection.

The Terrible Old Man

Most interesting for standing as one of the few Lovecraft tales to include an element of crime as the catalyst for the horror, the tale concerns the horrific consequences upon three young men determined to rob the eponymous old man of the title for his reported wealth. Interestingly, as Joshi notes “The three thieves…represent the three major non-Anglo-Saxon ethnic groups in Rhode Island”. Furthermore, the story stands as the first introduction to Lovecraft’s mythical town of Kingsport (a fictional stand-in for Marblehead, Massachusetts). Again, one of the shorter of Lovecraft tales that offers a very cursory glance into the fantastical side of Lovecraft’s imagination to provocative results.

The Tree

Perhaps most interesting for fans of Machen’s masterpiece “The Great God Pan”, “The Tree” is a short Lovecraft tale set in Ancient Greece concerning the fate of two famous sculptors—Kalos and Musides—and the eponymous tree of the title. Set upon a mountain in Greece and perhaps influenced by the Machen tale mentioned above, another very short fantasy tale by the author that is also notable for its Grecian setting which had long fascinated Lovecraft since early childhood.

The Cats of Ulthar

A humorous, memorable, and truly weird fantasy tale from the master concerning the formation of a law forbidding the killing of cats within the fantastical city of Ulthar. As an enormous (and famously well-known) cat lover himself, the short tale serves as one of his most well-known and acclaimed in the style of Dunsany (specifically, with echoes of Dunsany’s The Idles Days of Yarn). Moreover, it’s certainly one of the most accessible of Lovecraft’s fantasy tales for early initiates.

From Beyond

Easily one of the weakest tales in the collection, the short story concerns an unnamed narrator’s account of his experiences with scientist Crawford Tillinghast, who has invented a machine capable of stimulating the pineal gland to allow experience into alternate planes of reality. Though Lovecraft’s command of mood remains as powerful as ever, and what ultimately keeps the reader from putting the book down, the overall point and conclusion of the story remains muddled and indecisive of what it ultimately hopes to express. Somewhat reminiscent of “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” or “Hypnos” though both tales are far, far superior.

The Nameless City

Another tale inspired by a dream from the author, “The Nameless City” remains one the best in the collection, an underrated story in its own right, and a fascinating precursor to the type of narrative to used to more profound effect in “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Out of Time”. The nameless city of the title refers to an abandoned setting somewhere in the Arabian Peninsula, and Lovecraft peppers in an array of foreboding architectural details that will delight readers familiar with “Mountains of Madness”. Specifically, the fact that the very low-ceilings dominate the interior of the abandoned edifices and the use of bas-reliefs/hieroglyphs found in subterranean passages that offer a detailed history of the beings of this supposedly vacant, nameless city. These beings are revealed to be a monstrous reptile race described as something of a mix between a lizard, crocodile, and seal. Furthermore, the feeling of dread that the author subtly weaves and escalates until the final few pages imbues that same sense of gripping terror and wonder to be found in those other, more famous of his stories mentioned above. “The Nameless City” also contains the first mention of Lovecraft’s mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, who would later be mentioned in nearly every story of his pertaining to the Cthulu Mythos.

The Moon-Bog

As Joshi notes, easily one of the most conventional of his supernatural tales. The brief story was written for a group of amateur writers all contributing a St. Patrick’s Day themed story. The tale concerns the fate of the narrator’s friend who returns to Ireland to reclaim his estate within a fictional Irish town that borders a dreaded bog from which the locals have warned of superstitious doom. The final passage contains some eldritch imagery worth seeking out from what is otherwise a forgettable entry.

 The Other Gods

With connections both to “The Cats of Ulthar” and to much greater extent in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, “The Other Gods” serves as another Dunsanian fantasy that concerns the fate of two travelers intending to scale the mountain of the gods to glimpse their faces. A fantastic meld of the best of Lovecraft’s fantasy, Dunsanian hubris, and hints of greater cosmic horror—“The Other Gods” stands as perhaps the best Lovecraft fantasy outside “Dream-Quest” and “The Stranger High House…”. A short but evocating tale that hints at the cosmic power and horror that would be revealed in greater detail within “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”.


A compelling, though ultimately lesser, version of a character venturing into the land of dreams to horrific results. The narrator meets a companion (who Joshi notes bears in his description a striking resemblance to Lovecraft’s literary idol Edgar Allan Poe) that joins the narrator in exploring realms only accessible through deep sleep. Though his companion takes drugs that compel his adventures further, the narrator refuses—going so far as to attempt to stop sleeping as to abate the nightmares brought forth from their travels. “Hypnos” occupies a similar narrative (though to better results) as “From Beyond” and (to lesser success) as “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”, and the final line is thought-provoking when rereading the narrative.

 The Lurking Fear

Following in the thematic footsteps of horror through a degenerative family hereditary line found also in “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn…”, “The Rats in the Walls”, and “Shadow over Innsmouth”, this underrated short story concerns a narrator fascinated with the local terror of the landscape known as Tempest Mountain wherein the abandoned Martense Mansion resides. Divided into four progressively dread-filled chapters, Lovecraft imbues this smaller-scale horror story with an escalating sense of terror and concludes in a horrific (though somewhat predictable) climax with powerful and vivid imagery concerning the grotesque fate that befell the Martense Family. A story that serves as a nice break from the numerous fantasy stories that populate the collection.

 The Unnamable

A very, very brief piece that serves more as a treatise (or defense) of supernatural horror in literature. More or less a dialogue between two characters debating the merits of horror literature than one that weaves an actual narrative, though the loving prose Lovecraft imbues upon local New England topography and atmosphere within the cemetery of the setting is perhaps worth seeking out for some. More interestingly, “The Unnamable” contains the first appearance of the famous Randolph Carter character whose later adventures populate this collection.

