Tag Archives: Literary Criticism

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.

ferris one

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.



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.”


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.

Book Review: The Bighead


     The Bighead—along with the rest of Edward Lee’s novels—have long held an infamous spot within the dark shelf of the horror genre known collectively as the “splatterpunk”. This subgenre distinguishes itself from its horror siblings by—and it bears repeating that this is within the horror genre—excessively graphic depictions of violence and gore. The Bighead itself has long held a reputation as something of a dare for genre readers—a book filled with countless descriptions of the most gruesome, nauseating, stomach-turning scenes of sex, violence, and horror.

From the very first sentence, the reader is able to quickly gauge whether they have the stomach to power through three hundred more pages filled with similarly grotesque sentences or not. This is not the type of horror that haunts you. That is, the type of weird horror that weaves a strong atmosphere of dread before a Lovecraftian glimpse into voids of indescribable terror, nor is it the type of nauseating and vivid horror mastered by guys like Jack Ketchum and Richard Laymon, who tell a strong, suspenseful story of terrible and gruesome acts with characters that—although often detestable—are still recognizable as human beings.

Instead, Edward Lee kicks it up to eleven in nearly every category. Often employing a colloquial prose in chapters concerning either the Bighead or the two deplorable redneck hillbillies Tritt and Balls, the writing simultaneously places the reader within the very uncomfortable skin of the two despicable killers while also putting the vile actions at arms length from ever experiencing some of these over-the-top murders in any realistic way. In other words, this colloquial verbiage allows the reader a glimpse into the Bighead’s mindset with passages reminiscent of something akin to a serial killer’s diary, while also distancing any plausibility of how unbelievably over-the-top such savagery could ever be.

If Lee were to write these passages with a straight face, employing the normal prose utilized in chapters with the “normal” character (Chastity, Jerrica, the Priest), the tone would drastically shift from the more pulpy and self-aware disgust into horrors that would become too comically disgusting to bear. While many would (perhaps rightfully) argue that these never-ending descriptions of creative disgusts are already “too much”, this change in perspective using the “hick” dialogue within the prose serves its purpose for both tone and narrative in a unique and stylistic method.

For readers seeking out The Bighead for a thrill, to test boundaries of good taste and violence, then the book certainly delivers. Moreover, these elements are satisfied within the first fifty pages or so, which make the next couple hundred more tiresome than they should be. The reader becomes accustomed to the rhythm of the book, knowing that after one or two quiet scenes that usually consist of character finding out expository plot details, the next chapter or two will be louder than hell and fulfill its task of topping the previous disgusting scene with even more creative and perverse way to send shivers up the readers spine. Certain elements of the ending may serve as a point of dispute, but by that point, arguments toward the overall quality of the book should more or less be rendered mute.

Still, The Bighead lives up to its reputation for those interested. The novel is filled with some of the most perverse, disturbed imagery that one can imagine, and though this is more for shock and thrill purposes, than any type of horror that will crawl under your skin, one should seek out the novel at least to be a part of the discussion and claim to have powered through the infamous novel. Certainly recommended to fans of the horror genre, and those looking for a book that will illumine its most vile corners.

Vin Packer: Queen of the Psychological Crime Novels


In the long, varied, and traditionally male-dominated history of the crime novel, the work of author Vin Packer distinguishes itself with rich characterization and psychologically driven plots that are unsurpassed by many of the genre’s contemporaries. Born Marijane Meaker, the female author wrote more than twenty mystery/crime novels under the pseudonym Vin Packer in order ensure the publication of her dark, unorthodox novels that occupied a morally ambiguous landscape without the predictable plots of tough guy detectives or villains in black hats. Instead, Packer’s work defines itself by unforgettable array of misfit characters, usually rejected or misunderstood by traditional American society, and driven to tragic downfall by the compulsions of their eschewed psyches.



