I was interested when I was offered an advance review copy of The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men by Gabriel Blackwell. After all, though I hadn’t read Shadow Man, my familiarity with Blackwell’s Critique of Pure Reason suggested that I’d enjoy this new book. However, I hadn’t looked into The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men enough yet to realize that H.P. Lovecraft was somehow involved in the plot. If I had, I would have camped outside Blackwell’s door and refused to leave until he handed over a copy.
You have to understand, I’ve been a Lovecraft fanatic since I randomly decided to read a collection of mythos fiction I happened to find in my high school’s library back in 1991 (I don’t remember which collection specifically, though I do remember it was hardcover and had a hand with a mouth on it prominently displayed on the cover). After reading that collection, I devoured everything I could find: Lovecraft’s actual works, biographies about Lovecraft, fake versions of the Necronomicon, works by other authors in the mythos (though I came to despise anyone like August Derleth who screwed up the basic framework, changing the Old Ones into an old hat good and evil fight between Elder Gods and Outer Gods), anything. I even played the Call of Cthulhu role playing game and wrote my own (extremely bad) Lovecraftian stories when I ran out of more material to devour. My obsession has died down a bit in more recent years, but when I saw that the subtitle of The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men is “The Last Letter of H.P. Lovecraft,” it flared right back up again. I dug right in.
What I found was strange. I didn’t expect yet another mythos tale, but I wasn’t expecting a disintegrating quest novel. Inside there are multiple narrative threads intertwined with a meta narrative. A writer, purporting to be the actual Gabriel Blackwell, introduces what he believes to be a letter he found from Lovecraft. Though it starts out as an actual (though fictional) introduction, it quickly becomes an account of how he supposedly found the letter while searching for his girlfriend, who disappeared from Portland, in her hometown of Providence.
While searching, he takes a day labor job shredding old records in the basement of a hospital and comes across a file for a long dead patient coincidentally also named Gabriel Blackwell. In that file is supposedly a letter from Lovecraft, purportedly written to the unknown Gabriel Blackwell in response to a letter the unknown Blackwell had written to Lovecraft. Apparently, the unknown Blackwell’s letter had malevolent effects upon Lovecraft:
Dear Mr. Blackwell,
Given a last spur of energy by the bile the memory of your accursed letter has set off, I am writing to return the awful blight that it has visited upon me. I knew not whom you were when that mad thing appeared on my desk a month ago, but if I had known what was enclosed, I would have destroyed it without even unsealing the envelope. You end your inquiry with a wish for my continued health; I wish in this reply my haunted oblivion returned to sender. My horror and disgust at the thought of the dimming of the lights, my fierce loathing of the things the nurses innocently bring into our ward–these I wish upon you also, for you are the reason that I am here.
The narrator Blackwell presents a purportedly imperfectly transcribed version of Lovecraft’s letter, the transcription of which apparently had malevolent effects upon narrator Blackwell. Footnotes to the letter describe the narrator Blackwell’s disintegration during the transcription:
16 The subject matter of Lovecraft’s letter did not aid in reassuring me of my own sanity, obviously. Often, I had to read the passage in front of me five or six times and then transcribe it three or four times just to be sure that I was seeing what I was seeing. At least, that is what I remember about the process. That, and the stifling heat of the library, the hot-and-cold of the basement, the sweat that seemed to pour in black streams from my every pore, dripping onto the table, onto the keyboard, which had been white to begin with but had now become black, the keys almost indistinguishable from each other, the screen obscured in places by ink. My head swam almost constantly, and the letters, difficult enough to discern at rest, on the page, seemed to hover like heat-shimmer on the screen.
I must have eaten during this time, at least something, some time. I must have slept. I had vague memories like the last moments of dreams of waking alongside doors, out of the way of foot-traffic at the mouth of alleys, in the shade of benches and dumpsters, but I could not recall how I had come to lay myself down in those spaces, nor could I remember not being awake…I might indeed have been at a pole, might have been anywhere, but I was instead in Providence. Nothing was real.
Endnotes after the letter then detail further disintegrations of the narrator Blackwell, both before the trip to Providence and after.
The various narratives intertwined with the meta narrative exerted quite a pull on me, something akin to undertow–powerful and sinister. I felt drawn in similarly to how the narrator Blackwell is drawn into the purported Lovecraft letter and how Lovecraft was supposedly drawn into the unknown Blackwell’s letter. I had no more ability to choose to stop reading than they did, though I had no desire to do that anyway.
Looking at The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men as a whole, I have to admit that I adored it. Given the Lovecraft connection, the surreality of its claimed reality, the various levels of storyline, and so on, what’s not to love? The story is engaging and the form is intriguing. Let’s just hope that my curiosity in reading this book doesn’t result in the same fate that so many Lovecraftian heroes met when they encountered an eldritch tome.