Here follows a review and a discussion. The review contains no spoilers, or only minor ones, and the discussion contains nothing but.
THE SORCERER’S HOUSE concerns one Baxter Dunn, an ambidextrous a scholar with double degrees and a con-man and an ex-con, living after his release from jail in perfect poverty the small town of Medicine Man. He writes to his rich brother and identical twin George begging politely for money.
At least so it seems on the first reading of the book. On the second reading, once we know Baxter’s true and sinister intentions, one can see the accusatory tone hidden beneath the courtesy and self-deprecation, and, yes, the attempt to provoke the brother to anger. The letters are written by a con-man, after all, and one who knows how to manipulate people.
On the first reading, we find that Bax (as he insists on being called) by pure happenstance finds an empty house with the broken back door, and he lets himself in to find a place he can stay rent free.
Upon second reading, it seems clear he broke the lock to let himself in, but it is unclear how and why he selected that house. A third reading is called for.
Then strange things, mysterious trespassers by candlelight, gruesome murders, strange noises in the night, begin to haunt the Black House, and it begins to seem bigger that it at first appeared, and some of the windows open up on a forest that never grew on this earth we know.
One night he sees what might be a ghost from some prior century carrying a candle and a brass instrument like a compass. The youth drops the candle and the instrument, and jumps out a second story window, somehow passing through the glass without touching it, somehow leaving no footprints outside.
Baxter experiments with the instrument, lining up three symbols for fish, and directing the needle at it. Before the next day comes and goes, he is offered three free meals of three fish each, always by some unusual but not impossible coincidence. An in the belly of one of the fish, a ring, which may or may not be the ring of a dead necromancer, slain by his own student.
Then he lines up the symbols for money, and turns the needle…
… and before long, he finds three gold coins in a deserted desk, a mattress stuffed with money, and finds he is not only the heir owning the house in which he squats, but also heir to a fabulously valuable tract of waterfront property.
But in that same time, he finds a madwoman who may or may not be the werewolf leaving body parts behind, he finds a butler who may or may not be the same one who carried the severed head of John the Baptist to Herod, he finds a pet fox who may or may not be the young geisha who comes to him by night, and offers him a legendary sword.
And things get stranger from there.
The youth is Emlyn, the son of the Sorcerer, Zwart, who lives in the undying lands that are sometimes glimpsed from the windows of the house. He is the twin brother of Ieuan, who seems also to be living in the house, and keeps an evil dwarf chained by the neck. Emlyn says that twins, like sorcery, runs in the family, and that Emlyn is the good twin, and Ieuan the evil twin. Baxter at this point ruefully admits that he is the evil brother in his family, and George is the good one. But who, if anyone, is telling the truth?
Highly recommended and without any reservations.
SPOILERS ABOUND! I discuss the surprise ending, which, for the Love of Mike, I wish not to disturb nor ruin for any man. If you have not read this book, do not read past this point, but instead rush right out and buy a copy today.
Good fortunate has made me blind to certain nuances of the art of reading which spoil the pleasure of other readers with more precise tastes. For example, more than one reviewer of this book complained that epistolary format (telling the story by means of letters quoted) jarred their sensibilities and distracted them. Thank God that I suffer no such sensibilities.
Unfortunately, a lack of native wit renders me usually unable to grasp the double meanings or secret meanings with which Gene Wolfe peppers his narratives. I could not make heads or tails out of what happened in AN EVIL GUEST, nor THERE ARE DOORS, nor CASTLEVIEW. However, the ambiguities in The New of the New Sun, the Book of the Long Sun, and the Book of the Short Sun did not oppress nor confound me, at least those I could puzzle out.
In this case, this is one of the few Gene Wolfe books where I actually got the surprise ending and understood it. Mr Wolfe was being more blunt and clear than is his wont, perhaps out of mercy to his loyal readers who are usually baffled.
I read only one negative review, and I was astounded at the outrageously poor judgment showed by the reviewer, which seemed indeed to be motivated by something other than a critical examination of the work. It was a list of tics or mannerisms Gene Wolfe employs which this reviewer finds annoying, but, as far as I can see, merely for the reason that the reviewer decided to find them annoying. The review ends with the outrageous accusation that “The Sorcerer’s House is essentially sterile—as are the characters that inhabit it. Why? Because it never opens outward, spilling generously into the life of the reader, or invites the reader in; instead, more than any other novel by Wolfe that I can think of, it recedes from readers and their concerns, insular, incestuous, finally sealing itself off in a kind of chilly completion that compels a certain admiration but leaves the heart untouched.”