The Shunned House

Lovecraft’s version of the classic haunted house tale based on an actual home that enraptured his imagination. Unlike most versions of the haunted house story, Lovecraft spends an impressive and well-deserved time establishing the history of the home, the strange fate that awaited its tenants, then finally allows for the protagonists to begin their nightly vigil awaiting for whatever supernatural horrors that may occur. The slow-build up, mounting dread, and sense of incredible atmospheric details all contribute to a feeling of incredible suspense and horror that is only marred by a not as adequate conclusion. Without spoiling it, it’s perhaps the only Lovecraft story I can recall that ends on an undeniably triumphant note with the hero definitively besting the supernatural horror (and in very bizarre fashion). Not that that can’t be an effective ending in its own right, but there’s a weird feeling of false emotion in the last paragraph that feels very out of place for the author. Still, the plotting and incredible verisimilitude that color the majority of the tale are too impressive to be ignored.

 The Horror at Red Hook

Though it is perhaps most infamously remembered (and rightly so) for its abhorrent racism, and though it is certainly one of his least acclaimed by critics, “The Horror at Red Hook” is actually one of the author’s most interesting works due to its strictly urban setting compared to the author’s usual penchant for the pastoral realms of Providence or fantasy realm of dreams. While the potential for this urban horror is terribly wasted by Lovecraft’s blatant racism in using foreigners as the vehicle for the supernatural to unfold, it remains an intriguing and thought-provoking blend of crime and horror. Moreover, the conclusion of Dr. Malone’s investigation and the ultimate reveal of the horror at Red Hook stands as one of Lovecraft’s most creative passages in the author’s cannon. With echoes of my favorite Clark Ashton Smith story “The City of the Singing Flame”, Lovecraft describes the detective’s stumbling into a nightmarish world filled with a surfeit of distinctive and horrific creatures responsible for the ongoing crimes in Red Hook. Certainly not the author’s best tale, and again, the blatant xenophobia destroys the power of the premise, but for the sheer command of creativity, imagination, and unique mix of genre revealed in that passage described above—“The Horror at Red Hook” is very much recommended.

 In the Vault

The most conventional and forgettable tale in the collection, maybe in Lovecraft’s career. The story concerns an undertaker trapped within a vault whose only escape is a high window, which he intends to reach by piling the nearby coffins into a ladder. Despite being rejected by Weird Tales for fear of its supposedly “extreme gruesomeness” not passing the Indiana censorship board, the tale is anything but. Lovecraft’s always impressive ability to imbue dread and atmosphere is present but used to hardly any memorable effect.

The Strange High House in the Mist

A short, beautiful, Dunsanian fantasy written with gorgeous prose and descriptions of the Lovecraft’s fictional coast city of Kingsport. Like most of his short fantasies, plot and character take a backseat in favor of creative and weird imagery that demand the reader to absorb both the awe of the land and those horrors awaiting those who demand more from the gods.

 The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

The undeniable masterpiece of the book, one of the best of Lovecraft’s career, and one of the best pieces of pure fantasy ever published. Unpublished in his own lifetime (and as per usual described by Lovecraft himself in saying: “it isn’t much good”), the novella is a long, uninterrupted journey by the recurring character of Randolph Carter seeking the sunset city of his dreams. Carter resolves to literally seek out the gods responsible in hopes of finally finding the sunset city and ventures into realms both horrific and grand.

Lovecraft populates the yarn with an unbelievable number of creative machinations: from ghouls, to night-gaunts, to zoogs, to the depths of cold wastes, to the hidden face of the Moon, to the high hall pantheons of the gods, to the abyss of chaos. Each distinct and fantastic setting is poetically described with a sense of majesty and awe that serves as the best evidence possible for Lovecraft’s inimitable and uncompromised imagination. Each episode and fantastic character encountered by Carter could fill a novel of its own right, and Lovecraft peppers in such a plethora of beautifully creative arrangements that the prose can be overwhelming (in the best way to possible) due to the sheer intensity of its scope and ambitions.

The culmination of Carter’s adventures find the character confronting the ultimate horror and beauty of Lovecraft’s obsessions in a breathtaking finale that sends Carter (and the reader) reeling through voids of time and space in powerful, profound moment that ranks amongst one of the most breathtaking sequences in Lovecraft’s career. While the word fantasy often automatically conjures up the usual suspects of Tolkien, Martin, Dunsany (whose influence is clear throughout the piece), and as much as I adore all their separate works, as well, Lovecraft uses the genre in a very distinct way to conjure up realms with an awe-inspiring sense of scope toward the larger cosmos that truly is without parallel.

 The Silver Key

Following Carter’s adventures back home from Kadath, “The Silver Key” finds Randolph once again in a state of ennui and wanting more out of life. The short tale is less of a narrative and more of a story in disguise of a treatise—in a style that somewhat calls to mind “The Unnamable” from earlier in the collection. “The Silvery Key” is most interesting as a guide into Lovecraft’s opinions on a variety of topics: as a criticism of religion, to even harsher criticism of bohemian lifestyle of any sort, to man’s place in the universe—that last view expressed as one of his most major points of interests throughout his career.

Through the Gates of the Silver Key

A sequel of sorts to “The Silver Key” and the next entry into the continuing adventures of Randolph Carter. Co-written with E. Price Hoffman (though the latter admits that only about fifty words of his original treatment remain after Lovecraft’s re-write), the story was spurned by Hoffman’s urging Lovecraft to follow on Carter’s whereabouts after his disappearance through the portal unlocked by the silver key. The narrative concerns four men meeting to divide the estate of Randolph Carter following his disappearance. One of these men is the mysterious looking Swami Chandraputra, who speaks with a strange voice and wears curious clothing to hide to appearance, and who promises to relate the final fate that befell Randolph Carter.

What follows is one of the most bizarre (not completely successful) but compelling narratives of Lovecraft’s career as Carter’s journey through portals of time, existence, and realms populated by weird creatures of both the Dunsany and Cthulu Mythos variety. Again, there are shades of more philosophical expounding than anything else—maintaining its status as literal and thematic sequel to “The Silver Key”—with Lovecraft pouring out even denser, though always evocative descriptions, of the vast gulfs of the cosmos, time, and man’s insignificant space occupied between them. The conclusion is obvious from miles away, with the text pointing this out in a tongue-and-cheek manner, but the story remains oddly compelling as a vehicle for Lovecraft to further distill those concepts of his obsession discuss above, and in even greater depth than to be found in “The Silver Key”.

