Short Story Saturday: “The Alchemist”


I realize that my last couple of posts have been a bit dark, a bit of a downer. So I’ve decided that I’m going to engage in one of my favorite pastimes today.

I’m going to spend several hundred words dunking on H.P. Lovecraft. So join me, won’t you, in examining one of the most unintentionally hilarious pieces of fiction I’ve ever read.

We start off with two solid paragraphs of our main character describing the giant house belonging to his ancestors in excruciating detail. It reminds me of the intro to Darkest Dungeon, except there it made sense because the story of that game is specifically about the house. Anyway, the main character’s family has fallen on hard times recently, and the house is in a state of disrepair.

Hmmmm, sounds kind of like the Lovecrafts, if I’m being honest.

Anyway, it’s at this point that we even know the narrator’s name: Antoine, the Comte de C–. That’s how it’s written in the story. I’m not really sure why, but Poe did it, so I guess Lovecraft has to as well. Anyway, Antoine is the last of his line, and wants us to know that he’s currently 90. This becomes important later on.

He’s also an orphan, his mother having died in childbirth, and his father having died in a freak accident at age 32. This, also, becomes important later in the story.

Antoine’s caretaker, Pierre, took care to keep Antoine away from peasant children his own age. According to Pierre, it was because his station was so much higher than the other children, he shouldn’t sully himself by associating with them. Classism, in a Lovecraft story? Perish the thought!

Anyway, the real reason was so Antoine wouldn’t learn of his family’s dark secret. And what is that dark secret, you may ask? Well, don’t worry, because Antoine is about to tell us!

What Antoine eventually pieces together is that all his male ancestors died at the young age of 32. Then, on Antoine’s 21st birthday, Pierre gives him a document that explains why that is. See, the C’s are all under a terrible, terrible curse placed upon them by an immortal magician, who’s dad managed to find himself the Philosopher’s Stone and get him  some elixir of life. And what is the name of this mighty wizard, you may ask?

Charles Le Sorcier.

Charles the Sorcerer.

Like the Tumblr post that I saw that inspired me to look into this tale stated, Howard named the villain of this story Chuck Wizard.

So, anyway, Charles is super evil and laid down the curse on Antoine’s family because his ancestors had Chuck’s dad killed. Because his dad (Michel Mauvais, or Michel the Evil) had kidnapped one of his ancestor’s kids, but he’s still pretty pissed about it.

Over the centuries, each new comte winds up dead sometime around their 32nd birthdays, usually due to some kind of horrible accident. Seems pretty magical, right? Oh, it gets better.

Anyway, Antoine, galvanized by the knowledge that he only has 11 years left to live, starts studying various alchemical and magical stuff to try and find how the curse killed his ancestors. He doesn’t find much, though. He then thinks that maybe Chuckie’s descendants may have something to do with the deaths. This doesn’t really pan out, though, since Charlie didn’t have any descendants

Oh, don’t you worry though, he eventually figures it out. And it’s really, really dumb.

So, the years pass, Pierre dies, and Antoine is left more or less alone in the castle. He decides not to marry or have kids, since he’d just be dooming them to die young anyway. Since he doesn’t really have much else to do, he decides to explore some areas of the castle that he hasn’t really been to before.

Then, a little less than a week before his fated birthday, he finds a trapdoor in one of the abandoned parts of the castle. So he opens it up and heads one down some steps. While he’s down there, he hears a door open and then sees a guy in some decidedly medieval garb enter the room. He is described, like the house, in excruciating detail.

So, yeah, it’s Charles le Sorcier, and he’s come to enact the curse on Antoine. He goes off on villain rant, basically explaining the whole thing with the curse before trying to throw a vial of acid in Antoine’s face.

So, the thing here is, it turns out there actually wasn’t a curse. It was just this one 600-year-old dude, just straight up murdering members of Antoine’s family. He didn’t even use magic to do it, he just poisoned them, or shot them with arrows. All in extremely mundane ways.

Instead of just waiting for this old guy to murder him, Antoine decides to just throw the torch in his had at him, setting him on fire. And thus ends the curse of Chuck Wizard, who was very, very bad at cursing people.

Except not really, because it turns out that the elixir of life makes people really, really immortal. After some time, Chuck’s corpse gets back up again and is like, “Surprise motherfucker!” We don’t really know what happens after that, but I like to think that Antoine just smacked him on the nose like a misbehaving puppy.

So, that was the tale of “The Alchemist.” I love how anti-climactic the curse actually ended up being. That kind of undercut the unrelenting horror, though. The villain coming back to life at the end was a nice touch though.

This story, however, kind of cements to me that while Howard may have had some good ideas (rooted in horrible racism as they were), he really wasn’t that great a writer. Even then, this one was definitely not his best.

To be fair, though, he did write this when he was still a teenager. I probably wouldn’t want anyone to read the stories I wrote as a teen, since they were all pretty bad.

It still managed to entertain me, though.






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