Allow me to let Gene Wolfe’s work of art speak for itself. Here follows my favorite passage from the book, Baxter speaking to an older lady. Compare her description of the world beyond the field we know with any others you have read in any book or dreamed in your heart, and I defy any to call this sterile.
“He took you, his bride, to the other place. To the place where he lives.”
“To faerie. Yes, he did.”
“Is that really what they call it?”
She shook her head. “That is what I call it.”
I sipped my coffee. It had cooled a little, but it was still very good. “Just out of curiosity, what do they call it?”
“The real world. Reality.”
“Faerie is a terrible place, Bax. You haven’t been there?”
“I have been, but only once and only briefly. A few hours.”
“It’s beautiful. Its rivers run clear and the wind never stinks. There are wonderful mountains and sweeping plains. Mighty forests. Those are what most visitors remember above all, those forests. There are strange and wonderful animals, some of them very beautiful. Nothing every grows old there.” She sighed. “People, animals, and plants—none of them ever grows old there. Do you understand why I fell in love with it?”
I did, and said so.
“I loved it and I loved him. I suppose I still love him, though I always loved him much more than he loved me.”
I said, “You left him, or he sent you away. Which is it?”
“He tried to get me to stay, but I wouldn’t. He’s been trying to get me to come back ever since. That was one of the reasons he’s spent so much time here.”
“But you won’t?”
She shook her head. “Faerie is lovely and wonderful, I’ve probably said that. It’s cruel, too, and very, very dangerous. Wouldn’t you think that a place where people never age would be overrun with them? That it would have a dense population?”
“Yes, I certainly would.”
“There is almost no one there. A few people, here and there. Scattered villages, each smaller than the last. Lonely mansions like the one I lived in. Sorcerers who war with sorcerers. Sorcerers who war with witches. Warlocks who war with everyone.”
“No fairies?” I asked. “You called it faerie.”
“They are the fairies, Bax. They are the gnomes and trolls and elves, the satyrs, nymphs, and fauns and the godlings of a dozen faiths. They are a great many other things, too.”
“Werewolves? I know one. What about werefoxes?”
“Yes, to both. They kill one another, and from time to time they kill us. There are predatory animals, too. Some of the animals are much more intelligent, and much stronger, than anything in Africa. The more you learn about faerie, the more frightened you become.”
But to the matter. Let us discuss the tricks and traps of the sorcerous book in detail.
SPOILER! LAST CHANCE! DON’T LOOK!
Several question present themselves, one we read the last paragraph of the last letter, and discover the true nature of one of the main characters, his motives and his goal.
Are the weird tales of the weird goings-on merely meant as a scam, something to befuddle George and bring him to Medicine Man?
I cannot agree with the theory that all the events are entirely invented by Bax, because other letters, sent to people he has no reason to scam, such as his old cellmate “Shells” confirm some of the details, such as the Greek and the Skinny Man ( a vampire) are hunting for Bax, and some of the supernatural events are witnessed by others.
For example, Doris sees the ghost of her husband, who leaves behind a handkerchief, and she is a witness to two fights werewolves, a disappearing passenger, the haunted basement, and the evil dwarf that rapes Madame Orizia. These matters are mentioned in her letters; which Bax did not write, nor did they pass through his hands. Moreover, the antique Japanese sword, the Fox blade, was something Millie sees and tells “the compiler of the letters”.
George (if it was George) and Doris confronted Nicholas the Butler with crucifix and garlic and forced him back into the trunk of the antique car. This is mentioned in a letter not written by Bax, but by Doris. Also, Madame Orizia’s letter mentions the dwarf and other supernatural oddities.
Even more clearly, George wishes to duel and kill Baxter because George wants the house and its access to the faerie world. George explicitly says he wants the gold and the power, and to establish a kingdom to rule in the Otherworld. This a mentioned in George’s one letter.
Moreover, the fact that the only accusation George makes onstage to Bax is that Bax is attempting to cheat him out of his legacy is revealing. This is their legacy as the sons of a sorcerer. George clearly knew something about Faerie from the get-go.