The Dreams in the Witch House

As most critics have widely agreed that both “The Dreams in the Witch House” and “The Thing on the Doorstep” are of the two weakest Lovecraft stories, it is baffling as to why Penguin would title two of the three major collections after these lesser efforts. Even in Joshi’s introductory notes to the piece, he writes: “The tale suffers from plot holes and florid prose and cannot be ranked amongst his better later efforts”.

Nonetheless, the tale’s preceding reputation remains well-deserved. Though a more imaginative and better-realized effort than “From Beyond”, “The Dreams in the Witch House” is a muddled mess of ideas marred by repetitive writing and a confluence of weird elements that never find a suitable climax to merge toward a more powerful, singularly effective result. A witch, “The Black Man”/the devil, the human/rat hybrid of Brown Jenkins, a haunted house that serves as a portal to the type of cosmic horrors experienced by Carter, a visit with the Shoggoths from “Mountains”—all these elements are better fit for Lovecraft tale of their own design and story. While it is interesting to consider the fact that this tale—unlike most Lovecraft narratives where it is the suggestion of the horror that is most memorable—that the author chooses to go the opposite route and lay out in (somewhat) explicit detail the consequences of the horrors found in the Witch House. (I say somewhat as there are indescribable horror concepts of time and space.)

Moreover, Lovecraft is repetitive in a way not found in the horror master’s usual efforts. Gilman’s adventures beyond the realms of sleep, his encounter with Brown Jenkins, and the like…only begin to escalate in the final few pages, and the author’s trademark ability to imbue a sense of palpable dread is nearly absent from the entirety of piece. Suffice to say, there are memorable, creative concepts and images at play, though they are unfortunately wasted within this very lesser entry in the Lovecraft canon.

The Shadow Out of Time

The best story in the collection outside of “Dream-Quest”. Somewhat reminiscent of its siblings “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Nameless City”, the story recounts two principal episodes of the protagonist’s adventure. The first concerns his mind being swapped by the “Great Race” of extraterrestrial beings of Yith. These early pages dealing with the mind swap are characteristic of Lovecraft’s other great work “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, though the author greatly expands upon ideas of cosmic scope as found within this narrative. The next section then details the protagonists “dreams” when inhabiting the city of Yith during the mind-swap. These sequences are further evidence of the unyielding and incomparable creative imaginings of Lovecraft’s mind, as the author describes in fantastic, specific details as to the sociological, historical, psychological, and physiological aspects that pertain to this extraordinary race, who have swapped minds with not only other human beings, but with entities from far reaches of the cosmos. With descriptions for the bygone city as beautifully crafted as Lovecraft’s gorgeous prose for his own town of Providence, the author details the topography and landscapes of the eldritch region to very captivating effect.

Still, these chapters are only set-up to the master class of tone and atmospheric dread evidenced in the last chapters of the novel. Following the discovery of relics that match those found within the protagonist’s dreams, the setting switches to the uncombed desert regions of Australia. Here, the protagonist stumbles upon the (ostensibly) deserted remains of an underground city as imaginative and horrifying as those cold, cryptic regions of Antarctica depicted in “At the Mountains of Madness”.

As with that entry, Lovecraft conjures a sense of atmosphere and inexorable dread toward the protagonist’s final confrontation with horrifying creatures thought long-dead into a climax that stands as one of the most powerful displays of craft as can be found in horror literature. Though the reveal in “Mountains” is perhaps still the best and most memorable conclusion for its vivid description of the Shoggoth entity, “Shadow” instead favors a more vague foreshadowing and hinting toward the true scope of the terrifying creature that remains undeniably effective as ever. One of best in Lovecraft’s bibliography and an excellent final entry into the “Witch House” collection.

On Alan Moore’s From Hell


“Murder, other than in the most strict forensic sense, is never soluble”

The above quote by author Alan Moore found within the appendices of his epic crime fiction saga—From Hell—explains in a single sentence how the author’s particular portrayal of this Jack the Ripper story distinguishes itself not only from the countless other version of this popular crime story, but from most works of crime fiction in general, and how this nuanced understanding to be explored over the five-hundred-plus page story allows the piece to rank amongst some of the best in the comic pantheon. Taking its premise from The Final Solution by Stephen Knight, From Hell adapts the theory that Dr. William Gull—the Queen’s Royal Physician—was ordered to kill the five prostitutes in Whitechapel, England in a conspiracy to protect an illegitimate son sired by Prince Albert Victor. With artist Eddie Campbell illustrating the gritty narrative with equally rough, yet impressionable images, From Hell brilliantly uses the unsolved murders as a vehicle for a larger examination into the psychological effects of the Ripper murders within Victorian society, its lasting legacy within the public sphere, and to consider the function of crime fiction as viewed through the prism of the police procedural.

Though the prologue and first chapter are a bit bewildering in the sheer amount of exposition and plotting thrown in the reader’s face (which pays off brilliantly by the epilogue), the second chapter stands as an excellent example of how this comic separates itself from its peers within the medium. Titled “The Fourth Dimension”, Moore utilizes the entire chapter for an intense character study into the psychology and backstory of Dr. William Gull: the posited Jack the Ripper of the tale. In doing so, Moore explicitly answers the identity of the infamous killer—eliminating the “whodunit” angle and the suspense that audiences are accustomed to finding within the genre, especially those other versions of the Ripper tale that use the killer’s identity as a means of exploiting the more sensationalistic aspects of the unsolved case.

Secondly, Moore allows a glimpse into the mind of the killer that—without necessarily imbuing empathy—offers insight into the psychosis behind the man ostensibly responsible for the crimes. Following the future Royal Physician from childhood, the chapter chronicles Gull’s early fascination and expertise with biology, through his introduction to Masonic society, and to his clandestine meeting with the Queen. Gull’s view of humanity is one fostered through years of simultaneous detachment and yet adoration for the human body as a work of art that finds a disturbing outlet through his surgical prowess. And while Gull certainly uses the murders as a demonstration for his own psychotic motives, Moore’s positioning of Gull as the killer also establishes how he could not have been so successful in this endeavor if he were acting alone. Instead, the extensive network of tacit agreement between the variegated levels of society expose a troubling web of gray morality that ranges from the Crown, to the underworld of the Freemasons, to the corrupted authorities, to the unsatisfied public and press.


