Review: Semper Idem, by Jack London

You can read Jack London’s Semper Idem here.

Semper Idem is a ghastly tale of horror. It is made so, not by running rivers of blood and gore, but by the overt apathy of the protagonist, Doctor Bicknell and his disdain for the people he treats.

Personally speaking, there appears to be no redeeming quality to this story. It is, in form, a nightmare related in varying shades of grays and black utterly devoid of splashes of color, possessing neither humor, nor emotion, save for the understated fretting of a minor character.

The underlying premise to this dark creation appears to be a purposefully sterile approach to the observation of a god complex. Doctor Bicknell, because of his surgical skill, believes he can cheat death out of a soul in even the most dire of cases. Names do not matter. Patient interaction is, for him, a distraction. Only the severity of their injuries coupled with the improbability of their recovery interest him. The higher the percentage chance of the patient reaching the end of their mortality, the more the good doctor is engaged.

Semper Idem is the name given by the hospital staff where the doctor practices to an otherwise unidentified patient. The man, an attempted suicide, was found with no identification and brought to the hospital with his throat sliced open “from ear to ear”.

Even after Doctor Bicknell had performed the miraculous surgery to repair his gaping wound and the man had begun his convalescence, he refuses to identify himself or to utter even a single word.

His name, as chosen by the hospital staff, is a reference to the only piece of evidence related to his case: a photograph of a woman, found in the apartment where he had attempted to dispatch himself forever into the spirit world. The photograph bore a handwritten note that read “Semper idem; semper fdelis”—a phrase from Latin that roughly translates to “always the same; always faithful”. No other clue or hint of the man’s identity or profession was ever located.

On first read, this story was less than appealing. However, after a second read, and a realization of the extent of the god complex possessed by the doctor and London’s treatment of it from the standpoint of an uninvolved observer, offering neither praise nor criticism of it, the story craft is easy to appreciate. It would be too easy to allow unrestrained emotion at the doctor’s callous treatment of people to influence the direction of this tale. London does none of that. The cold, clinical, sterile description does well to carry this story to its end.

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