Initially this novella made me think of a Roger Corman film in which Vincent Price and his female companion arrive by carriage at a mist shrouded mansion existing in splendid isolation amid the trees and swamp, within whose walls you just know that something horrific will take place. Naben Ruthnum’s Helpmeet is all this and much more.
Louise married above her station, going from nursing auxiliary at a hospital to wife of one of its most prominent surgeons, but now Edward Wilk has become her patient, the victim of an illness that robs him of all vitality and liquefies his flesh and organs. It is suspected that the disease is something he has contracted from one of the many prostitutes whose services he used. Close to bankruptcy, the Wilks abandon their city residence and travel to an isolated family house outside Buffalo. Once there Edward tells her of the unwitting bargain he made with the prostitute Jean. His body finally gives up the ghost but it is not the end, just the latest step in a process of metamorphosis far more bizarre than anything dreamt up by Kafka.
This novella is beautifully written, with Ruthnum superb at capturing his late nineteenth century setting and bringing its fin de siècle sensibility to life on the page. The quiet, mannered prose style is totally compelling, grabbing the reader’s attention from the very first and carrying it through to the end, empowering us to accept strange and terrible things simply for the matter of fact telling. Helpmeet is, as others have pointed out, a tale of body horror, with Edward’s dissolution relayed through nauseating imagery, his face mostly gone, his eyes sucked inside the skull, and the rest of him changing into repellent pus. The love and loyalty of Louise through all of this is laudatory, perhaps even more so when you consider the circumstances in which he was infected.
The metamorphic slant to this illness takes our tale off on a tangent into the realms of the weird, and while I might quibble at the nature of the creature that emerges from Edward’s carcass it was an intriguing revelation, one that hints at other life forms battening on to humankind and using us in ways similar to our own relationship with the natural world, our bodies simply the soil in which their seed may be planted. And yet there is finally a moral dimension to all this. The entity responsible for all that takes place is aware of the cruelty implicit in its actions and willing to compromise, to do the best to make amends, reward the good and punish the bad, and in an end twist everyone gets more or less of what they deserve. It is, ultimately, a love story, with Louise and Edward finally capable of a greater unity than ever before – physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual. In a way it could be argued that they represent a Platonic ideal. Ruthnum gives us much to think about and I unreservedly recommend this novella to devotees of the weird.