Doppelgängers, literary intrigue, unhealthy obsessions, and a secret society of the death-obsessed menace a young man in this novel of 1840s Philadelphia.
Lock’s novel is structured as a long remembrance told by an aging doctor, Edward Fenzil, working in Camden, New Jersey, in 1876. The story he tells is about his life in Philadelphia 32 years earlier, when he worked as an assistant to Thomas Dent Mütter, a surgeon fond of medical oddities, and became acquainted with Edgar Allan Poe. Gradually, Poe initiates Fenzil into an subculture of people who work with death. Fenzil’s mind begins to fray as he becomes fixated, first on Poe and then on his newly discovered doppelgänger. Both the presence of Poe and the fact that this is a long monologue by a not-necessarily-reliable narrator add an abundance of tension to the proceedings. Occasionally, the tone becomes dreamlike, as in a story told by a cohort of Poe’s about the fate that befell the captain of a slave ship. This is the third in Lock’s American Novels series: works that harken back to 19th-century history and culture. Each is self-contained, though readers of Lock’s earlier American Meteor (2015) will note that the “Moran” to whom this novel is told is that novel’s protagonist. (This book’s chilling final sentence has a secondary meaning for those who have read its predecessor.) Beyond the presence of Poe, other literary figures hover on the book’s margins—the framing story includes several mentions of Walt Whitman, and in his acknowledgements, Lock notes the influence of John Berryman’s Dream Songs on one structural aspect of the novel.
This chilling and layered story of obsession succeeds both as a moody period piece and as an effective and memorable homage to the works of Edgar Allan Poe.