To celebrate Vincent Price’s 100th birthday, I thought it appropriate to look at my favorite contemporary Gothic novel, Dr. Haggard’s Disease, by Patrick McGrath (1993). It may be the finest Gothic of the last century and will be long remembered.
Briefly: Dr. Haggard lives in grand romantic seclusion at his sea cliff home. Limping and racked with pain, he takes drugs to forget his hip injury and to bury the tormenting memory of the woman he loved, Fanny, now dead.
Fanny returns to him in a way when her son, Jimmy, comes to his home. The men build a friendship with a highly charged sexual undercurrent. While remembering the dead Fanny’s passion, Haggard sees changes in her son and comes to believe that Jimmy is somehow morphing into her, that Fanny is coming out of the past to return to him. But is Jimmy really changing...?
The title is something of a joke -- passion is Haggard’s disease. We never really know if Jimmy is turning into his mother, or if the change exists only in Haggard’s drug-tormented mind. The novel’s end is one that you will not forget quickly.
Dr. Haggard’s Disease is a textbook of the form. It captures not only the Gothic sensibility, but its mood, its sense of place, its sexual energy, its emotional tenor and melancholy, its obsession with the past; and, as a story, it is a model of construction.
Haggard’s obsessive love of Fanny hints strongly of necrophilia and the Doctor, addicted to drugs, is not always a reliable narrator. Haggard is a man of science destroyed by monomania, a slavish devotion to a feminine ideal. And, like the vengeful lamias found in Poe’s Liegia and Berenice, Fanny’s strength and passion reaches from beyond the grave to affect the men who live in the shadow of her memory.
Author Patrick McGrath (born 1950 in London) is the author of only a handful of novels. His grimly comic The Grotesque (1989) is a fascinating hybrid, a comedy of manners with an Edgar Allen Poe sensibility. Spider (1990), another tale of insanity, is a fine novel, but Asylum (1996) seems curiously bloodless to me. McGrath may not be prolific, but he is masterful.
With Dr. Haggard’s Disease McGrath rescued the Gothic from its kitschy confines. This richly textured novel transcends what the Gothic has become, and returns this great tradition back to the realm of serious literature.
It may be in time that McGrath is ranked along Poe, Stevenson, Doyle, Stoker and Shelly as one of the great Gothic novelists -- an author whose work transcends genre to become literature. McGrath writes with a passion and intensity worthy of his own Dr. Haggard, and this is a rich book to savor, to be read and re-read.