In three of her best novels—The Thrill Kids, The Twisted Ones, and The Damnation of Adam Blessing—Packer details the devastating downfalls of young men unable to conform to the social norms surrounding them. While exploring such major issues as identity, sexuality, violence, and psychological neuroses, Packer always balances her stories with moments of laugh-out-loud comedy or sudden, gut-punching tragedy and complemented by a literary style that foreshadows an imminent doom. Reminiscent of filmmakers like Fellini and Paul Thomas Anderson, Packer’s characters represent a wide collection of unique misfits that must navigate a disorienting world while marching toward their inevitable climax of defeat.



Published in 1955, The Thrill Kids follows a band of delinquent teenagers composed of Bardo, Manny, Flip, and Wylie. In one short chapter focusing on each of the quartet, Packer succinctly offers a vivid and fully composed illustration into both the home life and psychological makeup of each. Bardo enters as the new kid in town fresh from the West Point Military Academy. The young man has an OCD-like fixation toward discipline and hard work, and one who later describes Hitler as a “great, great man…a soldier and a gentleman”. In a few, almost throwaway lines with his mother, we learn Bardo’s father was a drunk. His relationship with his mother—and people in general—shown to be distant and almost alien-like in its understanding of intimacy. Bardo calls his mother by her first name rather than mom, regards the other boys as a military instructor would new recruits, and has an utter disdain for the homeless and vagrants that incites the tragic consequence for the four young men.

The second boy—Manny—possesses perhaps the most heartbreaking storyline amongst the four. Living inside a cramped, troubled apartment with a mom that can’t understand her only son after her other child’s death in Korea, Manny harbors an intense affection for his pet snake. He’s shown to be perhaps the most naïve and childlike of the four—a boy with a big heart that’s not quite able to adjust to the larger world around him.

Next, Flip—born Hans Heine—is first introduced in the midst of a brutal beating from his father. His mother watches from the other room, protesting, but unable to stop the strict German from knocking the wind out of his son for buying a magazine with a picture of a scantily clad woman. Finally, Johnny Wylie is introduced in the midst of burgeoning love with his crush. He’s inexperienced, nervous, and demonstrates the kind of personal snapshot of a specific time in adolescence that uniquely characterizes so much of Packer’s work within the genre. At home, Johnny’s parents push him to find grander ambition in life, while Johnny only hopes to pursue a career in music.

In their first outing together as an informal gang, the boys happen upon a young couple kissing in the park. Despite the hesitancy of the other three boys, Bardo becomes enraged by the publicly affectionate couple and feels the need to discipline their being “filthy” in the public square. He pulls a knife, forces the woman to strip, and humiliates the young man. The other three reluctantly follow along with Bardo’s act in a mixture of both curiosity and fear of his ability to exercise authority.

Because Packer’s novels were published in the fifties and graphic content of this sort needed to be censored, the author uses powers of suggestion for results that are both more emotionally devastating and narratively horrifying than any specific description could ever provide. While most crime writers of the time depended on more vivid (albeit muted) passages of guys with guns and their sexual escapades, Packer’s intensely character-driven novels position the readers directly within the protagonists’ point-of-view just before the moment of impact is about to strike…and then forces the reader to fill in the blanks with their own imagination to digest the tragic consequences that follow.

Furthermore, Packer opens each chapter in her books with a trademark style of quoting an objective source of some sort: a newspaper headline, a psychiatric report, song lyrics, journal diaries, or a court report that further foreshadow the horrible outcome to follow and allows a feeling of dread to loom over even the most ostensibly innocent chapters of character study. By juxtaposing and incorporating these objective sources—the court reports, the psychiatric session dialogues, newspaper headlines—against the intensely personal journeys with the protagonists, Packer weaves a tragically well-rounded account of the crime from both sides of the law. Though the undeniable, factual narrative of the case remains, Packer imbues these four boys with such sympathetic pathos and insight that the reader can’t help but sympathize with the accused in the series of circumstances that led to the fateful night that will define the rest of their lives.