In the fourth chapter, entitled “What Doth the Lord Require of Thee”, Moore not only details the surface motives of Gull’s crimes but examines the thematic resonance of what these murders are intended to represent. Or as Gull describes it: “Averting Royal embarrassment is but the fraction of my work that’s visible above the waterline.” With his driver accompanying him for a tour around the city, Gull outlines the logic behind his motives and the choice of location for each murder. Though they are intended to silence the prostitutes hoping to blackmail the Crown, Gull further intends for the murders to serve as a symbolic act of suppressing female empowerment and upholding the deeply entrenched symbols of masculine hegemony found throughout the architecture of London. He specifically points to the Churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor as examples of the hidden, mystical symbology riddled throughout the city that have been disguised throughout Whitechapel.

Moreover, this idea of architecture emerges an important theme to the entirety of the piece; specifically, the architecture of time and history. The “Fourth Dimension” alluded to earlier explores the metaphysical concept of time as a single dimension outside the limits of humanity’s perception of time as a linear sequence. Moore mines this idea as a means of investigating violence that ripples over specific eras in human history with disturbing parallels—and examines the role of violence as a catalyst for these inevitable springs of human behavior brewing beneath the surface of society to emerge.

Furthermore, From Hell explores the significance of these crimes as a commentary on the power structure evident within Victorian era. As Moore notes extensively within the appendices, the women’s suffrage movement had started to gain momentum, and yet even these initial strokes of progressivism were born out of the enormous disparity between upper and lower class standards of living—especially for women. As living conditions became so destitute that enormous numbers turned to prostitution, the prostitute became a symbol in itself to represent the abysmal standards of the working-class. Moore further cites the motif of the prostitute found in Post-Impressionistic paintings and literature, while also emphasizing the importance of From Hell’s employment of the Crown/Freemasons approving the murders to uphold their world of decadent indulgence, rather than grant any form of Royal credence to the poor, as further support of this idea.

Additionally, Moore takes full advantage of his setting and depiction of Victorian England to conjure a feeling of verisimilitude on the page. While most authors struggle to organically incorporate noteworthy figures of the period without breaking this wall of reality, Moore finds intriguing and plausible means for such historical figures to be inserted into the story. Such prominent figures seen include: Joe Merrick—aka The Elephant Man, Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley, Walter Sickert, Black Elk, and a few other figures that may not be as immediately recognizable. (Moore also describes a scene that had to be cut due to historical inaccuracy that included Inspector Abberline meeting Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley.) In most authors’ hands, the inclusion of such otherwise famous figures may distract the reader from the story, but Moore ensures that these figures complement the larger themes of the piece. The Elephant Man’s inclusion remains a particular highlight for those interested in the deformed man’s tragic story, and the unique implementation of his condition in relation to Gull’s own gnostic beliefs.


As often happens with Moore’s work due to the power of his writing, the importance of Campbell’s artistry that summons this world to life can be overshadowed. Some detractors have criticized Campbell’s style of gritty, rough, and more impressionable depictions of the period in a knee-jerk response to the distinct style. Nonetheless, this rougher representation of the era only further underlines the contrast between the idea of the Victorian era as a model of sophistication and cleanliness that was so at odds with the ugly morass beneath the surface. Like Moore’s narrative, these drawings develop a specific mood and atmosphere of Victorian society not as some enlightened era of human history, but one closer to a chaotic jungle of brute survival for those not holding status at the top of the food chain.

The ugly beauty of Campbell’s style culminates in Chapter Ten: “The Best of All Tailors”. In a chapter of sparse dialogue that again demonstrates the artists’ unique mastery of visual power in the comic medium, Campbell draws the savage, sadistic, and unthinkably cruel murder of Gull’s final victim—Mary Jane Kelly—to disturbing and emotional results. Those familiar with the famous photo depicting the gruesome crime scene will anticipate this murder with a mounting sense of dread, and the mostly nonverbal visuals panels only intensify the horrific murder in vivid detail. The reader’s eyes dart across the panels, watching with excruciating unease as Gull continues his heinous act without hesitation, and the reader can do nothing but watch the unavoidable horror.

Still, there are two more noteworthy sequences worth discussion for their similarly commanding and unforgettable display of craft. Following Gull’s internment to a mental institution, he undergoes a powerful religious experience that sends him soaring through the architecture of time previously mentioned. In his final moments, Gull’s given a glimpse into the metaphysical ripples of time across the eons. He views history in a number of forms: as seen through violence, vis-a-vis Renwick Williams/Peter Suttcliffe; through art, as seen through the paintings of William Blake and the literature of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; and then through a more ambiguous yet very emotionally moving final sequence wherein Gull’s ghost ascends to the heavens.

Here, Gull finds himself upon an anonymous Irish hilltop at the beginning of the twentieth century—the century that he claims to have delivered shortly after his murder of Mary Jane Kelly. A possible interpretation for it being Ireland may be found in Moore’s note that two of Mary Jane Kelly’s various nicknames were “Ginger” and “Fair Emma”—suggesting an Irish heritage. Consequentially, Moore has returned the final victim back to her home country away from Whitechapel, where she now acts as a mother to four children. The four children’s names should be noted as: Anne, Katie, Lizzie, and Pol…aka the names of the four other prostitutes murdered by Jack the Ripper. (Annie Chapman, Kate Eddowes, Liz Stride, and Polly Nicholls.) The version of Mary Jane Kelly drawn here has had her face sewn back together, as indicated by the clear scar found across her right cheek. (Gull completely removed her face during the murder, leaving many to doubt whether he had even killed the real Mary Jane Kelly. As obviously, no DNA testing could verify her identity with scientific proof.)

And as Gull descends from the heavens to confront his four victims within this idyllic dream sequence, Mary Jane Kelly has the final victory. She stares directly at the ghost of Gull and commands him to: “Clear off BACK TO HELL and leave us be!” In effect, Mary Jane Kelly has cast Gull’s spirit away from the heavens to return to the realm from which he signed his letter sent to the police and which lends this entire crime saga its eponymous title:

From Hell.


