Summer Reading: "The Port-Wine Stain"
A long-lost short story by Edgar Allan Poe nests like a matryoshka doll within Norman Lock's clever new novel, The Port-Wine Stain (Bellevue Literary Press, $16.95). In the novel, Dr. Edward Fenzil recounts his early years as an assistant to Thomas Dent Mütter, the maverick Philadelphia surgeon who collected medical curiosities (now the Mütter Museum), and reveals the twisted series of events that led to his theft of Poe's manuscript in 1844. He tells his captive audience, "You want to hear about Edgar Poe, how I came to know him and how he initiated me into the occult."
But first Fenzil begins his tale by describing Thomas Eakins' famous painting of a surgical theatre in which he has been depicted. (That painting sans the fictional Fenzil does indeed exist and resides at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.) It is in this macabre world that both stories--the narrator's and Poe's--play out. Seeking a follow-up to his "Tell-Tale Heart," Poe snoops around Mütter's laboratory and befriends Fenzil, whose malleable mind bends to the writer's will. Poe uses the young man as a kind of muse, or crash-test dummy--during Fenzil's initiation into Poe's Thanatopsis Club, he is drugged and then bolted into a coffin so that when he wakes he will believe he has been buried alive. Poe then peppers him with questions, the answers to which he will utilize in his fiction. Poe pushes too far when he dedicates a story to Fenzil about a man who comes upon his dopplegänger in the form of a wax figure of a notorious murderer in a "chamber of horrors."
Lock deftly evokes time and place in The Port-Wine Stain, avoiding the pitfalls of historical fiction as a genre. His novel is steeped in the art, science, and culture of mid-nineteenth-century Philadelphia but truly captivates in the storytelling.
Bibliophiles will get a kick out the "morocco-bound" presentation copy of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque that Poe gives to Mütter, as well as the reciprocal gift of Mütter's Cases of Deformities from Burns, Successfully Treated by Plastic Operations (1843) presented to Poe.
N.B. Coincidentally, today is Thomas Eakins' birthday. He was born on July 25, 1844.
Image via Bellevue Literary Press.