 Twisted Ones F

In The Twisted Ones, Packer again follows a group of boys—this time a trio—all doomed to commit their own specific crimes and linked through a common geography, rather than any shared relationship. We first meet Brock Brown. A deceptively normal kid who places a great deal of attention upon his clothes, hair, shoes—looking good and clean. His dead mother’s obsession with dirt has been passed on to him, and he’s forced to reckon with throbbing, painful migraines that surge when the anxiety’s too much for him. He’s found a way to relieve these headaches through a habit of stealing. Brock likes to steal cars, plants…but always returns the stolen possession or leaves money in apologies for the inconvenience of his kleptomania.

Some two hundred miles away in another small town, the eight-year-old genius Charles Berry has become a national celebrity due to his unbelievable winning streak on the television show Cash Answers. We also meet Charles’ parents. His mother—Evelyn, a woman of limitless love, compassion, and concern for her young child, along with Charles’ father—Howard. Charles and Evelyn are both painfully aware of the father’s embarrassment toward his prodigy son, complemented by with his son’s aversion to sports and physical activities that are clearly all Howard’s ever wanted from his boy. As Charles continually corrects himself from applying “big” words in his father’s presence, Packer illustrates a nightmarish portrait of Rockwell’s American family in just a few short pages.

Lastly, Reginald Whittier sits in the antique store owned by his single mother—Miss Ella. Reginald talks with a bad, embarrassing stutter and sits locked home with his mother most of the days, under her control and unable to function autonomously. Despite his girlfriend’s persistence in the two possibly getting married and having a child one day, Reginald’s constant inner battle with both controlling his stutter and finding dependence from his mother always holds him back from living any semblance of normal life.

While The Thrill Kills unites the friendship of the boys with the similarities of their individual hardships into helping understand how these disparate boys came to be, The Twisted Ones reads in a much different, more nuanced fashion. The triptych novel alternates between the three boys in chapters of ups and downs on the road to defeat, while always reminding the viewer that the trio exist in a shared, not too distant universe.

In doing so, Packer’s able to demonstrate an idea about the separate psychology of these men that distinguishes itself from her other novels. Much of the boys’ frustrations that bubbles into their neuroses can be found in their perception of how others perceive them or how they wish to be perceived. As Charles’ continued success on the Cash Answer Show plays out upon the TVs in the background of the other boys’ storylines, both Brock and Reginald grow frustrated by the idea that this eight-year-old is able to achieve so much at such a young age, as they struggle with the monotony of day-to-day life. This is juxtaposed against Charles’ own psychology, showing how the eight-year-old lives in an isolated world of constant pressure from the public and his own perception of failure through his father’s eyes.

Whether its through Brock’s obsession with looking cool and clean, Charles’ wish to not live as an embarrassment to his father, or Reginald’s stutter that embarrasses him to the point that he never wants to leave his mother’s presence, Packer demonstrates how damaging these misconstrued perceptions play out amongst the adolescent boys. Unlike The Thrill Kids, the author does not open each chapter with a quote from an objective source. Instead, she saves the tactic for the epilogue, which reads as an article from the Labor Day issue of a national news magazine detailing the tragic outcomes of the three boys.

Again, and perhaps to more devastating effect, Packer uses the objective history of the magazine article to show how the general public perceives such headlines—to dismiss the boys as the eponymous “Twisted Ones”—rotten apples that committed such violence without reason or explanation. The reader, on the other hand, has gone through a personal journey with each of these characters. Packer has exhibited daily life for each of the three young men and given insight into how their perceptions/misperception of their shortcomings has led to psychological neurosis that proved to be too much for the young men and for surrounding society to engage with them in a meaningful way. As with The Thrill Kids, Packer has marvelously, and subtly, demonstrated how damaging a reductive perception of the criminal actions of these young men can be woefully misunderstood by those unwilling to address the troubled and misunderstood.