The second noteworthy sequence arrives after the conclusion of the comic’s narrative and can be found in the final epilogue entitled “Dance of the Gull Catchers”. Moore explains in compelling detail to the initial germs of the project’s conception and his own motives in choosing Gull for the Ripper, as he meditates on the elusive nature of the public’s limitless curiosity for attempting to solve this unsolvable crime from over a century ago—not only in the Ripper case but crime fiction at large.

As he describes the various Ripper theories over the years, some interesting and thought-provoking, but most appearing more ridiculous as the decades go by—Moore’s point emerges without his needing to spell it out. Theories and justifications for the Ripper murders will no doubt continue to materialize, and as there will never be any way to scientifically prove these murders—nor ANY murder outside a scientific scenario—people will return time and again to projecting their own identities and sensibilities into the causes and then simplifying incalculably complex events into a series of sequences that will somehow satisfy their rationalizing of such horror. As Moore explains in an expanded version of the opening quote:

“Our detective fictions tell us otherwise… Provide a murderer, a motive, and a means, you’ve solved the crime. Using this method, the solution to the Second World War is as follows: Hitler, the German economy, tanks. Thus, for convenience, we reduce the complex events. The greater part of any murder is the field of theory, fascination and hysteria that it is engenders. A black diaspora of our tireless, sinister enthusiasm…Jack mirrors our hysterias. Faceless, he is the receptacle for each new social panic. He’s a Jew, a Doctor, a Freemason or a wayward Royal.”

As this quote describes in the author’s own words, From Hell functions so well, on so many various levels, by offering commentary far past the surface of the premise and the plot. In not only telling a story whose plot points are well-documented, but by revealing the killer’s identity in the opening pages, From Hell instead offers a commentary on the follies of human nature found within this infamous era and the crime that came to represent it. Moreover, the author and illustrator have used the very police procedural that audiences are accustomed to satisfying their curiosities in order to eschew the expected clichés and provide a deeper understanding into the act of violence itself. In doing so, and despite a reader’s best attempts, despite so many popular depictions found in crime fiction otherwise, and despite human nature’s best attempts to rationalize these horrific incidents found throughout history, Moore has successfully shown what so many others have tried and failed to previously reconcile:

“Murder, other than in the most strict forensic sense, is never soluble”

Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt



 “When I looked at the painting…Only occasionally did I notice the chain on the finch’s ankle, or think what a cruel life for a little living creature—fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place.”

So the narrator—Theo Decker—describes the eponymous painting that becomes his obsession, his identity, and the catalyst for the majority of the plot in Donna Tartt’s latest novel: The Goldfinch. The book begins with the death of Theo’s mother in the wake of a terrorist attack within a museum, his subsequent theft of the Goldfinch painting, then follows the precocious teenager’s attempt to navigate life as an orphan within the sprawling metropolis that is New York City. Luckily, the devastated adolescent finds solace in the form of two guardians: the Barbours, an upper-class, sophisticated, yet flawed family that welcome Theo into their home; and Hobie, an antiques repairman that Theo finds after his business partner is killed within the same terrorist attack as his mother.

This first section begins incredibly strong—wallowing in atmospheric details that firmly situate the reader within the pandemonium of the attack and Theo’s rollercoaster range of emotions in its aftermath. A sequence that details Theo’s disoriented escape out of the charnel museum and into the rainy city streets evokes a grim psychological state that’s amplified to devastating effect upon his return to an empty apartment, where his mother is still missing. Tartt’s astounding ability to imbue sensory details into a manifestation of dread transform this simple scene set within a small apartment of a thirteen-year-old boy anxiously awaiting for the return of his mother into a torture chamber of agony. Every passing car, tick of the clock, groan of the floorboards becomes an omen of doom, as it becomes increasingly, obvious, and disturbingly clear that our narrator’s mother will never be returning to this apartment.

While too many books in this genre often drown themselves in the maudlin emotions that surround such a traumatic event, Tartt wisely eschews such melodrama in favor of focusing on Theo’s utter confusion and sense of existential self-removal. Though Theo certainly narrates with shades of the Holden Caulfield variety, his voice remains original and compelling throughout—his range of emotions always relatable and distinct: from the depths of depression, to laugh-out-loud descriptions, to the haze of drug addiction, to his suffocating love for friends and family, to the permanent abyss in his soul left by his mother’s death.

The real motions of the plot come into the play when Theo finds the gregarious giant Hobie, who takes an instant liking to the boy. More importantly, Hobie serves as Theo’s connection to Pippa—a young girl that caught his eye just before the museum attack that connects him to Hobie’s business partner. Nonetheless, the friendly oldster and the abandoned adolescent find an immediate connection—kindred souls with an unspoken bond of familial love for one another in the midst of having lost people so important to their daily lives.

The arrival of Theo’s father—a deadbeat gambler that fled to Vegas after years of abuse and mean-spirited drunkenness—marks the major next section of the novel. Though he appears to have turned a corner since abandoning him, Theo’s father returns as a supposedly new man ready to resume his position as Theo’s father in Las Vegas. Here, at his new school in the desert, Theo meets the unforgettable Boris—a Russian immigrant and veritable alcoholic in his burgeoning teenage years that introduces Theo to the wild world of habitual drug use, while also providing a genuine and anchoring friendship amongst Theo’s roiling lifestyle.

Although the former and latter third are fantastic, this section remains the absolute highlight of the piece. Tartt peppers in small pieces of plot amongst incredible character development and allows even the most minor details to have incredibly awarding pay-offs, while still successfully managing multiple levels of narrative progression both in plot and theme. Specifically: the exploration of confused adolescence, Theo’s descent into drug addiction, the foundation of his friendship with Boris—all of these major milestone occurring while the inevitable dread of the stolen painting and Theo’s escalating drug abuse loom over each event with palpable dread.

Moreover, Tartt ingeniously deceives the audience by repeatedly introducing an ostensibly positive element into Theo’s life (namely his father’s newfound resolve) only to yank the rug away and reveal his true intentions at the worst possible moment to superb emotional effect. By the climax of this section, Tartt converges all these small set-ups sprinkled just moments before into a single catastrophic moment that has been so brilliantly, invisibly constructed that its relentless downfall is capable of leaving the reader visibly shaking in its vivid and painful execution. As Tartt completely detonates Theo’s world with applause-worthy aplomb before transitioning into the concluding chapters, she has already solidified this portion of the novel as prose that deserves to be recognizes and commended as some of the best contemporary  writing in the field.

