[14 March 2010]
PopMatters Features Editor
Along with Ursula K. LeGuin, Gene Wolfe may well be the most critically acclaimed American fantasy writer, living or dead. He has not, however, been considered a particularly accessible one. His books are often, at least in comparison with most other fantasy novels, dense and difficult. His masterpiece, the tetralogy of novels comprising The Book of the New Sun, is as brilliant as it is ponderous. Most of his other novels place a demand on readers not often made by genre writers. Wolfe’s latest novel, The Sorcerer’s House, is in contrast a remarkably easy read and is his most accessible novel to date.
This novel is also a rarity for Wolfe in that it has a contemporary setting. Most of Wolfe’s works are set in other eras. The pair of novels comprising the work known as Latro in the Mist, for instance, tells the story of a Roman soldier, while the dozen novels comprising his Urth Cycle (consisting of the series The Book of the New Sun, The Book of the Long Sun, and The Book of the Short Sun) have a medieval foundation despite being set so far in Earth’s future that the world that we know has been long forgotten and a new Dark Ages has descended. So it is somewhat uncanny reading a Gene Wolfe novel in which cell phones play a role.
Even though the setting for The Sorcerer’s House is the present, Gene Wolfe is still Gene Wolfe and therefore embraces a narrative form that is most decidedly not contemporaneous. The epistolary form, which Wolfe has used before and which he employs for this new novel, was a literary genre that was widely used by such 18th century novelists as Samuel Richardson, Goethe, Rousseau, and many others.
Even in the 19th century, many novels employed the form, like Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk, while other prominent novels like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone used letters along with other documents to tell their stories. In the 20th century there were a handful of famed epistolary novels, like C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, but for the most part the format has been abandoned. One glittering exception is John Barth’s Letters, in which he attempted an epistolary novel in the 18th century style.
Alongside its form, this novel is more accessible than Wolfe’s other works because the author is introducing the reader to a rather simple universe. The complexity of some of Wolfe’s books has prompted the publication of lexicons for both the Urth Cycle and for the Wizard Knight sequence. No companion reference work is needed for The Sorcerer’s House, though Wolfe does provide a list of characters at the end. This does not mean that the tale told here is not interesting or fun. This is, in fact, one of Wolfe’s most enjoyable novels, at least on a surface level. It may not have the long-term potential for complete immersion that his best books encourage, but it certainly works a lively read.
The novel tells the story of one Baxter Dunn, who has just been released from prison after serving a sentence for fraud. He ends up in the town of Medicine Man where after staying briefly in a motel decides to save some money by squatting in an abandoned house. Quite unexpectedly and with no effort on his part he has the deed to the house thrust upon him, quickly followed by a string of unexpected other financial advantages. It is almost like magic.
In exploring the house Baxter discovers a number of unusual beings, from battling twins (who mirror his relationship with his own twin brother George, to whom many of his letters are addressed) to a talking fox to mutilated bodies, werewolves, a hostile dwarf, and a very strange butler. He finds himself pulled further and further into a magical realm over which he has only moderate control and to which he has more connections than he suspects.
As an example of the Old Dark House genre exploited so frequently in works like H. L. Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, this might not be up there with the best, but it is certainly creditable. The primary appeal of the book, however, will be Gene Wolfe’s venture into the modern day with his unique take on a potentially overworked genre, all while employing the epistolary form. As it is Wolfe’s most accessible novel in a long and distinguished career, it could well serve as a good entry point for newcomers to his extraordinary body of work.