“Last Test, The“
- Novelette (19,330 words); ghostwritten for Adolphe de Castro, in October–November 1927. First published in WT(November 1928); first collected in Cats; corrected text in HMDr. Alfred Clarendon, a renowned physician and medical researcher, is appointed to the post of medical director of the California State Penitentiary at San Quentin by his old friend, Governor James Dalton. (Dalton’s father had been ruined on Wall Street by Clarendon’s father, but the younger Dalton held no grudge.) Clarendon’s home in San Francisco is run by his sister Georgina, with whom Dalton has long been in love. Clarendon is working on an antitoxin for black fever. In the course of his work he has had to travel to exotic places, and he has brought back a band of Tibetan servants, over whom Clarendon has placed an enigmatic figure named Surama.Shortly after Clarendon’s arrival at San Quentin, one of the inmates comes down with black fever; Clarendon places the man in a separate ward so that he can study the case himself, thereby enraging his assistant, Dr. Jones, who wishes to assist. The inmate dies, and later several other prisoners contract the disease. News of the epidemic spreads throughout San Francisco, causing a panic that drives many citizens from the city. Eventually the panic subsides, but Clarendon is criticized for his handling of the matter; he pays no attention, however, to the bad press he receives. Governor Dalton continues to defend Clarendon, in spite of the latter’s curt refusal to allow him to marry Georgina.Dr. Jones then contrives to change the manner of institutional appointments, with the result that Clarendon is fired from his position and Jones installed in his place. Clarendon lapses into depression and rarely stirs from his home. With Surama, he continues experiments of various sorts in his own laboratory, but Georgina is horrified when she overhears a conversation between the two men that suggests their intention to use human patients for their experiments. She asks Dalton’s help in a situation that seems to be growing increasingly tense, especially after she overhears further bizarre conversations that cause her to fall in a faint. Clarendon revives her, and in the process contemplates using her in some nameless experiment. But before he can do so, Dalton arrives and demands an explanation. Clarendon collapses, injecting himself with the serum he was planning to give his sister. He then confesses the truth: he was not even on the track of an antitoxin for black fever but was under the spell of Surama, an evil Atlantean mage who has developed a disease that “isn’t of this earth” to overwhelm mankind. Clarendon urges Dalton to burn the clinic and everything in it, including Surama. Presently Dalton sees the clinic going up in flames: apparently Clarendon had set the fire himself, destroying Surama before he himself succumbed to his self-inflicted disease.The story is a radical revision of a tale entitled “A Sacrifice to Science” in de Castro’s book, In the Confessional and the Following(1893); in his letters HPL refers to it as “Clarendon’s Last Test.” He received $16 for this work, while de Castro received $175 from WT. It should be pointed out that de Castro’s original tale is not at all supernatural. It is merely a long drawn-out melodrama or adventure story in which a scientist seeks a cure for a new type of fever (never described in detail) and, having run out of patients because of the bad reputation he has gained as a man who cares only for science and not for human life, seeks to convince his own sister to be a “sacrifice to science” in the furtherance of his quest. HPL has turned the whole scenario into a supernatural tale while preserving the basic framework—the California setting, the characters (although the names of some have been changed), the search for a cure to a new type of fever, and (although this now becomes only a minor part of the climax) Clarendon’s attempt to persuade his sister to sacrifice herself. But—aside from replacing the nebulously depicted assistant of Dr. Clarendon (“Dr. Clinton” in de Castro) named Mort with the much more redoubtable Surama—he has added much better motivation for the characters and the story as a whole. HPL made the tale about half again as long as de Castro’s original; although he remarked of the latter that “I nearly exploded over the dragging monotony of [the] silly thing” ( SL2.107), his version is not without monotony and prolixity of its own. For his own amusement, HPL has added glancing references to his own developing myth-cycle, including, oddly enough, the first mention of Shub-Niggurath, Nug, and Yeb in his work.
An H.P.Lovecraft encyclopedia. S.T. Joshi, David E. Schultz.
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