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.
Baxter’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.