In 1872 a British frigate bound for Hong Kong recovered a drifting lifeboat.
On its hull the name Orthoceras was painted in bleached red letters. An emaciated sun-scarred man hung over its gunwale, his arm submerged to the elbow. His name was Michel Louvier, and through parched lips and scurvy-ravaged gums he whispered the story of his doomed ship.
They had departed from Marseilles in the spring of 1870 aboard a hybrid steamer that made good time through the new Suez Canal. Louvier had been hired as the ship’s naturalist, more on the quality of his draughtsmanship than the originality of his thought. Still, it was a choice assignment for a young man of science. They were to scour the Micronesian islands for commercially viable plants and animals, and to assess rumors of a newly erupted landmass some five hundred miles east of Guam.
They found neither. The landmass revealed itself as a vast drifting algal mat that fouled their engines and left them adrift in the becalmed seas.
The stores ran dry, and bellies emptied. The desperate men consumed the few fish and birds that became entrapped in the kelp forest, and once those were gone, turned to eating the stuff itself. Whether from poisons in the algae or simply starvation, madness took the crew. Louvier raved of murder, cannibalism, and obscene rituals, all of which he and a few others who clung to their sanity put an end to by torching the ship.
They pulled – sometimes on foot and sometimes swimming – a single life raft to the edge of the algal island; and, covered in the filthy stuff, they pushed off and trusted themselves to the purifying water. Days turned to weeks, and weeks to months, as each slowly succumbed, until only Louvier was left to be discovered.
At least that was the story Louvier related before falling into a catatonic convalescence that lasted most of a year. Upon his unexpected recovery he denied any recollection of the events after the last documented coaling stop of the Orthoceras. Any wreckage had long since been lost to the inky depths, and the new French government was eager to let the failures of the prior regime be quickly forgotten.
Michel made an effort to capitalize on his experiences in academic circles. But his only publications were two letters to the editor of a short-lived journal published in Prague by enthusiastic amateurs. Those same letters were returned from more august journals in Paris and London, along with derisive comments that Louvier’s drawings of unusual land snails belonged in books of fantasy, not science.
He took at least some of that advice, now done with naturalism and with travel. Though he faded into obscurity, he did so comfortably. With several canny (some would later say, uncanny) investments, he quickly turned his small settlement from the insurance company into a modest fortune.
He became a reclusive man, aged beyond his years and haunted by nightmares. In the atelier atop his Parisian rowhouse, he drew and painted and tried to exorcise visions of a watery abyss overflowing with men and beasts half-dissolved into undulating green-black slime.
But his own desire for privacy and his outré drawings did nothing to discourage the attention of the thriving community of sorcerers and mystics in fin de siècle Paris. Their enthusiasm gave rise to the legend that the subjects of his art were not imaginings at all, but the remembered recollections of a real space unconstrained by contemporary laws of science and morality.
The few actual contacts between Louvier and this community, however, did not go well. His personal affect was too uncanny, and his art too disquieting, even for the occultists used to shocking polite society with their conjurations. The few people who saw the contents of Louvier’s studio emerged haunted in their own right.
He died a comparatively young man in 1888, the result of a fire that rapidly and completely consumed his home and studio. The suspicion of arson was never confirmed.
While most of his effects were lost in the same fire that claimed his life, some will occasionally find their way into private collections or, more rarely, into the open market. When the friend of a friend recently passed from Covid, we had the grim pleasure of being able to acquire several of Michel Louvier’s sketches, as well as a bronze book stand that he commissioned from them in 1882.
While the original will have to be clawed from our cold dead fingers, Michel’s work is too delightfully troubling not to share, so we asked the talented sculptors at Raven Dark Creations to interpret some replicas from the original.