THE CADAVER OF GIDEON WYCK
A real curiosity: a
strange, rather morbid mystery that in recent years has received attention as a
novel of horror (having been favorably profiled in the essential HORROR: THE 100
BEST BOOKS and TWILIGHT ZONE MAGAZINE’S seminal August ’83 “Fantasy Five-Foot
Bookshelf”). That’s doubtless due to the many bizarre and grotesque elements
author Alexander Laing includes, such as the near simultaneous birth of five
mutant babies and the last-minute revelation that a pivotal character has a
half-formed twin brother attached to his body.
The majority of this
first person account is told by a medical student looking to solve the murder of
Professor Gideon Wyck. Said killing doesn’t occur until about fifty pages into
the novel, the first portion being consumed with the living Wyck’s bizarre
behavior, in particular a strange malady he appears to be suffering from, which
would seem to contradict his oft-repeated claims that he’s “never been sick a
day in my life.” Further conflict comes in the form of a disgruntled student of
Wyck’s and an amputee patient who claims the not-so-good professor has been
siphoning blood from him.
Suddenly Wyck is
murdered under mysterious circumstances, and the search for the killer is on.
As a pure mystery story THE CADAVER OF GIDEON WYCK frankly leaves something to
be desired. The details of the mystery’s unraveling feel perfunctory and
unnecessary; the culprit, revealed in a lengthy courtroom-set climax (after the
protagonist himself spends time in jail for suspicion of the murder), turns out
to be the most obvious possible suspect in the entire story (chances are you’ve
already figured it out based on the details I’ve revealed thus far).
Then again, though,
there’s a reason this story is remembered nowadays (if at all) as horror
themed. As I stated earlier, it has a genuinely unsettling, macabre edge,
particularly evident in the climax, when we learn exactly what Wyck was up to
when he was murdered. I won’t give the “secret” away, but I will say it
involves research on a deranged, possibly supernatural experiment that’s
infinitely stranger and more compelling than the details of the killing itself!
Far less enticing is
Laing’s insistence on presenting his fictional narrative as an actual document.
Lengthy and distracting footnotes are scattered throughout attesting to this
“fact,” as is an introduction and byline claiming the book was “Edited By” Laing,
with authorship credited to an anonymous “Medical Student.” Fine and good
(similar stunts are still utilized today in books and films--THE BLAIR WITCH
PROJECT, anyone?), but far too much energy is expended on this ultimately tiring
Beyond that, though,
the novel is penned in a smooth and straightforward manner fully befitting a
dedicated medical student. Its small town college atmosphere is vividly evoked,
with quite a few convincing details (which the “editor’s” footnotes frequently
take pains to point out). Laing is a skilled writer; apparently quite prolific
back in the thirties, he was already a veteran when GIDEON WYCK was written.
His characterizations are strong, if a tad slight--like innumerable mysteries
past and present, it’s the story that takes center stage here, often at the
expense of nearly everything else.
One more thing: the
version under review of this extremely scarce novel is a 1960 abridgement
published by Macmillan’s Mystery Revisited series (itself a very rare find).
I’ve never read the unexpurgated 1934 version and so can’t say how the two
differ. What I can say for certain is that this 228-page abridgement by the
author is a smooth and uncluttered piece of work (even if the story overall
leaves something to be desired), so much so that I find it difficult imagining
just what else the original version could have possibly included.