Book Review: The Port-Wine Stain

BookReviewLogoReview by Anna Kirsch

The Port-Wine Stain (Bellevue Literary Press, 2016) is the third installment of Norman Lock’s American Series, a series where each novel is  a stand-alone narrative dedicated  to memorializing  great American writers by writing in a style that is part pastiche and part homage. The Port- Wine Stain is devoted to celebrating Edgar Allan Poe.

27135742The Port -Wine Stain is narrated by Edward Fenzil to an undescribed listener he calls Moran. Fenzil is a young surgical assistant to Dr.Thomas Dent Mütter, who in the winter of 1844, meets Edgar Allan Poe. While to the literary reader Poe is the most recognizable  figure, Mütter is just as important to Fenzil. It is Mütter who sets up the meeting between Poe and Fenzil and it is Mütter’s early form of cosmetic surgery that introduces into Fenzil’s imagination the concept of physiognomy. Physiognomy maintaines that a person’s character is determined by their physical body, or to be exact, the shape of the body. The idea that a twisted body could be the sign of a twisted soul is the ideological cornerstone of the novel.

As Fenzil’s narrative progresses it becomes increasingly clear that Fenzil is unable to define himself and is dependent upon his social milieu to dictate how he behaves. Once introduced to Poe, Fenzil finds himself unable to define his own desires and is quickly subsumed into Poe’s dark and twisted world where among other adventures Fenzil is hypnotized to fall in love with himself demonstrating a character that is highly suggestible and open to outside influences.  

The narrative builds to a crescendo when Poe introduces Fenzil to a corpse that looks identical to him except for a discolouration, the port-wine stain, on its cheek. Fenzil begins to feel that he is no longer in control of his own destiny and is transforming into a criminal. Fenzil becomes convinced that his own cheek is  disfigured and that he and the criminal have become one. Later this physiognomical reasoning is enforced by Mütter who pretends to operate on Fenzil to remove the stain.

The  doubling of character was obviously suggested by Poe’s short story William Wilson which is one of the earlier explorations of the doppelganger where Poe has the narrator be the bad man forced to face, and eventually kill, his double who has been acting as his conscience. In contrast, Fenzil is an unreliable narrator who is convinced that he is the one falling from grace and becoming a murderer. Fenzil  develops a fixation on Poe as the ultimate author of his fate after he discovers an unfinished short story where Poe plagiarizes Fenzil’s life appropriating it into his literary imagination, and perhaps  dictating its outcome.This fixation is reminiscent of  Poe’s short story The Tell -Tale Heart where the narrator psychotically focuses on one man’s eye, convinced it is evil. Rather than an evil eye it is Poe’s manuscript that Fenzil becomes obsessed with and his decision to kill Poe becomes, to Fenzil, simply an extension of a predetermined ending . Fenzil himself advises his listener to hold fast to his own story “because it’s all too easy to become lost in someone else’s” (217). Fenzil leaves the reader questioning the nature of Fenzil’s truth and the line between madness and sanity.

Because of its length, the novel losses some of the dramatic tension Poe creates in his short stories and there are points where it feels like the author is recycling the same narrative elements from Poe’s short stories and patching them together to create a longer novel. Despite this, The Port-Wine Stain is quite simply beautifully worded and would appeal to the average reader or an aficionado of Poe’s particular brand of deliciously expressed horror. Whether there is anything more than enjoyment gained is, like all literary efforts, left to the reader.

phototest-150x150Anna Kirsch is a postgraduate at Durham University particularly fascinated by the combination of science and narrative. She is currently working on combining evolutionary biology with literary theory with a particular focus towards crime fiction.

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