Dissection of a Nightmare

"There he lies, white and cold in death."
- The Monster (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, 1888)
Alexander Laing was an American academic, novelist and anthologist who appears to be best remembered for his seafaring adventures, such as The Sea Witch (1933), and an anthology of ghost stories, entitled The Haunted Omnibus (1937), but he also has a very peculiar and obscure novel to his credit – one that's not easily pigeonholed.

The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck (1934) is a strange amalgamation of the detective story with components of tales of horror and the supernatural. You can compare some of the grotesque, decadent elements of the latter with the ero-guro movement that was popular in Japan at the time (c.f. Edogawa Rampo). The book is presented as an anonymized manuscript, written by a medical student and edited by Laing, which is an extensive report on "a series of grim events" that took place at the Maine State College of Surgery. All of the events seemed to revolve around a single person, Dr. Gideon Wyck.

Dr. Gideon Wyck emerges as a cold, emotionless and elitist person, "who never cajoled his patients," but everyone in Altonville, Maine, "called upon the passionless, machinelike skill" of the college's founding instructor – which, however, did not work out for everyone.

A simple truck driver, named Mike Connell, had his left arm amputated and as a result his mind began to wander, muttering about "the black one, wit' white eyes," but this medical procedure is the subject of unsettling rumors. The narrator had heard "the whisper that the limb could have been saved by anyone less interested than Dr. Wyke" in an opportunity "to demonstrate the suturing of skin flaps." Dr. Wyck also acted very callous at the deathbed of a teenage boy and tried to bill the grief-stricken, dirt poor parents forty dollars for several canisters of oxygen. Furthermore, "the old devil" was instrumental in a very public and humiliating expulsion of a student for cheating on an exam.

So, all in all, Dr. Wyck is not a figure who inspires love or affection, but not all that unusual for a crime or mystery novel from this period. Obviously, the surgeon's behavior marked him as a (murder) victim-in-waiting. But there are also the elements of the horror story to be considered.

The small, seemingly peaceful town and hospital begin to experience a string of horrifying coincidences, which should, mathematically, be completely impossible: a succession of local women give birth to "monsters" – a deformation commonly known as Mermaid Syndrome. Over the course of the narrative, it becomes clear that the women have been experimented upon. I guess this plot-thread makes the book one of the first (somewhat serious) examples in popular fiction of genetic engineering and experimentation.

However, not all of these plot-threads and horror story elements were grounded in scientific facts: a combination of second-sight and blood transfusion, which seems to have an effect on the blood donor. A somewhat preposterous plot-thread, but, ultimately, not a very important one. It’s mostly used for effect. Same can be said for most of the other elements such as demonology and an epileptic bastard son with anger issues.

During all of this, Dr. Wyck suddenly vanishes from the face of the Earth and the only thing left behind was a bundle of clothes, which was sent to his daughter. He turns up again some time later: on a stretcher, underneath a "bleached shroud," in the cold-storage vault of the dissecting room of the college. A post-mortem examination reveals he was pumped full of diethylbarbaturic acid (veronal), expertly stabbed in the back of the neck and finally embalmed. But why? Well, here is where the interesting and promising elements of the plot begin to crumble and start disappointing the reader.

The circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. Wyck are bizarre, unusual and full of promise, but Laing never utilized them to full effect or played particular fair with the reader – which sank the book to the level of a disappointing, second-tier detective story. One of the contributing factors was the incompetent investigation and methods from the local police.

For example, the dense sheriff found a fingerprint on a light bulb in the vault and wasted an entire year in getting the fingerprints of everyone who's connected to the case. This included chasing down a gloved student for the better part of those twelve months, but completely forgot to print an obvious character that was hard to miss or forget about. The final explanation had some interesting aspects, but, again, it was not exploited to its full potential and eventually used for a fairly standard and typical Golden Age-period piece of misdirection. At this point, the horror, thrillerish parts of the novel had become nothing more than window dressing. I also hated how one of the plot-threads, a second murder, was completely shoved to the background and forgotten about by the end of the book. The reader knows who the culprit behind that murder was, but it seemed to serve no real purpose to the overall plot.

After the final chapter, I seriously began to wonder what kind of story Ellery Queen would have created from all of these bizarre plot-elements (e.g. The Siamese Twin Mystery, 1933). Anyhow...

I initially wanted to like The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck and appreciated the backdrop of the story, a medical college with special attention for the dissection room, but found the book to be incredible unsatisfactory and disappointing as both a detective and horror story. So I can only recommend the book as a historical curiosity.

Well, I hope to have something better for my next blog-post.


  1. This is one of my favorite lurid and grotesque horror novels. I never saw it as a legitimate detective novel at all. FAIR MURDER a genuine detective novel written by "Nicholas Brady", one of the many pseudonyms of J.V. Turner, has gruesome plot elements that made me think of ...GIDEON WYCK while I was reading it. And I read the book years apart. That's how powerful Laing's book was for me. To each his own...

    1. At first, I assumed it would not be my kind of story, but loved The String of Pearls: A Romance, which is the original tale of Sweeney Todd. And it is pretty lurid and grotesque in it's own right. So Laing simply did not do it for. As you said, to each his own.

  2. I would agree with J. F. Norris. I don't think this book was intended to be a detective story, either fair play or otherwise. Rather, it is a flat-out horror story with a science fiction subtext, and I thought it was a very good one. I don't know what edition of the book you had, but in the early 1960s an abridged version was published, and that might have left out some of the details you were looking for. It is my understanding that Valancourt Press should be coming out with a new edition shortly. Laing and Painter also published a sort of sequel to Wyck called The Motives of Nicholas Holtz, which is also a sort of science fiction horror story.

    1. I do not think I read the abridged version, which I was aware of, but I'll double-check today and I might give The Motives of Nicholas Holtz a shot somewhere down the road. Maybe I'll like that one better now that I sort of know what to really expect from the author.