Although still engaging and expertly emotional, the last third remains the weakest of the major sections. Without going into spoilers, Theo has now become engaged in a variety of illicit affairs within the art community at large. All the while, the constant in Theo’s life of his purloined Goldfinch painting remains the unsubtle, yet perfect metaphor for his life of continuous change and simultaneous inescapable return to fate. This conclusion is only marred by the virtue of the plot suddenly overwhelming the previous character-driven execution of the previous section, along with certain passages of expository spouting that break the fourth-wall in their occasionally clunky reveals.

Still, the final chapters provide an opportunity for Theo to expound upon the novel’s various themes—most prominently, those pertaining to the importance of art in relation to the human condition and its legacy for the future. These passages sing with some of Tartt’s most gorgeous prose, and articulate the profound influence a single piece of art can instill over the life of both a single person and society at large. Conversely, this demonstrates how destructive the loss of single piece of art can hold for a society capable of permitting such destruction without calling for greater alarm and caution.

All of these ideas, of course, proven through Fabritius’ Goldfinch. A painting whose existence has come to define Theo’s life for the best and worst: the painting that led his mother to an early grave, that became his connection to her in death, that led to his meeting Hobie, then his best friend Boris, then to all the enormous highs and lows of conclusion—all due to the existence of this painting.

Moreover, the painting so perfectly personifies how such an entity can be responsible for the confluence of uncontrollable factors that later govern one’s life, as viewed through Theo’s own narrative. While at times, Theo’s life trajectory plunges to the absolute depths of despair—rendering destitute portraits of a life seeming to spin hopelessly out of control—Tartt’s final pages explicate in moving detail how the landscape between suffering and sublime often exist within the same vortex occupied and exemplified through art. Like the metaphorical Goldfinch chained to his perch, Theo recognizes that so much of the heartache in his life has also made manifest those moments worth living for: his friendship with Boris, his love for Pippa, his kinship with Hobie. More importantly, he recognizes that in telling this story how he’s made possible the transformation of his suffering and the sublime into a work of art as immortal and profound as the very painting responsible for inspiring him to produce it. As Tartt writes in a final passage:

“And as much I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”


Book Review: The Life and Times of Charles Manson


     Most biographies of famous historical figures often seem to start at an immediate compromise with the reader—struggling to negotiate between the subject’s public reputation, contextual history, and yet still deliver an entertaining read without resorting to sensationalist storytelling that may distort the reality of the events. In biographies of infamous figures, especially, authors often have a tendency to present the subject not unlike a bad horror movie character—delivering cheap scares and newsreel highlights of a criminal’s life that exploit the gore of the crimes, rather than breaking down the intertwining events of the subject’s historical backdrop that may have nurtured their life choices. In this respect, The Life and Times of Charles Manson separates itself from the vast number of works written not only about such notorious figures, but one of the most notorious of all—Charlie Manson—by delivering an incredible read that still breaks down in clear contextual detail the confluence of this particular time in history and Manson’s own life that paved the way for one of the most bizarre, shocking, and perplexing crime waves in American history.

Starting even before Manson’s birth, Guinn describes the Kentucky backwoods and Manson lineage that the troubled Charlie would be born into with clear atmospheric detail. While it’s easy to just describe Charlie’s birth as the result of another troubled, unmarried teen pregnancy, Guinn’s deep historical research into the entire family’s personalities, financial, and religious history better help explore the early seeds of potential trouble that would plague young Charlie for the rest of his life. Furthermore, Guinn peppers in anecdotes of Charlie’s early behavior and constant need for attention that laid the groundwork for the troubled psychology that would blossom to disastrous results in the near future

The next few chapters further describe Manson’s perpetual path of self-destruction; specifically, his inability to stay out of institutional life and propensity for manipulating people around him. Manson’s modus operandi quickly reveals itself, and a looming dread expands over the next few chapters as the early formation of the Family grows with ostensibly innocent beginnings. Guinn continually parses in just enough description of the popular movements, incidents, and cultural attitudes that parallel Manson’s own nightmarish distortions of such historical hallmarks.

More importantly, Guinn populates Manson’s narrative with rich characterization and similarly detailed background history of the supporting cast that were as responsible, if not more so, as the catalysts for the crimes often solely attributed to the Family figurehead. In doing so, Guinn demystifies so much of the false propagation of Manson as the calculating, conniving mastermind that has ballooned beyond control in the eyes of the public. Instead, with impressive aplomb, Guinn manages to simultaneously describe Manson’s: unbelievably outlandish teachings filtered through a distorted logic of current events, the fear-based tactics employed to ensure his followers’ unwavering loyalty, and the insatiable impulse for fame that compelled his motives since childhood. As the best biographies are capable of achieving, the reader finishes the narrative with a starkly different understanding of the figure in question. While all of Manson’s horrific inclinations and commitment to his grotesque world vision are not shied away from, Guinn helps deconstruct Manson’s sometimes incomprehensible line of thought, mostly involving either fear for his own personal safety, almost child-like fear for being ignored (in terms of his failed musical career), or just plain racism that charged most of his plans—and how it was the confluence of all the above that concluded in the Tate-LaBianca murders.

Nonetheless, Guinn’s actual writing remains compelling as ever. The chapters detailing the Tate murders are wrought with palpable tension and incredibly vivid descriptions that situate the reader directly into the horrific setting with an oppressive sense of verisimilitude. While my understand was quite murky into the actual machinations of how the Black Panthers, Helter Skelter, the Beach Boys, and Sharon Tate all exactly played their part, Guinn’s writing helps propels the reader through Manson’s puzzling thought process and convergence of these seemingly separate elements that all aligned for one of the most infamous crimes in American consciousness. As a result, The Life and Times of Charles Manson weaves an incredibly compelling narrative that manages to both deliver a page-turning read and succinctly explain the various elements that composed the Manson myth, while also dispelling so much of the mystique previously constructed in the public image of the man.

