Book Review: The Human Alchemy by Michael Griffin

The Lure of Devouring Light was one of the most astonishing debuts I’d ever read. Here was Michael Griffin, crafting pitch perfect narratives that were oil slick, devastatingly human, and impossibly weird. A new name, but here he was, writing like a master stylist—a Ligotti devotee with a well-developed voice coated in a sort of industrial grime. The appeal for me, was, of course, that Griffin is only a river away from me, in that grey, beautiful, grimey city that is Portland, OR—breathing the same air, seeing the same sights, and sublimating them into unsettling stories populated with broken people. Needless to say, I was incredibly excited to see what The Human Alchemy would have in store.

The collection opens with “Firedancing,” a story I first read in Word Horde’s fantastic Laird Barron tribute The Children of Old Leech. The story is pretty typical of Griffin’s work, containing a lot of his key signifiers. The setting is Portland. The main character is an artist and in a moment of extreme upheaval. From there, the character ends up at a party thrown by a known eccentric—the latter being one of my favorite tropes in horror fiction, conjuring images of the sorts of characters the late, great Vincent Price would’ve played. It’s a fun, weird story that feels almost classical in a post-Songs of a Dead Dreamer-Penguin-re-release sort of way. That’s not to say, of course, that it’s disappointing, The Children of Old Leech was a clear highlight in a collection of talented authors on the rise. Griffin’s prose shines, even when it’s written in a tersely poetic present-tense, giving his writing a metallic coolness that juxtaposes well with his warm-blooded characters.

“The Smoke Lodge” is where some of the problems with The Human Alchemy begin to show. What’s so frustrating for me is that I like Griffin’s writing a lot, and for the most part, his stories have strong hooks, exciting horrors, and lush language. But, they also suffer from a limited perspective that leaves The Human Alchemy with an impression of anti-gestalt. That is, next to each other, these stories are weakened by their company. Griffin’s characters largely come from similar background and have similar interests—upper middle class, mostly men, artistically inclined, passionate, privileged, and cultured. On their own, these characters are fine, but when reading a succession of stories of men with such similarities and no self awareness, the scope of these stories is limited. It’s in “The Smoke Lodge” where we follow a group of horror writers. In what comes off as a writer’s erotic success fantasy, the one who has won the most awards also is introduced as having added an additional wife to his marriage. Polyamory is interesting in itself, but in this story it never feels cohesive, only self-indulgent. The plot is of almost no consequence, and while it could have been an interesting thematic element, the landing is never stuck, and instead it becomes set dressing demonstrating how urbane and interesting our homebrew mead-drinking protagonists—and possibly Griffin himself—see themselves.

But still, there are a number of highlights in this collection, enough to make me wonder if I had read these stories couched between different narratives, they’d have felt more distinct. “Everyone Gathers at Haystack Rock” is one such highlight, a story of a publisher of the arcane who goes to a sort of occult convention on the coast.  Only the worshipers there have been divided by denominations and infighting. This is more than enough of a hook, but Griffin surprised me by focusing in on the relationship that grows between two men after a brief fling. The story becomes a meditation on love and identity, with a cosmic horror backdrop.

“An Ideal Retreat” is another strong entry in The Human Alchemy. In it, a woman (a nice change of pace at this point, if for only the sake of variety) comes to grips with reality while living quite outside it, all on a cabin retreat. Here is where Griffin’s strong grip on characters shines, expertly crafting a real, three-dimensional person with thoughts and feelings and self-awareness over her flaws. Watching her engage with her strange setting while making self-discoveries are fascinating and Griffin makes a good call dividing it into twenty-four short chapters, maintaining a quick, yet staccato pace.

The collection ends on a high-note with its title-story. First appearing in Word Horde’s The Eternal Frankenstein, “The Human Alchemy” follows a young woman who joins an eccentric couple, man and wife, at their mountain-top castle home for what she believes is a threeway. The story is one of self-discovery through transgression, it explores philosophy and the nature of—as well as the fear of—change in the spirit of David Cronenberg’s arty and horrific oeuvre. “The Human Alchemy” is not just good for the collection, it’s a great work of writing, period.

The Human Alchemy is not a perfect collection, but its strengths are a helluva lot stronger than most. The hooks are intriguing and Griffin shows a knack for depicting humans in existential torment, even if he tends to only depict a certain type. The problem, ultimately, is one of control. I think of a writer like John Langan, who exerts so much control over his work that you can’t help but feel nothing is without a considered purpose. Here, it’s hard not to feel like we’re learning more about Griffin—via what he defaults to—than the world’s he’s creating. Still, stories like “An Ideal Retreat” and “The Human Alchemy” point to a writer working on another plane—I’d just like to see him stay there.

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