A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘An Evil Guest’

Though I’d still call it a minor work overall, An Evil Guest (whose title comes from a quote by Simonides of Ceos, that gold is the kindest of all hosts when it shines in the sky, but comes as an evil guest too those who receive it in the hand) is much the most easily readable book in Wolfe’s oeuvre since at least Pandora by Holly Hollander.
It’s another third person story, but the profusion of accents and dialects that filled Wolfe’s last third person books, The Book of The Long Sun, are not present. The story is set in America, a hundred years into the future, with some technological advances, but otherwise in a recognisable society, and with pretty much contemporaneous language. The biggest and most relevant change is that Earth has connected with an alien race, and has links with the planet and society of Woldercan, whose technology is sufficiently advanced that they apparently have a process for manufacturing gold. An evil guest.
Wolfe introduces us to Dr Gideon Chase, a University Professor, a multi-talented man, an investigator who solves the hardest of puzzles. Chase was born on Woldercan, when his father was the American Ambassador there. He is highly intelligent. He’s obviously the hero, to the extent that he is wounded by a bullet to the leg and this has to be amputated. Wolfe suffered polio as a child and there is a running theme that his heroes at some point or other are left limping.
And Chase is being sought by the President and the FBI to investigate William (Bill) Reis, until recently the Ambassador to Woldercan. Reis is also very intelligent, not to mention impossibly rich and very powerful: complete dictator material. The President wants Reis investigating because it’s believed he’s learned how to manufacture gold, and also because wherever Reis goes, Government secrets are being stolen by some incalculable means.
In order to help himself pursue this case, Chase contacts thirtyish actress Cassie (Cassiopeia Fiona) Casey, a reasonably attractive redhead, a fair but undistinguished actress, currently appearing in an ensemble play about to close after one more performance. Chase wants to enlist her aid in locating Reis. To win her assistance, and to further his plan, Chase intends to unlock Cassie’s star quality, by some quasi-magic means that he insists is only activating something already in her.
The effect is instantaneous and overwhelming. Cassie becomes the most beautiful and in demand woman in the world, a commanding presence on stage who cannot do anything less than excellently. She is the bait to attract Reis to where Chase can get a handle on him, and she is immediately successful. Under the name of Wallace (Wally) Rehnquist, Reis attends Cassie’s last, stunning performance, and immediately signs up her Director, India, to direct a musical play, “Dating the Voodoo God”, with Cassie as its star. Wally/Bill has fallen in love with her and is determined to win her for herself.
But Cassie is the real centre of the book, playing a faux-naif role in which her new found success is a constant surprise to her. She’s forever downplaying her own abilities, not accepting that these have been enhanced, and continually deprecating about her appearance, accusing herself of being fat, and far too fat for bikinis, when it’s apparent that men will walk into walls when she’s fully dressed, let alone when she’s in swimwear.
Wally/Bill falls in love with her and, at some undefined point in the book that is never telegraphed, she falls in love with him. Gideon Chase is hunted, pursued and wounded early on, reappears under a magical disguise, by which time he’s working for Reis as well as the Government, then slides out of the book, in effect, winding up at the very end as Ambassador to Woldercan.
As well as his manipulations, all of which more or less he explains prosaically, Chase proclaims himself in love with Cassie, not just the enhanced Cassie but the lesser woman from before. Reis’ increasing and increasingly direct involvement with Cassie pushes Chase out of the way, as if the story can only accommodate one male lead at a time. Cassie ends up in love with Reis, making love with him, and removed to the South Pacific, the Takanga group of islands, where she is acclaimed as its High Queen, to Reis’ off-stage High King.
