April 6, 2009

The Arcanum by Thomas Wheeler

I'm not sure what my problem is, but I feel sure that I must have one. I feel like I should have loved The Arcanum by Thomas Wheeler, I feel like I should have gobbled it up like the diverting little confection it is, I feel like it should have at least enjoyed it. But I really didn't.  It's the sort of book I would have eaten for lunch five years ago, and then told everyone they should read it for a quick good time. But these days, it just made me feel impatient.

Some background: The Arcanum is a secret society of occult investigators, a supposedly brilliant quartet of unlikely heroes: Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini, H.P. Lovecraft and the voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. 

There are problems with the choice of characters in more than one way - too many ways in fact to go into in the space of a shortish blog post with very limited readership. Suffice it to say, the most glaring problem is that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not his legendary creation, Sherlock Holmes. Nor was H.P. Lovecraft Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary creation, Sherlock Holmes (supplemented by a heaping brainful of paranoia and an obsession with the occult), and yet Wheeler insists on upon treating both characters as if they were. And Harry Houdini? Well, one can only ask why the hell he would want to secretly investigate the occult (a question that never comes close to getting answered). As for Marie Laveau, why the most feared and respected voodoo pracitioner ever must resort to lifting her skirts and pretending to be a prostitute every time the group gets into a tight spot is beyond my understanding.

Toss into this motley mix of unlikelyhood The Book of Enoch, Alastair Crowely, fallen angels, an annoying thug of a detective, and a far ranging plot to expose God's mistakes and bring about the end of the world, and you've got the makings for some good clean fun. Unfortunately, it's not. There's something in Wheeler's execution that falls flat, perhaps beneath the weight of his purple prose (Lovecraft could get away with this, Wheeler, sadly, cannot). But it's really the sense of everything being massively and incredibly contrived that made me squirm. Wheeler bends and twists his characters to suit his needs, mutilating all sense of narrative authenticity as effectively as the big, bad Evil kills its victims. Like I said, it made me impatient. 

I love a good, trashy romp - I really do. I just like my good, trashy romps to cop to what they are and do it in a genuinely trashy, not-trying-to-be-anything-else way. Unfortunately, Wheeler's The Arcanum fell short there. He managed to turn what could have been a fun and diverting diversion into a pretentious, unintuitive clockwork. That he used figures like Doyle and Lovecraft to do it just makes it feel all the more like an eldritch failure.


Anonymous said...

I had heard that this book was very frustrating and infuriating (by a couple of friends who are really into Lovecraft and Doyle) for the very reasons you just talked (wrote?) about, so I skipped it. I was hoping that you'd tell me to go read because I think that the premise sounds very interesting (and,while I love my friends to death, they ARE Lovecraft snobs)but now I will take it off the list for good. There are other books out there that I want to read much more than this one, and there are too many to read before I die to waste one. :P

Madeleine said...

The premise is *awesome* and that's why I picked it up. But I'm not even a serious fan of Lovecraft (although I am of Doyle) and I was bowled over by how stupidly Wheeler handled the character, or rather, how he handled all of the characters. Read something else for sure - life is too short.

Amanda said...

Actually, Houdini was very involved in exposing occult fraud, and ACD was interested and, sadly, often taken in by the occult. It wouldn't have been out of character for either. Houdini's takedowns of frauds make for entertaining reading, but I don't remember where I saw it. :(

Convivialdingo said...

I know I've read about Houdini's interest in the occult. He learned some tradecraft with a sideshow at one time (Davenport Brothers) who were spiritualists. Sometime I picked up digging through family genealogy. (No, I'm not directly related, LOL, my family was busy getting scalped in south texas at the time)


Madeleine said...

That's interesting - I didn't know that about Houdini. I'll have to check it out. As for ACD, I'm familiar with his championing of the Spiritualist Movement, but to take that to the level of his being an occult James Bond/Sherlock Holmes (as Wheeler portrays him) just doesn't work for me.

Really, in the end, neither point gets Wheeler off the hook. His characterizations rang inauthentic because it felt as if he were twisting them around to suit his narrative purposes. It had nothing to do with historical or biographical accuracy and everything to do with authorial manipulation, something that happens with completely fictional characters as well.

JimDesu said...

Not to mention that Lovecraft as anything other than a self-aggrandizing delusional putz is just too much of a stretch. (Did big research paper on him back at VMI -- he's a total dweeb that, if he lived nowadays, would be smoking pot and cosplaying Pirates of the Caribbean).