Monday, April 11, 2022

Powell, The Shadow (2021)

Sharon Powell, The Shadow. Austin Macauley Publishers, 2021. Pp. 265. ISBN 978-1-6475-0760-2. $15.95.

Reviewed by Don Riggs

Sharon Powell’s novel The Shadow is idiosyncratic. That it is in the tradition of Frankenstein literature is evident from the name of the central character, Victor Frankenstein. This Frankenstein is a doctor who dissects corpses, but upon finding a young man who has been buried by an avalanche and cryonically preserved, he keeps the young man in the best cold storage possible in early 19th-century central Europe. In overseeing his living but unconscious body, the doctor is surprised by a spiritual visitation: the spirit of the frozen young man appears above the gurney and addresses him, involving the doctor in a plot to rescue a group of children who are “cared for” by one of the most respected men of the village, but who, according to the spirit, has possession of this group of orphans and, in a Dickensian twist, is working them to death. Simon, the spirit, and the doctor team up to locate the orphans to free them, and ultimately bring their tormentor to justice.

The “fresh-frozen” nature of the young man’s preservation suggests a possible source for Powell’s narrative. Roger Dodsworth, b. 1629, was reputedly buried by an avalanche in 1660, and then found preserved then was thawed out, stiff in his joints but alive, in 1826, when Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein (1818), wrote an essay that, though submitted for publication, did not see print for over thirty years. I have not read the essay, but apparently it was thought to contribute to the “Roger Dodsworth Hoax” and may have in part inspired Powell to write a novel starting with the discovery of a similarly preserved person. However, at this point, Powell departs from the matter of Frankenstein, and develops the plot along other, but similarly Gothic lines: Sebastian, the director of the orphanage and tormentor of its children, is shown to be in league with Ellison, a witch, and Rafael, an occult-oriented third partner. After much chasing of Dr. Frankenstein and his friends around, including several children who had been imprisoned in a cave, to whom the spirit of Simon, the frozen young man, had led him, and including the near-canonical capture of Frankenstein by a crowd, enraged at the thought that he was the one responsible for the disappearance of young children, who wave pitchforks and put the doctor in chains, things rise to a climax, which is a subversion of the harvest ritual by Ellison. She makes of it a sort of Walpurgisnacht, invokes infernal spirits, and causes the land to rise up and spew forth lava. There is an extravaganza of Gothic motifs throughout the novel, but there is a crescendo of them in the last few chapters.

There are a few details hinting at the placement of Frankenstein in relation to medical history. In caring for the living but unconscious body of Simon, Victor applies his knowledge of the circulatory system from “studying the work of the late William Harvey” to the physical Simon’s health. A touch of more modern medical science is applied with reference to a foundation that provides the essential funding for Frankenstein’s research. However, these stabs at verisimilitude are overwhelmed by the use of incantations to various supernatural powers as Ellison prepares to bring off her Harvest Festival coup.

It seems as though Powell is bringing up these images from the collective unconscious in a sort of “outsider art” novel, with a breathless sequence of hair-raising chases and entrapments, in a way not unlike Carolyn Wells’s Abeniki Caldwell. Some of the elements lack verisimilitude, as when Victor, wanting to disguise himself, glues a moustache and goatee on his face… with honey. There are some words replaced by other, similar-sounding, but different words, as when one character is accused of bringing nothing but “pain and suffrage,” or when another character, calling on a beneficent spirit, says, “Please, maiden, help me, I bequeath you!” I assume that these infelicities of style are due to my copy being an uncorrected prepublication copy, though there was no notice to that effect on the copy itself.

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