Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck

"Disturbing mystery involving madness and genetic abnormalities."
-KEW

The late fantasy and horror writer Karl Edward Wagner once published a list of essential novels in the old Twilight Zone magazine. It sent me scurrying into countless book stacks at academic libraries in search of these novels since I had never heard of most of them. I will say the ones I've managed to find were all winners; there wasn't a dull book among the lot of them. So, in an effort to broaden my horizons, I'm going to take a breather from Operator 5 and look at another book published the same decade Jimmy Christopher was trying to save the country.
The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck was first published in 1934. The author, Alexander Laing, published many books in his lifetime, but he's largely forgotten today. The book was quite popular in it's day, going through several editions. In the 1960's it was published as an abridged edition, so many people who have had the opportunity to read it are unfamiliar with the 376 page, footnoted, original. Fortunately, it's been reprinted, but you can still find cheap editions.
The novel involves the disappearance and murder of one of the professors of "The Maine State College of Surgery". The book is narrated from the point of view of a senior medical student who is keeping a diary about the strange goings-on leading up to the death of Wyck. The narrator is also secretary to one of the other professors at the college and is privy to a lot of faculty gossip. There's also plenty of small town Peyton Place politics. And, of course, the book takes place right in the heart of Steven King country.
In some ways, Dr. Gideon Wyck is similar to Dr. House: cold, aristocratic, and demanding. One of the founding instructors at the college, he generally gets what he wants.
The actual murder of Wyck isn't discovered until half-way through the book. By this time, we've been shown countless people who would want Gideon Wyck dead. So who is the killer? Is it Wyck's daughter Marjorie? Could it be Pendergast, the medical student whom Wyck expelled for cheating on an exam? Is it the nurse Muriel, who might have had a thing going on with the old rascal? And what about Mike Connell, whose arm was amputated by Wyck? The list is extensive.
Furthermore, we learn about Wyck's secret laboratory where he was conducting experiments on poor pregnant women. Experiments which soon bear evil fruit in the still births of deformed infants. The book never delves too deeply into this area, but it is a chilling reminder of how close the Nazi were to experimenting on concentration camp inmates.
The novel is also a mirror of its time. There is an entire chapter devouted to an autopsy of an tuberculosis victim. The significance of this chapter strikes home as one of the students taking part in the examination is himself suffering from an advanced stage of the same disease. It's a good thing to remember how TB was once a death sentence for many people until the discovery of antibiotics.
I've often wondered why Karl Edward Wagner chose certain books for his list. My guess for Cadaver would be that it reflected his own experiences at medical school. The novel is filled with detailed information about the daily life of medical students. I doubt if much has changed since the time it was written.

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