Which is where things start to go off-kilter.
Because An Evil Guest is, and is heralded by prestigious names such as Neil Gaiman as, a genre-hopping book, a book that plays with various genre style, smoothly and evenly. It begins in an SF mode, and Reis’ abilities to manufacture gold remain a strand throughout the book. But it plunges deeply into hard-boiled crime, with a number of organisations threatening Cassie in order to get at and kill Reis (her dresser, Margaret, is kidnapped, one of her fellow cast members is shot dead next to her to demonstrate how serious things are and how easily she could be killed), some vampiric aliens appear at her window, a werewolf (another Wolfean trope) hypnotizes and eats her divorced second husband when he turns up on the side of the devils, the book swings between genres with an admirable flexibility whilst Wolfe maintains an even and consistent narrative tone.
But there’s one genre shift that I cannot take with Wolfe and Cassie. It’s foreshadowed by the musical, ‘Dating the Volcano God’. Cassie’s been installed as high Queen, living a life of luxury and utter colonial native worship. She’s fallen in love with Bill/Wally, and had sex with him, though I can’t decide that this is real and is not the luxury he is determined to lavish upon her overwhelming Cassie.
But the High King has an opponent, the Squid King, also known as the Storm King (nothing to do with the Foglio’s Girl Genius). And this is an alien who has been in Earth’s seas for millennia, a Lovecraftian monster out to kill Bill Reis, and Cassie is forced through a ritual in which the Takangan’s manipulate her as ordering Reis’ ritual sacrifice, by having his head crunched in by a ritual staff, in front of her eyes.
This one is just too far outside the hard-boiled crime/espionage milieu that envelopes the majority of the story for me to accept it, coming as it does out of the leftest of left-fields in the last fifth of the book. Until then, the book is an intact experience. Now, Reis’ death is immediately followed by apocalyptic storms, destroying the Takangas. She is left stranded as a beach refugee, living off the land, until she is finally and reluctantly rescued, an indeterminable time later, almost by force, and eventually repatriated to America.
By now she is grey-haired and homely, skinny as a rake, under-nourished. All her friends are dead or gone, though her dresser, Margaret, is briefly seen. How much of this is a genuine transformation from her experiences and how much Cassie’s harsh self-assessment can’t be determined. The men she speaks to about her appearance contradict her, but out of truth or chivalry is not discernible.
The ending is very strange. After re-establishing herself in an anonymous life, and made rich by one of Reis’ manufactured gold gifts, Cassy tries to contact Chase and learns he’s now on Woldercan as Ambassador. She heads out there. Because of peculiar time dilation effects, his invitation in response to her question arrives before her question. But the story ends in mid-journey, with Cassy looking at a talking picture of a teen Bill Reis, and then collapsing in sobs asking Wally to come back.
It’s abrupt and unsettling, and not in the sense of when a skilful author leaves a story suspended to create the very effect. Wolfe is that skilled author, and he’s more than good enough for that, but from Reis’ execution onwards, the story as seen through Cassie’s eyes loses all concreteness, and becomes a kind of semi-abstract dream, so that the ending loses all substance.
It might, of course, be that Cassie doesn’t survive the storm, that all that follows is indeed a dream, and is not subject to any circumscription of logic, and I’m just not perceptive enough to read that. But in a book that for fully four-fifths of its length to be solid to change into something anti-realistic, without proper foregrounding renders the complete experience a disappointment.

