Tag Archives: Gene Wolfe

Review of The Sorcerer’s House by Gene Wolfe

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Anything by Gene Wolfe is worth reading whether you enjoy it or not in my opinion – catch my review of The Devil in a Forest here.  So I was delighted to get my hands on The Sorcerer’s House.

In a contemporary town in the American Midwest where he has no connections, an education man recently released from prison is staying in a motel. He writes letters to his brother and to others, including a friend still in jail. When he meets a real estate agent who tells him he is the heir to a huge old house, long empty, he moves in, though he is too broke to even buy furniture, and is immediately confronted by supernatural and fantastic creatures and events. His life is utterly transformed, and we read on because we must know more. We revise our opinions of him and of others, with each letter. We learn things about magic, and another world, and about the sorcerer, Mr Black, who originally inhabited the house. And then perhaps we read it again.

This epistolary novel (structured through letters) mostly written by the main protagonist, Baxter, is a gradual revealing of a house infested by otherworld beings. This is a much-visited theme – classic horror fare – to the extent that it was parodied in the 2006 cartoon movie Monster House. But in Wolfe’s hands it becomes something else.

sorcerorshouseBaxter’s steady stream of letters recount the astonishing change in his fortunes, and also charts his very rocky relationship with his twin brother George. By definition, he is an unreliable narrator and a complex, interesting character. We know that he was imprisoned for conning money out of his brother’s friends and though he is at pains to emphasise how much he values honesty, we need to treat his accounts with caution. So the occasional letter by other people involved with the sorcerer’s house is every bit as interesting and engrossing as Baxter’s fluent and smooth account.

One of the things that I love about Wolfe is that he isn’t afraid to take risks. Epistolary novels are normally literary, often used for reflective and introspective examination of a subject – think about Lionel Shriver’s wonderful We Need To Talk About Kevin. So using a device that immediately funnels all the action through another narrative in a horror fantasy book would be something that using my writing tutor’s hat, I would advise any student to avoid doing. But I found The Sorcerer’s House utterly compelling – particularly the obvious gaps in the narrative towards the ending. And… about that ending. Well that’s an almighty risk! I’m in a cleft stick, here – hoisted by my own petard. I am aching to discuss the end and what is actually going on, which as far as I’m concerned, isn’t what the letter-writers claim is happening.
If anyone reads the book and wants to chat about the ending, we can discuss it in the Comment section… Which I recommend that you do, because even if you don’t like it, I guarantee it will stick in your head like a burr.
10/10

Review of The Devil in a Forest by Gene Wolfe

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A copy of this classic was a gift from a talented friend of mine whose opinion I value, so clearly it had to go right to the top of my reading pile – and I’m not sorry that it did as it started my 2012 list on a really high point.

Deep in a forest wilderness lay a village so humble, so insignificant, that only a handful of people knew it existed – yet it was here that a mighty battle was waged in the endless struggle between Good and Evil.
Led by Fate into the timeless struggle were:devilintheforest
WAT the savage and charming highwayman…
MOTHER CLOOT the cunning and cruel possessor of mysterious powers…
BARROW MAN the awesome spirit of a long-dead warrior… and
MARK not yet totally seduced by Evil, not yet totally convinced by Good…

And there you have it – the back cover blurb. As you can see they did things slightly differently back in 1976 – for starters they didn’t see fit to tell you at least half the plot although there were lots of capital letters and slightly portentous pronouncements due to the Tolkein effect still rippling through the genre at the time. And the blurb gives no insight whatsoever as to what the book is actually about. Neither does the cover. I was expecting major battle scenes… nasty armoured beasties lurking around every tree… which simply doesn’t happen. It’s SO much better than that.

Told in third person limited pov from Mark’s viewpoint, this little book gives you a slice of the gritted business of surviving in an isolated community that has seen better times when their religious shrine brought in a steady stream of pilgrims. But now, thanks to the depredations of their very own highwayman, Wat, that trickle has all but dried up and everyone is having to tighten their belts. A lot.

Mark is an orphaned fourteen year old apprentice to the village weaver. Which means he often goes hungry and has learnt to take care of himself – something that stands him in good stead when a foray into the forest with the innkeeper’s daughter turns into a dark and dangerous adventure. Where his future and very soul is at stake…  Wolfe has a trick of utterly subsuming you into his created world. We accept that Mark spends a large chunk of time so hungry that his stomach gripes with the pain. That he has to always pick his words carefully to the adults around him, because there is no one who innately cares about him. We learn just how unnerving Mother Cloot’s behaviour can be – and what Mark does when he comes across a murdered man…

The huge forest rustles with hidden food and threats, the river offers fish and the risk of drowning – and threading through all this is the scalding knowledge that life is precarious and cheap. And Mark has been caught between forces that he cannot hope to prevail against. All this occurs without an ounce of sentimentality and in just over 220 pages, Wolfe produces a gripping adventure that had me reading faaar into the night to discover what would happen to Mark, and Wat and Mother Cloot. The writing is pin-sharp and exquisite, with wonderful dialogue, superb scene setting and an interesting cast of characters, who are initially offered up as ciphers – and then, refuse to behave as you’d expect.

So Mark is less defiant and more accepting of the clear injustices that Life has dealt him; more suspicious of nearly everyone and their motives for being friendly; and very aware of the occult and dark forces in play around the village. Mother Cloot is a tough, wise old woman – and then something else a whole lot darker… As the violence escalates and events spin out of control, this tale gripped me and would not let go. And by the end, I felt I had a far clearer understanding of what it meant to part of an underclass in a small village during the Dark Ages – despite the fact that I have a teaching Degree in History and regard myself as reasonably knowledgeable about that period.

As you might have gathered, this 1970’s offering mightily impressed me and confirmed what I’ve always known – that superb writing is timeless. If you enjoy excellent adventure Fantasy in an historical setting, then hunt down this little book – it’s worth the effort.
10/10