The Port-Wine Stain
Philadelphia, 1844. Young Edward Fenzil finds himself in the orbit of two fascinating men: Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, accomplished surgeon, and Edgar Allan Poe, who needs no introduction. As an assistant in charge of Mütter’s collection of grotesque medical curiosities, it’s unsurprising that Fenzil’s company would be sought by the macabre Poe. Fenzil finds himself at once mesmerized and repulsed by Poe, as both travel down a dark path where Fenzil plays a role in a story not his own.
This book reads as pastiche: it’s a first-person narrative, told many years after the fact to a strawman listener in florid, neo-Victorian language, replete with rhetorical questions. This is its genius and its curse: the prose is deliberately made to sound like Poe (a “lost” Poe story is included almost in its entirety, and the work is intended as an “homage”), but due to the novel’s length in comparison to a Poe tale, it often seems over-burdened and meandering. As narrator, Fenzil can be pretentious and infuriatingly byzantine – page twenty-two, and we’re still at: “No doubt you think me a poor storyteller to take so long to begin. But I like to let the thread unspool slowly…” Page forty-five and the story still hasn’t gained momentum: “I’m glad you don’t find me tedious…” (This provoked an inadvertent, audible snort, doubtless as intended.)
When plot does finally unspool, the work is engrossing, if the conclusion inevitable. All concerns with pacing aside, it’s an interesting literary exercise to read – Lock is skilled at mimicking Poe, and thus the characterization of Poe has dimension and depth. If nothing else, the way Lock plays with language, the myriad literary and historical references contained within this homage, make it worth reading. Apparently this is the third time Lock has channeled a great American author: I may also pick up his tributes to Mark Twain and Walt Whitman.