Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Sorcerer's House / by Gene Wolfe

Neil Gaiman has said of Science Fiction & Fantasy author Gene Wolfe that "He's my hero because he keeps trying new ways of writing...and [is] the finest living male American writer of SF and fantasy – possibly the finest living American writer. Most people haven't heard of him. And that doesn't bother Gene in the slightest. He just gets on with writing the next book." (Gaiman, Guardian 2011). Born in Brooklyn in 1931, Wolfe's family moved around quite a bit before finally settling in Houston, a place which became his hometown and where he's always considered himself to be "from". He attended Texas A & M for three years before dropping out after he was drafted into the military where he served as a GI in the Korean War. Upon returning, he enrolled at the University of Houston where he completed his degree in Industrial Engineering and worked in the petrochemical field for thirty years, even helping to publish the Plant Engineering journal. Also of note is the fact that he helped patent the machine which makes Pringles potato chips(*). A full-time novelist since 1970, he's won pretty much every genre award there is, several of them multiple times. Perhaps his most revered work, the multi-volume The Book of the New Sun, garnered seven individual literary awards and was nominated for a dozen more. A (mostly) complete bibliography of all his writings can be found hereand it is indeed quite an extensive list. His 2010 novel The Sorcerer's House follows a newly released ex-con who learns that he's just inherited a strange, uninhabited old house.

Upon being released from prison, Baxter "Bax" Dunn wants to be in a place where no one knows him. He resettles in the midwestern town of Medicine Man where he stays in a shady motel, passing the time writing letters to his former cellmate along with a few old friends and family members. In a sudden, odd turn of events, he crosses paths with a real estate agent who tells him that he's the heir to a old vacant house in town. The large and spacious house, quite a spooky and mysterious old mansion, has been empty for quite some time. Bax moves in and is almost immediately subjected by a myriad of supernatural occurrences. Strange mystical creatures, objects magically moving and a discovery of another world beyond our own all confront Bax as his life is literally transformed by the house. By and by, Bas learns of the history of the mysterious house and its dangerous past, about the previous inhabitants and its sorcerer caretaker Mr. Black. Soon he becomes embroiled into a present (and a past) he never could have planned upon.

Brilliant and terrifying, this book is another masterpiece of fiction by an author who transcends the boundaries of genre and form to create another fantastic tale. Wolfe's unforgettable world and his piquant voice evoked through the epistolary testimony of Bax is a real treat and perfectly rendered. From trying to survive as a penniless ex-con to experiencing a windfall of bizarre proportions, Bax is a character who, more than anything, just goes with the flow. Though his life is often endangered and his psyche threatened by the outrageous events he witnesses, the reader gets to know a character who could fit well in any type of genre fiction or even in a more realistic piece of generic storytelling. Bax is a smart man, he's earned his Ph.D. while incarcerated, and isn't one to rationally dismiss things nor is he one for wishing on the fantastical. And while the rest of the characters are mostly seen through Bax' eyes, depicted indirectly through his narration, the style and pacing of the novel are cleverly arranged. There's an unpredictable zany style to The Sorcerer's House, a flow of non-stop action and amusing narrative bits that start fast and continue till the end. Even when Bax thinks that the major revelations are discovered and the major confrontations established, the novel takes even more surprising twists and turns to his peril--and our delight. (SF WOLFE)


1 comment:

Fish Belt O'Reilly said...

I just finished reading this book and really enjoyed it. It reminded me strongly of an earlier Wolfe book, Free Live Free, which featured a similarly unlikely cast and a mysterious building. Towards their ends, both books become more fantastical, but I think The Sorcerer's House handles the change better, becoming more intriguing where Free Live Free became merely confusing.

Wolfe fans will have a fair idea of what they're in for, but newcomers will hopefully realise quickly that nothing is quite what it seems.

All in all, I loved The Sorcerer's House and recommend it to anyone who likes mystery, the fantastic, or just a gripping tale.