4 thoughts on “A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘An Evil Guest’

  1. Nice review. I just reread the book and was surprised how engaging the beginning part was, since my memory of it was dominated by the story going off the rails at the end. The book also sets up an apocalyptic showdown that somehow happens offscreen — we don’t really learn what happened at the end. Disapponting.

    1. Thank you Andrew. You’re right in that the end seems to disappear inside itself, though that’s still characteristic of Wolfe: there are always parts to every story that have to be summoned up by the reader’s own imagination, drawn from the subtlest of clues, and I confessthat I am not always smart eough to locate these myself. forty years on from first reading it, I still find things in the Book of the New Sun that I haven’t seen before.

      Incidentally, if you enjoyed ‘A BorrowedMan’, there was an intended sequel to it, ‘Interlibrary Loan’ which will be published in July. I have it on pre-order and will enjoy it to the full: one last Wolfe.

  2. There are a few points I would want to note, that may help make sense of the ending and the entire piece. First, the ending. She is not calling Wally to come back, she thinks she is going to meet him in Woldercan. Bill Reis has died, but she thinks “Wally” has not. Chase mentions how in Woldercan, science is more advanced than the Earth’s in matters of “optics”, and Bill explains that his own invisibility is a matter of optics, and that a guy named Cranston mastered that art long ago. In the pulp novels from the beginning of the century, Lamont Cranston is the name The Shadow adopted when he needed a civilian identity, but when he did, it was an assumed identity. Meaning that there was also a real, different man called Lamont Cranston, an eccentric millionaire who had a deal with him. He would let The Shadow impersonate him when needed. The way The Shadow disappears was also by altering the optics of his opponents.

    The Woldercanians sometimes hybridize with lower animals, creating monsters. Gideon Chase seems to be a Woldercanian-human hybrid, with a somehow unsettling darkness before his eyes and the ability to alter how others see him (but he cannot deceive cameras or mirrors). Cassie looks wonderful to her theatre audience and to those who see her, but mirrors tell her otherwise. In her dream, the dead investigator and the assassin relate to each other as chaser and chased, but in the end, it is said that they need each other. Reis once helped a company be friends with the government of an unnamed country, so they could use their oil. The President of the US wants him dead, and the primary reason is that he is making known to others things that are secrets of State. The bat-like creatures look hideous, but they are friends. To the dead investigator, the Cthullu world felt wonderful, but it was otherwise. Batman is inspired by The Shadow. These beings are described as “Manbats”, and one of them saves Cassie. He is particularly kind and strong.

    What else? The former ambassador mentions that there are strict anti-cloning laws on Earth. Gideon once helped a woman who had a boy who was, according to Sharon, a remain of the man who she had loved and lost. Something unspecified was wrong with him, but afterwards he was able to become a quarterback. Bill says he has a son from his first marriage. Hypnosis apparently works, and the hunter may hypnotize the prey. The gold Bill generates is radioactive, and the dragons tend to accumulate it and keep it for a long time (therefore, gold is an “evil guest”, a trap, if you keep it close). The Squid/Storm King is referred to as the biggest dragon of all. Dragons are real, and dragon eggs are also poisonous. The reflected bird seems very real to the bird which sees it and is prepared to fight it, but this is all fiction. Bill Reis says he was called a murderer by many people. And Gideon Chase, well. His name is Gideon Chase. According to him, evil is not a shadow, but a positive reality. After they learn that, people tend to make “the opposite error”.

    Bill and Wally are said to be the same, but they have contradictory accounts of their first encounter with Cassie, and there are contradictory behaviours, too. Plus, Cassiopea is the protagonist of the myth of Perseus and the monster, in which she is about to be ritually sacrificed by way of offering her to a sea monster when the hero saves her. The Volcano God story, written by Bill Reis, appears to have a similar plot, only the girl, Maria, is Christian, and the daughter of a pastor. When she rejected the great gold piece, “Wally” brought her the diamond bracelet referenced at the end. The one who appeared before her at the island told her to pile wood and flowers. When she does, it spontaneously ignites. Lovecraft, the brilliant glamour movies about actors and actresses with witty dialogue, The Shadow and Golden Age science-fiction, the classic noir and the exotic flavoured pulp like that of Tarzan, Dr, Moreau and such come from roughly the same time period, and influenced each other.

    I’m still thinking about it, but I think these are the pieces of the puzzle. For me, the last act wasn’t something entirely unexpected: I was wondering when Wolfe would get to it. And the last comment on Wally and Bill was also something I expected. I still have to make sense of all this, but I think it may be quite the story.

    1. Very interesting theories. I never pretend to be an expert in decoding Wolfe’s novels – he was very much more erudite and well-read than I. Thank you for this, which I will have to mind next time I read the book.

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