Month: May 2010

What is an Athanor?

And what is one doing in the title of my blog?  (Not any more — in July 2013 I changed the title, eliminating the athanor, but it’s still there in spirit, keeping up the ferment of creativity).

The OED offers this definition: “A self-feeding digesting furnace used by the alchemists, capable of maintaining a steady heat for long periods.”

This is what one needs for anything that needs patience and persistence, such as gardening and writing novels. The fact that it derives from alchemy intrigues me also, because alchemy is such a great metaphor for transformations of all kinds, both physical and metaphysical.

Gardening is alchemy. So is writing.

I first discovered alchemy in the writings of Mircea Eliade, when I was doing research for a paper in university. More recently, alchemical ideas found their way into the novels of my Herbert West trilogy, in which an amoral scientist is transformed into a healer with supernatural powers. Alchemy appears in these novels both explicitly and implicitly. Charles Milburn, a principal character in the first and third books, studies alchemical texts and becomes interested in the subject. At the same time, the stories themselves parallel some of the alchemical processes of dissolution, decay, calcination, conjunction, rebirth and transformation.

When I began this blog, the image of the athanor seemed quite apt, since it’s meant to be a generator of ideas on writing (and gardening), requiring patience, persistence and a steady heat of enthusiasm.  A Philosophical Furnace, indeed!

This is what an Athanor looks like.


First Novel Published

On May 22, between loads of laundry, I published the first novel in my Herbert West Trilogy.It’s available for sampling or purchase at

Here is a taste of the beginning:

What do I remember?

I could say “Everything I need to, and nothing more.” But if I am being truthful (and tonight I must be truthful, for in vino veritas), I will admit that certain of my memories have been too heavy to carry around with me. I have entrusted them to a mental root cellar — dark, cold and difficult of access. The key to this place, unlike most keys, permits itself to be found only on nights such as this, when I have drunk deeply enough to set aside daytime scruples.

Here it is, small and ornate, a subtle thing. And here is the little door. Insert the key with trembling fingers, and turn. The latch clicks and the door opens, revealing a thin slice of darkness.

Herbert West, reanimated.

In one of my books of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, (The Tomb and Other Tales, Ballantine edition, 1970) there is a chronological list of HPL’s works, with check marks by the ones I had read.  Notably unmarked is “Herbert West, Reanimator,”  written in 1921-1922.  It was published in a magazine called Home Brew as a series of six horror stories.  In his biography of HPL, L. Sprague De Camp refers to them as “perhaps the most forgettable ” of all Lovecraft’s stories.  Despite this dismissal, I was delighted finally to run across them in 1998.

While it’s true that Herbert West exemplifies some of HPL’s faults as a writer, notably overuse of adjectives such as “hideous” and a coarseness of plotting, I found the story intriguing.  It struck me as an outline for something bigger.  The two main characters, Herbert West and the nameless narrator, begged (in my mind at least) to be fleshed out.

Why would anyone want to reanimate corpses?  Why would anyone remain a close friend of someone who was always looking for really fresh corpses to reanimate, even to the point of creating them by means of murder?

This is the question about any “mad scientist.”  Is he evil or merely mad?  Is his friend stupid and credulous or simply loyal?

In the fall of 2000, two years after I read Lovecraft’s story, I began to answer these questions about Herbert West. I ended up several years later with a hefty trilogy. of which I am about to publish the first book, The Friendship of Mortals, as an ebook.  By the time I post here again, it should be available on,  technology permitting.