A note of apology: this review was written and should have been posted in January 2019 but I completely overlooked it, going straight from An Evil Guest to Home Fires. Thanks to Nigel Price for pointing out this slip.
After An Evil Guest, Gene Wolfe, not for the first time, chose to write a book that is in many ways a complete opposite. Where the one was, in structure and tone, a hard-boiled crime drama shot through with fantastic SF elements, The Sorcerer’s House is an incredulous fantasy gateway story told in that most old-fashioned of forms, the epistolary novel. By which, for those who have never come across the term, I mean a novel written wholly in letters.
Wolfe has, of course, come very close to this form this century, with The Wizard Knight and Pirate Freedom both being told as supposedly a single long letter. But The Sorcerer’s House is a succession of letters, mainly by protagonist Baxter Dunn to his estranged twin brother George, but including letters by Dunn to other parties, and letters received in response to some of his missives.
Baxter, or Bax as he prefers to be called, is a scholar, holding two Ph.Ds and other distinction, but his story begins shortly after his release from prison, after serving a sentence for what we understand as fraud, perpetrated against several parties at or around his last academic institution, many if not all of them friends and associates of his brother George.
Later, we infer, from George’s accusations when he arrives in town, that Baxter has on at least one occasion posed as George. And he admits to having legally cheated George out of a substantial inheritance, left to the Baxter twins for educational purposes: Bax remained in continual education until the entire fund had been drained, paying his fees.
Until he appears, George will have nothing to do with Bax, which hardly seems surprising, but this state of affairs appears to have existed for some time before Bax’s transgressions.
In Bax’s first letter, he is writing from a hostel where he is staying. He has no money or assets, although he is awaiting an allowance cheque which comes at intervals (not until the book’s very end do we learn this to be an allowance made by the Dunns’ adoptive mother). He says he’s not writing to ask for a loan from George, but does frame it as an investment opportunity.
The letters are not dated, so the reader has to infer from internal evidence how long the gap is from one to the next, but by then Bax has moved into the titular house (Wolfe, as ‘compiler’, claims to have presented the letters in a logical order but not necessarily the correct one). It’s old, dilapidated and empty, and whilst the word isn’t used, he’s there as a squatter. He’s left the hostel after its manager tried to forge his allowance cheque, he’s taken the house, without power or water, for a roof over his head, and is planning to offer himself to its owner as a tenant who will carry out repairs and refurbishments (bought with the owner’s money) in return for rent-free occupation.
That’s the last point at which things appear to be normal. The book then starts to develop along parallel strands, the one directly fantastic, the other in the everyday world but with its own improbable mysteries.
Bax’s house, which we come to learn is known as the Black House, both for its forbidding and spooky reputation and because its last owner was a Mr Black, appears to be some form of crossing place between realities. Bax bumps into a strangely dressed teenage boy, who drops an unusual brass device with concentric wheels and a candle that is later described as a longlight and which appears to distribute some sort of magical force called numen.
The triannular is a wishing tool, and when used the longlight needs to be lit and stay lit until the wish, which comes in threes, has been achieved. This Bax learns from the boy, who first beats him, then is beaten by him, though apparently these are different twins: Emlyn, who is the innocent one and the victim, Ieuan, the evil one.
And Bax finds himself being adopted by Winkle, a kind of talking (albeit lisping) fox, who also turns into a small, nicely-curved Japanese girl who invades his bed (rather a mattress) at night and has sex with him.
Oh yes, the mattress is stuffed full of money, and there are mysterious and unrecognisable gold coins in an upstairs drawer.
But this is, as I’ve indicated, but part of the story. Bax finds a local, independent realtor, a Martha Murrey, and from her progresses to another realtor, an attractive widow named Doris Griffin, who has been looking for him. The Black House belongs to him, deeded to him years before, by Mr Black. Baxter has no recollection of ever having met Mr Black.
Doris is very enthusiastic about Baxter. Lots of the women in this book are. Doris presses him to wear the wedding ring formerly belonging to her late husband Ted. She takes him to bed, makes it plain she’d marry him. She even produces for him a piece of valuable riverfront land, the Skotos Strip, three miles of undeveloped land currently worth three million dollars, left to him by one Alexander Skotos, who died three years ago and, yes, Bax doesn’t remember him either.
But Bax and Doris’s romantic progression is interrupted by a series of murders in Medicine Bend, women accosted alone after dark on the street and literally dismembered. The predator(s) is/are a werewolf/werewolves. Bax and Doris are attacked by a pack of them, returning from a dinner date, and Bax kills one with a silver bullet (the man is prepared), although this is excluded from any of his letters, and comes in late on in a letter to him from his interested spectator, Millie, his sister-in-law.
Without going into further detail, this is a tale of strange goings-on, and of the fantastic spilling out into the otherwise mundane. The Black House is a gateway between Medicine Bend and faerie, and Mr Black is a sorceror, and father of twins, only not just of Emlyn and Ieuan. And what other pair of twins are there in this book?
One of this pair is also a sorceror, though he doesn’t know it, and another character in the book, who remains on the sidelines for most of the tale’s duration, is his birth mother.
I’m deliberately not going into detail on so many aspects of this story, because there are so many convolutions, and for reasons I will shortly come to. The ending of the book tries to account for all of these, or as many as we need, but does so at great haste and in little space, leaving the finale rushed and as telegraphed a twist as any in any Wolfe book. There is no need for careful and thoughtful reading and re-reading to determine this one, it shouts into your face with the subtlety of an “As you know…” exposition.
But I must go back and account for George Dunn’s role in this book. After several letters setting out fantastic and implausible events, whilst constantly alluding to how George hates Baxter and derides and condemns him, George turns up in a lawyer’s office, as mad as hell, full of accusations and unprovoked violence that gets him arrested for assaulting first a secretary, then a woman cop. And he’s claiming he’s the real George Dunn at a point where no-one, least of all Bax, is suggesting Bax is anyone other than Bax.
George acts like a madman from the start, a paranoid who may have good past cause for paranoia but who, in a story told by Baxter, has no grounds for his behaviour. Once he gets bailed out of jail, he turns up once more and promptly disappears inside the Black House, having interfered where he has no business to unleash a vampire, never to be seen again.
All that remains of him is a challenge to a duel with duelling pistols, survivor takes all, and a final letter from George to his wife Millie, telling her Bax has disappeared into faerie after reconciling with George, who has turned over a new leaf and will henceforth treat his once unloved and much put-upon wife with tenderness, care, respect and love, not to mention letters that sound like Baxter wrote them. It couldn’t be more blatant under a thirty foot neon sign.
Which is why I find it hard to go any deeper into the details of this story. Because all of this, all these goings on, are things for which we only have one witness, and that is Baxter Dunn. Brother George very clearly doesn’t believe a word of it, castigates him as a liar, and as mad, and certainly if this weren’t a Gene Wolfe novel, we might think exactly the same.
And how much of what Bax writes is actually ‘real’? We have nothing but Bax’s word that any of this has happened, and he’s a self-confessed fraudster. Given that these accounts of impossible goings on, which recall the mixture of mundane and fantastic words that underpinned Castleview, draw an infuriated George to town to ‘protect his interests’ (and indulge his fury at his twin brother), how much of it is a lure to give Bax the chance to trade his life as an ex-con with that of his brother, a long-standing successful businessman?
Indeed, is any of it real at all? I confess that I believe none of it, that it is all made up, and not in the sense that all fiction is ‘made up’. It’s an entertaining and easy enough read, but it lacks my conviction and there is a lot of critical opinion that finds it unsatisfactory as well. I wish it thought better of it.