Finally, in my favorite of her novels, Packer writes one of the most intense, funny, sad, and brilliant of character studies in The Damnation of Adam Blessing. Unlike the previously discussed, The Damnation…focuses solely on Adam Blessing in a dizzying, unexpected, and emotionally infused tale that follows the unreliable protagonist and his neuroses within a number of subjects—from violence, obsession, sexuality, friendship, and addiction—throughout the picaresque novel. Orphaned at a young age with a single, abusive memory of his mother whose face he cannot remember, Adam’s personality has matured into a vacuous space upon which he defines himself by his relationship to the other characters. With women, men, and friends, Adam is unable to relate to others outside his perception of what they idealize and in their relation to his own identity.

With Billy Bollin, Adam equates money, and consequentially—success. After a lifetime of failure, of not having friends, women, or parents that he can remember, Adam obsesses over possessing a life like Billy. He wishes to be accepted by him, to be anointed a companion, and later dreams of being accounted as a fellow member of Billy’s family. Although Adam perceives his actions as innocent, harmless, or outright thoughtful, he’s unable to ever distinguish the reality of how others may consider his relentless pursuits. Packer often only ever describes Adam’s from his point-of-view, and when the reality of what he’s actually committed is later revealed through either another character’s dialogue or a newspaper headline, the viewer is left with a numb feeling of shock and disturbance that makes one question everything that’s come before and cautiously approach everything soon to come. Because Packer writes the novel through this exclusive point-of-view of her eponymous main character, the viewer experiences so much of these incredibly dark or volatile scenes in a dizzying experience of simultaneously looking through Adam’s eyes and yet also through a cringing, self-aware detachment of the horrifying reality.

In a powerful scene demonstrating Packer’s skill set at this particular balancing act, Adam finally convinces Charity Cadwallader to join him on a date at a fancy restaurant. We painfully watch the descent of Adam’s drunkenness: as he orders more and more wine, confuses which lines he’s going to use to impress her, accuses the waiter of stealing his wallet, is escorted out the restaurant in tears. Through it all, Packer describes the incidents through Adam’s drunken perception while the reader remains in the all too painful reality of what is actually happening. The scene serves as a microcosm for a number of similar scenes throughout the rest of the novel, where the naïve protagonist commits himself to a line of thought justified by his own disturbed logic, while the reader must watch the inexorable consequences unfold and negotiate between these feelings of simultaneous pathos and pity.

As with the other novels, Packer must again use the strategy of suggestion to fill in the blanks on many of the incredibly dark actions committed by the characters. While the technique is used quite effectively in the other two, and all the more powerful for forcing the reader to bridge the gap with their imagination, its usage in The Damnation… is used to both brilliantly censor the graphic content and contradict the protagonist. As a result, the reader opens these chapters with a feeling of dread and hesitation. And when finally reading the reporters’ description of these offenses and discovering the true horror of Adam’s nature.

As character driven as the former two books are, The Damnation of Adam Blessing is about as character-driven a crime novel as one can find. The loose “plotting” revolves solely around Adam’s episodic journey from New York to Italy and back, while remaining intensely focused on his relationship (or lack thereof) with the women of his life. Although one could write entire dissertations around the issues of sexuality and alcoholism imbued within the character, and which deserve as much academic examination as found within any of the other well-regarded novels of American literature, the riveting narrative should not be overlooked for its incredible tapestry of emotions. Between moments of laugh-out-loud humor, heartbreaking despair, dread of Adam’s actions, Packer takes the reader on a unique and thrilling ride through the perspective of her troubled protagonist.

More than anything else, the three novels—like many of Packer’s other works—demonstrate a woman who wrote male characters better than most of her contemporaries were capable of writing for either gender. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this woman, using a pseudonym to ensure her work could even achieve publication, exemplifies the very essence of her own misfit characters: writing that remains unique, intensely personal, and to this day—undervalued or misunderstood. Because of the pulp crime genre within which these books were originally published, these texts have often fallen off the wayside within the grand canon American of crime literature and are deserving of a great deal more academic study than many of the other well considered classics of the time. Packer’s work often details the specifics of a loosely based true story, but her ability to offer readers profound insight into the complex psychological of her characters demonstrates the wide spectrum of human nature that Packer so painfully understood as a woman not just within the literary world but America at large.