The Case for The Case of Charles Dexter Ward



    Despite a bibliography responsible for some of the most profound contributions to weird fiction and the larger horror genre, H.P. Lovecraft lived a life of very little fame or fortune by his death at a age of forty-six. Yet today, the author of such famous works as “At the Mountains of Madness”, “The Dunwich Horror”, and “The Colour Out of Space” remains widely lauded as one of the best in horror—bridging the gap between Poe and Stephen King. Still, this minimal recognition during his own lifetime inspired a great deal of self-doubt and suspicion that often seeped into the celebrated author’s own creative prowess.

Lovecraft wrote on numerous occasions of his own hypercritical reactions to his work, so much so that he would often allow the manuscripts to collect dust rather than be published, or only finally publish the material after a considerable amount of time had passed. (In his notes on Thing in the Doorstep, renowned Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi writes in the eponymous book: “[Lovecraft] was so dissatisfied with the story upon its completion that he refused to submit it anywhere. At last, in the summer of 1936…when Julius Schwartz proposed to HPL to market some of his tales in England, HPL reluctantly submitted the story.” (pg. 493)) Perhaps the most amazing example of this mistrust in his own abilities, however, can be found in one of the author’s longest yet most profound of achievements, a novel unpublished during his lifetime due to his own dissatisfaction for the material—The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

Calling the novel a “cumbrous, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism”, Lovecraft’s longest piece of fiction remained unpublished until his weird fiction peers August Derleth and Donald Wandrei managed to have the writing posthumously published (in abridged form) within the May and July 1941 issues of Weird Tales. Yet, most remarkably, for all Lovecraft’s creative and unprecedented literary creations: the Cthuhlu mythos, the cosmic horrors of the Old Ones, supernatural entities capable of transcending barriers of time and space, the author rarely employed personal and individual human tragedies into his work, though not without calculated reason. In a letter to E. Hoffman Price, Lovecraft explained his reasons for focusing less on his characters than the fantastic cosmic horrors of their adventures as such:

“Individuals and their fortunes within natural law move me very little. They are all momentary trifles bound from a common nothingness toward another common nothingness. Only the cosmic framework itself—or such individuals as symbolise principles (or defiances of principles) of the cosmic framework—can gain a deep grip on my imagination and set it to work with creating. In other words, the only ‘heroes’ I can write about are phenomena”. (S.T. Joshi, xxxvi of Introduction to Thing On the Doorstep)

And indeed, looking throughout the most famous of Lovecraft’s achievements, one finds that the author has distilled this existential philosophy to incredible effect, leaving the reader overwhelmed by climaxes confronting their insignificance amongst the cosmos and their personal troubles. Moreover, examining some of Lovecraft’s most famous character creations—from the humans of Randolph Character and Herbert West to his mythical creations of Cthulu and Yog-Sothoth—one finds clear examples of such principles in play: characters that serve more as functionaries of Lovecraft’s horror philosophy than characters whose individual hopes or failures are used to drive plot. Yet, it is in this respect, that Lovecraft manages to best represent the true tragedy of both horrors—of individual human tragedy and that of his existential cosmos—through the character of Charles Dexter Ward.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward begins with a structure not too unusual from many Lovecraft tales by hinting toward the final consequences of some unspeakable horror. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward opens in Providence within a private hospital for the insane, shedding few tangible clues, but laying out such preliminaries as to the fact that Charles has gone missing from his room and only left behind a trail of some fine gray dust.

Lovecraft then launches into an early biography of young Charles, jumping back to the chronological beginning of the tale, and providing a wealth of background information into his family history, setting, and position in society. With shades of the author’s own upbringing peppered throughout, Charles is described a precociously gifted scholar with very proud parents. Lovecraft then provides a number of incredibly gorgeous passages that describe everything from the town’s: architecture, landscape, and beauty of his colonial hometown of to contribute further perspective on Charles’ homelife. Following this brief, yet vital understanding into Ward’s family life and early prosaic upbringing, the essence of the plot begins upon Charles’ discovery into the existence of a great-great-great-grandfather whose identity had as of yet been a mystery: Joseph Curwen.

Lovecraft then pauses the present story and returns to the past—back to 1761— to doll out the disturbing history of Joseph Curwen’s infamous early existence and subsequent downfall. Though Curwen poses as a wealthy shipping entrepreneur, local suspicions arise concerning the astounding levels of beef that are delivered to Curwen’s barn, along with the strange, intermittent shafts of light that are periodically produced. Curwen’s enemies soon discover more details of his nefarious plans, which include the possibility of his being able to rise forth beings from the dead and outside realms of human experience. After a raiding party attacks Curwen’s property, the disgraced wizard is never heard from again and the surviving raiders agree to a unanimous secrecy of what they may have just witnessed.

Returning to the present, the narrative’s remaining bulk is devoted toward Charles’ increasing obsession toward his heretofore-unacknowledged ancestor. The young boy drops out of school, a social life, a relationship with his parents…all in the pursuit of unlocking the abominable secrets previously pursued by Curwen. The Ward family doctor—Dr. Marinus Willet—serves as the audience’s eyes, as he slowly discovers the horrid depths of Charles and Curwen’s plans through letters, old documents, interviews—all pointing toward a plan of complete cosmic destruction. Willet’s investigations into Charles’ unraveling psychology eventually lead him the underground catacombs found below Curwen’s old premises—long since abandoned since the attack by the raiding party years ago.

These passages—wherein the elder doctor stumbles down the subterranean depths to uncover a variety of terrible creatures housed by Curwen—present some of the most dread-filled pages within all of Lovecraft’s bibliography. Though these horrors are mostly hinted at, rather than given completely description (as say, the reveal of the Shoggoth in At the Mountains of Madness), they become all the more powerful for placing the reader directly into Willet’s shoes and being forced to finally discover the unspeakable monsters living beneath this tiny town.

Afterward, the tragedy of Charles’ obsession finally reveals that the young Ward has been replaced by the soul of his disembodied ancestor: Joseph Curwen. Willet surmises that through a variety of ancient spells, rituals, and hinted alchemy, Curwen killed and replaced Charles’ being, and now intends to finish the nefarious plans set in motion more than a century ago.

