Dr. Haggard’s Disease

Patrick McGrath represents a group of contemporary writers who are carrying on the gothic tradition. McGrath’s latest contribution to the genre is DR. HAGGARD’S DISEASE, his third novel.

Set in England at the outbreak of World War II, the story is told from the perspective of Edward Haggard, a young doctor who has set up practice in Griffin Head, a deteriorating seaside community. The “new gothic” apparently shares its architectural settings with the old gothic: Dr. Haggard’s house, situated on a cliff high above the ocean, has steep gables, tall chimneys, and lancet arches. Haggard himself also is in character: Lonely, brooding, and increasingly deranged, he is physically disproportioned and suffers from chronic pain for which he regularly self-prescribes morphine.

Haggard grieves over his ended love affair with an older woman, Frances Vaughn, the wife of a senior pathologist at the London hospital where Haggard had worked. The narrative is addressed to James Vaughn, a young Spitfire pilot and Frances’ son. As Haggard gradually reveals the details of the affair to James, he also reviews the development of his friendship with James. At the same time, he unwittingly exposes the insidious development of his own malady, a malady that ultimately drives his diagnostic endeavors to grotesque ends.

McGrath evokes in the reader simultaneous feelings of anticipation and revulsion. His chronologies progress two nervous steps forward, one tormented step back. The result is fascinating but disconcerting: in directing his narrative toward James, Haggard often tells James what James himself has done and said. And McGrath adds many touches that both engage and annoy the reader; for example, Haggard personifies his physical ailment, calling it “Spike.” The reader reaches the final vortex of this novel with great relief, yet he is screaming to get out.