The Port-Wine Stain

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Port-Wine Stain by Norman Lock.

Norman Lock The Port-Wine Stain

I have read perhaps a half-dozen stories and novels in which the writer H.P. Lovecraft features as a character. None of them, however, actually felt like a story that Lovecraft might have written. In Norman Lock’s The Port-Wine Stain, it is Lovecraft’s predecessor in American horror, Edgar Allan Poe, who is a principal character. But this one has the constitution and many of the trappings of an actual Poe tale.

The cover of my ARC, which appears to be retained in the trade paperback edition, is based on the Thomas Richard Williams daguerreotype stereoscope image “The Sands of Time.” It’s attractive, and certainly suits the mood of the book. But I think the cover designer could have gone one better by exploiting some detail from the Thomas Eakins painting of The Gross Clinic, which is used in the outermost frame of the novel to draw the reader into an imagining of 19th-century American medicine as a site of horror.

The novel is constructed in the form of a reminiscing monologue by Doctor Edward Fenzil, who had in his youth been under the dual influences of Poe and the medical researcher Thomas Dent Mütter. The reader is addressed in the person of “Moran,” a one-eyed soldier serving under General Custer in 1876, but Fenzil’s story centers on the winter of early 1844. It is a narrative that he claims to have never before confessed in its entirety, and certainly one that does not cast a favorable light on the storyteller.

Theorist Massimo Cacciari writes of Poe’s stories, “In an analytical manner, passage by passage, without leaps, without discoveries, madness—by recovering its past and coordinating it with the present and planning a series of specific resolutions–reveals its own logic.” This same appraisal might be made of The Port-Wine Stain. The book is short, with the pacing of Part One being fairly sedate, while Part Two is comparatively brisk. It includes in its metafictional array the full text of an unfinished story “by Poe” called “The Port—Wine Stain,” and it is ultimately the links between this story and the experiences of the young Fenzil that constitute the logic of madness in Lock’s novel.

If you like Poe’s work, this book is worth seeking out. [via]