As is Lovecraft’s predominant style, the author embellishes his narratives with impressive depictions of fictional creations through a vivid command of language. The inimitable style pulls the reader into the transportive realm of the text before concluding in the reveal of that great, supernatural horror–one whose believability has been soundly constructed through passages designed to hypnotize the reader through this wall of atmospheric realism. As a result, the final reveal builds with an almost unbearable weight of dread. In each major section, Lovecraft has left a trail of clues, hints at horrors to come, that allow the reader to piece together the unspeakable terror until the ultimate reveal of his horrific creation.


 While many of Lovecraft’s narratives are written from first-person point-of-view, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward uses third-person omniscient to expert effect. The story begins with a general impression into Charles’ life, then drastically changes gears to offer the full details of Curwen’s downfall, before reverting back to Charles’ perspective before ending with Dr. Willet’s.

In doing so, the reader becomes familiar with Charles, understanding his world as an actual person and not just as an investigate means of supernatural phenomena. Consequentially, his final fate allows for a demonstration of horror on both the cosmic and personal scale as Lovecraft has never executed so perfectly. Charles’ slow psychological unraveling, his inexorable descent into cosmic powers beyond his control, and the manipulation of this young boy into an expendable chess piece by his own ancestor all exemplify a beautiful merging of the true terrors found within the hearts of men and the cosmic horrors that they may conjure.



Unlike a number of other central Lovecraft characters—say Professor William Dyer in Mountains of Madness or Wilbur Whateley in Dunwich Horror—who either serve as the human functionary unraveling the horrors, or, as in Wilbur’s case, as the actual cosmic phenomena to be later revealed, Charles Dexter Ward represents as a unique combination of both. Charles begins as an innocent child with inclinations that border the bizarre, but never necessitate any cause for worry. But as he digs deeper into his unusual family lineage, Charles’ downward spiral into the occult echoes many of the familiar metaphorical tragedies that would befall a young man due to individual struggles, e.g.: alcohol/ drug addiction, depression, mental illness…that Charles’ ceaseless obsession into Curwen creates a very unique type of dread for the life of this young boy that separates itself from similar character in the Lovecraft canon.

As within the climaxes of cosmic horrors necessitating a very calculated amount of prior clues to propel the reader towards the ultimate reveal, Charles’ own storyline works in a similar, dreadful fashion. As the boy begins to psychologically unravel, his mother and father’s concerns escalate into a subplot of severe family tragedy. As Charles’ experiments with Curwen’s writings soon require his isolation from family, his mother is asked to leave all meals before his door and forbidden entry from contacting him. The mother’s clear disgust for her son’s unstoppable obsession soon becomes apparent, and the reader watches with accumulating dread as these parents must witness their young child begin to lose his mind. Eventually, Charles’ mother’s own sanity collapses under the mental strain and she is sent away to Atlantic City for an indefinite stay: never to see her boy again. Meanwhile, Charles’ father–Theodore–takes up the fight alongside Dr. Willet. The anxious father soon recognizes that his son’s interests with Curwen has driven into a treacherous realm of unstable mental illness, and perhaps toward death or an even worse, unspeakable conclusion.

After his discovery of Curwen’s catacombs beneath the farmhouse, Willet pieces together the true horror of what has happened—that Charles has been murdered by Curwen and the young boy’s body is being possessed by the very ancestor summoned by the boy. Upon realizing what he must do, and how he will be the one responsible for killing Curwen (vis-à-vis Chalres), Willet understands that his actions the following day will result in Charles’ death. What follows is Willet’s letter to Theodore—Charles’ father—explaining how the case will conclude:

“It is better you attempt no further speculation as to Charles’ case, and almost imperative that you tell his mother nothing more than she already suspects. When I call on you tomorrow, Charles will have escaped. That is all which need remain in anyone’s mind. He was mad, and he has escaped. You can tell his mother gently and gradually about the mad part when you stop sending the typed notes in his name…So don’t ask me any questions when I call…There will be nothing more to worry about, for Charles will be very, very safe. He is now—safer than you dream…But you must steel yourself to melancholy, and prepare your wife to do the same. I must tell you frankly that Charles’ escape will not mean his restoration to you. He has been afflicted with a peculiar disease, as you must realize from the subtle and physical changes in him, and you must not hope to see him again. Have only this consolation – that he was never a fiend or even truly a madman, but only an eager, studious, and curious boy whose love of mystery and of the past was his undoing. He stumbled on things no mortal ought ever to know, and reached back through the years as no on should ever reach; and something came out of those years to engulf him…There will be, indeed, no uncertainty about Charles’ fate. In about a year, say, you can if you wish devise a suitable account of the end; for the boy will be no more. You can put up a stone in your lot…that will mark the true resting-place of your son. Nor need you fear that it will mark any abnormality or changeling. The ashes in that grave will be those of your own unaltered bone and sinew – of the real Charles Dexter Ward whose mind you watched from infancy – the real Charles with the olive-mark on his hip and without the black-mark on his chest or the pit on his forehead. The Charles who never did actual evil, and who will have paid with his life for his ‘squeamishness’. That is all. Charles will have escaped, and a year from now you can put up his stone. Do not question me tomorrow. And believe that the honour of your ancient family remains untainted now, as it has been at all times in the past.”

While Lovecraft has written some of the most unsurpassably gorgeous descriptions of fantasy and horror in all of literature, the above letter from a doctor to a father explaining that his son will be dead tomorrow is undoubtedly Lovecraft’s most poignant and heartbreaking. In this above passage, Lovecraft has masterfully merged a union of horrors between the tragedy of human affairs and the consequence of cosmic insignificance. Though Lovecraft’s legacy both in literature and pop culture will always honor him for imbuing the genre with fantastically creative creatures and conceptions of dread that remain amongst the most innovative the genre has to offer, one of the author’s own best works was almost never given the chance to even be presented for any audience. Moreover, one of the author’s most unique characters was almost lost amongst the other classics of the Lovecraft canon. A tragedy that would have made impossible the case of a young man’s downfall—the precocious young Charles Dexter Ward—who provides an invaluable link in representing terrors indicative both to the author’s own philosophical output and those tragedies found in the heart of human nature.