I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.
Alix Nathan has recently finished an exciting, troubling, and ghastly novel. The title is The Warlow Experiment.
Here are the opening words of this story. Alix writes, “Down and down. He sniffs dank air, listens to the man. Powyss. // ‘I’m providing plenty of fuel and kindling, Warlow. You’ll have four baskets of wood a day and a scuttle of sea coal. They’ll come down in the morning. There’s a tinder box, oil lamps, boxes of candles in that cupboard over there. The jar of lamp oil will be refilled each week, but that’ll depend on your use of it. Send a note if you need more.’ // ‘I’ve tried out everything myself and it all works perfectly. Samuel, get a fire going for Warlow.’ // ‘I makes my own fire! [says Warlow} // ‘Yes, of course, of course. But let’s warm the place while I’m showing you around.’ // [Warlow surveys the area of his confinement.] White cloth. Fork, spoon. Them’s silver. Wine glasses! Chair legs like bent knees; never sat on one of them. Look at it! Candlesticks all shone up. Brass. Pictures.’ // Who’s that in the mirror? Me is it? Him? (3).
Mr. Wardlow has six children, a wife, Hannah, and he is currently unemployed. In exchange for his agreeing to be locked up for seven years, Mr. Powyss has promised Warlow a payment of £50 for his natural life.
Warlow accepts the terms. Alix writes, “Herbert Powyss walked straight out of the house into the orchard. He was elated. He hadn’t spoken so much in such short time for years, being normally silent; solipsism a tendency from his youth” (6).
At first, all seems to progress smoothly. Alix writes, “Something breaks the stupor. Has he slept? Is it night? Was it? Creaking. Coming nearer. Behind the door in the wall: smell of meat. // Fully awake. Hungry, yes, he opens the door in the wall, expects to see the footman, Samuel, standing there with a pie oozing gravy. Finds a tray of heavy silver domes. Carries it to the table. Covers are too hot to take off! He hoists up his arm within its sleeve to use the cuff. Sees a neatly folded cloth for the purpose. // Three big pieces of boiled mutton, plate of potatoes, plate of green vegetables. Another dish with something white hidden under sauce. He sniffs it. Fish. Ach! Must he eat it? Must he eat all together? No. Which first? Begins with mutton but there’s no knife! Only spoons and forks. He digs at the meet with the spoon, looks about him, grabs it with his hands, bites heartily. Can he leave the fish? Better not. Scoops it up. Pap. Fishy pap. Swallows it down with porter from a jug. Porter’s good, very good” (17-18).
This frightening story shares much with Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Alix Nathan has taken Shelley, an apparently true story set in 1797, and added in wonderful details of a horrific and disturbing tale. The Warlow Experiment does have a few adult situations. However, it is a tale you will not want to read on a stormy night. 5 Stars
Likely Stories is a production of KWBU. I’m Jim McKeown. Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!