A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Castleview’


I remember buying Castleview a long time ago, in the much-missed Compendium Books in Birmingham, mine and many others’ nomination for the best second hand SF bookshop in Britain. I had taken down unwanted books for a trade, and a new Wolfe was an ideal purchase with the credit I had gained.
For the longest part of the story, this is an apparently mainstream novel. Willie Shields is a newcomer to the Town of Castleview, Illinois, where he has purchased a car dealership, bringing with him his wife, Anne Schindler and 16 year old daughter, Mercedes Schindler-Shields. The book actually begins with a very brief scene involving the murder of Tom Howard, at a time when a Realtor is conducting the Shields family around his home, with a view to buying it.
But Castleview is named for its relatively regular optical illusion of a castle, that not everyone sees, and whilst driving back to their Motel, the Shields car has to brake suddenly to avoid colliding with an unnaturally large black horse, ridden by a black-shrouded rider.
Not that Wolfe takes any immediate steps to develop these hints of something more than natural, although they do form the basis for two of the three legs of a story that expands, rapidly and massively, over the next twenty-four hours, until it exits the mundanity of Castleview into an oblique replaying of the legends of King Arthur that rushes at the reader with all the speed of events thus far, but little in the way of clarity.
And I am far from being the only reader to fail to discern even the most unfocussed purpose of this book.
Initially, Wolfe divides his story along three tracks, one for each of the newcomers. Willie visits his dealership, discusses his vision of the castle with senior salesman, Bob Roberts (father-in-law to the dead Tom Howard), who takes him to the local museum to study the records of it, only to disappear. Anne takes the car to the local Stables, intent on complaining about horses being ridden dangerously, only to be held up at gunpoint by Wrangler Dunstan. Mercedes allows Seth Howard, Tom’s son, to take her out in his car, only for the two to find themselves picking up a supposedly stranded couple, one of whom we are led to believe is a ghost.
It’s just the beginning. Wolfe works in short chapters, leading to cliffhanger endings, interruptions from offscreen that abruptly terminate developments, whereupon he switches to another tack. Before long, Sally Howard, Tom’s widow, is brought into the story as a fourth pole from whose viewpoint the multiplying strands are seen.
All of these chapters are taking place in a very short space of time, the action being almost continuous. The other characters switch and slide between the increasingly complex trajectories of the four principals. A Dr Fee arrives with Sally Howard, intent on buying a house she is no longer certain of selling: he disappears and reappears disconcertingly, in manners that recall to the Wolfe reader a vampire.
Sally is also approached by Dr Rex von Madadh, red-gold of mane and beard, supposedly a parapsychological researcher but, if Fee’s a vampire, von Madagh’s a werewolf.
The story shoots forward, constantly interrupted and switching focus. Gradually, an underlying air of the supernatural, keyed to the Arthurian legends begins to assert itself. Certain characters, slip out of the mundane world of Castleview into magical limbo in which Arthur’s final battle is to be re-fought, in a sense of ritual that suggests this is not the first time.
The confrontation is brief, and Wolfe omits it. It should focus around Wrangler Dunstan, whose real name is Arthur: he is the heir who must be fought and defeated again, but it is Will Shields who steps up in his place, firing his rifle, and Will who is the only casualty as the forces separate, and those of the town return to their plane.
For Will, whose fate occupies the very last moment of the book, there’s what may seem as a reward. He wakes from death, in Avalon, with the woman we know in this book as Viviane Morgan, and who is clearly Morgan-le-Fay, awaiting reunion with her brother… For Arthur and Morgan were half-siblings, and Mordred their son a product of an incestuous union. What Will will think of this remains unrevealed.
There’s seemingly little emotion in his death from Anne and Mercedes, though Wolfe has stirred enough in during the long account to suggest that Willy would not find this strange, whilst not suggesting in the slightest that Anne would react this way.
But there are things elsewhere that cross the boundary, and for which Wolfe has been criticised, both elsewhere and here, and here the accusations fly very close to home.
Wolfe has been criticised for his handling of women. Certainly, in his personal life, he was as conservative as he was Catholic, wanting his wife Rosemary to stay at home, run their household, whilst he was the provider. To be honest, I don’t have any issues with his women, generally, but there are instances in Castleview that, right from my first reading, that I have never been able to convince myself are believable.
Throughout, Sally Howard’s response to her husband’s death, a husband she’s supposed to have loved, is completely unreal. It’s one thing to say that she’s in shock, but from the moment von Madadh appears, and within literally minutes, she is measuring him up as a future husband, and by the end of the book, having seen him tear out Will Shields’ throat with his teeth, she is in bed with him, in the former marital bed, not much more than twelve hours after Tom’s murder, and sixteen year old Seth is nodding his approval at his mother finding a new man who’s quite clearly giving her a bloody good fucking at that very moment.
It’s unreal. It has nothing to do with human nature. If it’s meant to be an outcome of the mythic battle that gradually rises through the mundane affairs of Castleview, then Wolfe does too little, to the point of nothing, to reconcile us to this, or make it understandable, let alone acceptable.
Yet I do like Castleview, find it full of good writing, find it’s hurry-scurry, dense and intricate development constantly entertaining. It doesn’t weary me as it does others. But the merger of the two worlds, the introduction of the Arthurian aspect, and its incredulous sexual responses bring the book crashing down at its ending.
It’s not the first, nor the last Wolfe book that I don’t fully understand. But in the end, it doesn’t inspire me to hunt out deeper explanations. There would be a second book, that year, with a similar outcome.

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