Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"The Survivor" short-story review:

Here’s my first review of an individual story, and this one is quite a gem. It’s been reprinted quite a few times, even headlining two anthologies; The Watchers out of Time and (obviously) The Survivor and Others. Since this was one of the stories Derleth passed off as a “collaboration” with Lovecraft, which really rises the ire of Lovecraft’s detractors being that these are the most frequently seen of Derleth’s mythos tales, I’m surprised this story isn’t more well-known, especially given its aforementioned frequent reprinting.
 Synopsis: It’s 1930, and while en route to New Orleans, vacationing antiques expert Alijah Atwood decides to spend some time in New England (quite a trip buddy). He soon becomes intrigued by the abandoned house of the three years-dead Dr. Charriere, which has already acquired a negative reputation, and not necessarily because the locals think that it’s haunted.
 Atwood rents the place and soon tries to inquire about the late doctor, only to be met with indifference and scorn by most of the locals, but after inquiring abroad, he learns that there is no way Dr. Charriere could have been living there unless it was some undocumented descendant, you see, he was born in the mid-1600s! Atwood also learns that Charriere was an extremely reclusive man who was rarely seen by anyone, only communicating through mail and by bribing people with huge sums of money. One man who saw him describes him by saying “Take a newt, grow him a little, teach him to walk on his hind legs, and dress him in elegant clothes” (yeah, you know where this was going). Atwood finds a painting of Charriere showing that he was a hunchback with a goatee.
 Atwood also discovers that Charriere was fascinated by the lifespans of reptiles and amphibians, and sought out people who seemed to have reptilian qualities (do I even need to say that some of the people he sought out were from Innsmouth?). It becomes apparent that Charriere wanted to make himself immortal by extracting glands from reptiles and applying them to himself, thing is, it seemed to have worked a lot better than expected. There is a musty smell permeating the house, break-ins late at night, wet, reptilian footprints, and glimpses of a bent over figure with shiny skin and a goatee…
My thoughts: Well, if Lovecraft had written this, it certainly wouldn’t be up there with The Color out of Space or The Call of Cthulhu, but it would definitely rank with The Shunned House and Cool Air as an impressive, unpretentious little spooker. By Derleth’s standards, this is close to a masterpiece. Although his attempts to imitate HPL’s trademark purple prose fall flat a little (there are a few too many run-on sentences and misused words), this is one of the few of the “collaborations” I could see actually being written by Lovecraft without detecting Derleth’s hand in it.
 As a story it’s fairly predictable, there are a few cheesy moments (Atwood hears a “distinct sound, as of someone bathing in the garden”, yeah, that’s a sound we’ve all heard, I’m sure) and Derleth makes no real attempts at mood, but it’s a fun little monster yarn regardless, with a few moments that would translate excellently to film, like when Atwood closes his pocket watch container only to see Charriere’s face reflected in it as he sneaks up behind him. In fact, speaking of film, the Cool Air segment of that Necronomicon anthology movie seems to have taken a few hints from this story. There’s also a 1950’s film called The Alligator People which seems to have drawn on this story as well in it’s concept of a mad scientist splicing people with reptile genes. That film, in turn, inspired a Spiderman villain called The Lizard, who is set to make his film debut in 2012. Some Wold-Newton fanboy could have fun tying this story into all of that.
 Not bad Derleth, not bad. Too bad the rest of The Survivor and others isn’t this good.
 Final word: A perfectly enjoyable monster story which actually could be passed off as something Lovecraft wrote. 5/5.

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