So let us not entertain the theory that the unreliable narrator is THAT unreliable. The haunted house and the fairyland are real. Bax could be lying about other things, but not about that.
I love the way the author makes the house seem ever more creepy by describing it more than once, and with each description, having a larger number of rooms and corridors mentioned, without drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that the house is growing. Or deepening. Or something.
One thing I did not catch on my first rereading is that one passage mentions that there are nine rooms on the first floor, “five of them corner rooms.” In other words, the house is five sided, like a pentagram, the only shape truly fitting for a sorcerer to live in.
Even though Baxter never mentions his growing powers as a sorcerer, or how he uses the triannulus (the name of the brass compass) to summon up three giants to defeat a coven of werewolves at the book’s climax, it is clear that, by the end of the tale, he is a magician.
But the magician, especially the one pictured on the Tarot card, is not a wise man like Gandalf or Merlin, but a trickster, a huckster, and a con-man. A magician is a scholar who uses his wisdom to deceive the simple, or, in other words, a Baxter Dunn.
It is not explicitly stated that, after wishing for fish and for gold, Bax uses the triannulus to wish for the love of women. It is mentioned that ‘some of the symbols are obscene’ and when he commences the warm commerce, it is with three women, or, at least, three females: Winkler the Kitsune, Doris Griffin the widowed real estate agent who insists Bax wear her husband’s ring, and Kate Finn, the young policewoman.
Baxter then has what he calls a dream (but he is clearly awake) when the fox maiden leads him to a window where he sees Oberon and Titania (or, at least, some stately figures crowned and adorned with gems) in the figures of a dance. With them are dancing a half naked woman, a ape-faced dwarf, and a thin boney man all arms and legs.
I suspect that these are the three characters who appear later: the werewolf Lupine, the dwarf Quorn, and the eldritch undead butler Nicolas. There is a ring of toadstools the next day on the lawn where they danced, which Bax is careful not to step into.
Later, he says he is awake (but it is perhaps a dream) when he climbs through a window and finds himself lost in the forest of faerie. He finds he way back into the house with the help of Madame Orizia, who is there only as an astral projection, her real body in a trance elsewhere. He climbs back in the window, and climbs about of bed, as if just waking up.
Throughout the book, Millie, the scatterbrained trophy wife of George, clearly loves and is loved by Baxter. She sends him pictures of herself in a bikini. He tells her of his affection.
And so George, when he returns from Medicine Man, is not George, it is Bax.
That is the cleverest and creepiest surprise ending of any book I have ever read. You do not know until the last paragraph that the man writing the letter to Millie is Baxter, and then the clues are overwhelming.
First, “George” says is returning home to Millie while “Bax” is going off to fairyland. But, in any earlier letter, Bax was told by Black (revealed to be the sorcerer and his father) to stay in the human world for several years before attempting life in the Other Land.
Second, George expressed the desire to be king in the Other Land.
Third, “George” says he has gotten community service as a sentence for George’s arrest, and will be reading to children: and he mentions English classics (Baxter’s field of study) by name.
Fourth, he plans, after completing his sentence, to quit his job, that is, not be seen by anyone who knows him, and travel the world, just the two of them together. After a certain point, it will not matter if Millie discovers the imposture or not, since she loves Bax.
Finally, “Bax” gave his pet fox to “George” for safekeeping, which is absurd if this were the real George, since the fox is also Baxter’s familiar (just as Toby is his father’s familiar) and his lover.
As a bit of circumstantial evidence, the theme of evil and good twins is repeated in the character of the other two sons of the sorcerer, Emlyn and Ieuan. Emlyn introduces himself as the ‘good twin’ albeit he is the one who steals his father’s instrument, the triannulus, and summons the werewolf, Lupine, on whom he has a crush. Ieuan is said to be the evil twin, but he is the one who has the evil dwarf chained up in his room, which may be because he was trying to catch the vicious little man, not because he was mastering it.
Likewise, we should assume Baxter, the allegedly good twin (who self deprecatingly calls himself evil) is actually the evil one, and George, whom Baxter cheats and mocks and later murders, displays a justifiable degree of anger toward him, and so is actually the good one.
The book is filled with mirrors and deceptions, as is only fitting in the work like this.