The Sorcerer's House by Gene Wolfe

Do I really need to tell you that I liked The Sorcerer’s House? Probably I should mention that I like it better than An Evil Guest, but that might send the wrong message. I like An Evil Guest, too; I just like Mr. Wolfe’s new novel better. I think it was around the point in An Evil Guest when Cassie headed off to the South Seas that I came to a bifold conclusion. Firstly, I don’t really want to read Gene Wolfe just to guess at what he’s hiding in the margins of his narrative. Secondly, I love guessing at what’s going on in the margins of his narratives. These statements imply no paradox (at least that’s not the intent); I mean that I want to enjoy reading Wolfe’s novels as much as figuring them out.

As it usually does, a plot synopsis -- ex-con Baxter Dunn squats in a haunted house and mysteriously receives the deed to the property -- reduces the content to banality. What the reader should expect coming into The Sorcerer’s House is what he or she ought to expect from Gene Wolfe: a mash-up of myth and convention seen through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. Wolfe utilizes an epistolary format which was once a popular novelistic form, probably most familiar to contemporary readers from The Screwtape Letters. This plays to the author’s strength with unreliable first person accounts. Most of the letters (and hence the narrative) comes from Bax to his brother or his brother’s wife. As in actual letters, Bax summarizes and explains and writes in anecdotes, making it a quick read as well.

Of course, summary and quick pacing probably make some of the narrative hard to digest (in fact, the characters who receive Bax’s letters write back to tell him so). People who aren’t already familiar or fans of Wolfe will probably bristle at how easy Bax reports things like finding himself with a talking pet fox or how his butler’s dog calls his cell phone to report intruders. Personally, I think that I would’ve found this funny even had I not been familiar with the Wolfe oeuvre. In fact, much of this book strikes me as subtly humorous. At one point, Bax writes a letter to his brother, who has been incarcerated, hesitating to describe the dinner he enjoys because he remembers the awfulness of prison food. He then spends the next two pages talking about his amazing meal.

All of Wolfe’s work operates on more than one level. Part of what makes him challenging is that even the literal parts of the story can be mystifying. There’s probably a half dozen theories about what’s going on in the time between The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator, and probably half of those are actually compelling. But Wolfe’s novels also operate on tropological and anagogical levels. This is as true with The Sorcerer’s House as it is for his other novels, in spite of the relatively easy literal narrative. I almost fear that I like this novel because those levels of interpretation seem so much easier to arrive at than they did in Wolfe’s previous.

There are things that might be considered flaws (the twist ending was telegraphed) but they don’t really detract from the fun. I think that’s the best way to describe The Sorcerer’s House, but then, I’m the sort of person who notices that Winker is a fox-spirit, a kitsune, and that fox spirits are frequently benefactors or predators of the down-on-his-luck scholar in Chinese (at least more so than Japanese) literature. Wolfe knows this; Baxter Dunn has two PhDs. That’s the sort of thing that other people don’t notice, or maybe roll their eyes at. It just makes me go, “Ohhhhh, Gene, you literary rascal.”


  1. This is probably the best writing I've seen on The Sorcerer's House to date - and I agree with your points, straight down the line.

    That last paragraph? Mind blowing. I had no knowledge of the Kitsune. Very impressive, sir. I'll keep that in mind when I read the book for the second time (as dictated by Wolfean Law).

    Very nice article.

  2. Thank you for your compliment, although I fear I don't deserve it. There's been some very thorough reviews of The Sorcerer's House on the web.

    I couldn't believe what I was reading when the fox started talking. Wolfe has long entertained an interest in East Asian philosophy (I believe he said somewhere that The Iron Flute was a real influence on his writing) but it's never so literally pronounced in his fiction.

    I still don't understand that bit about Miyamoto Musashi, though, unless it was supposed to be funny.

  3. Oh, trust me, you deserve it. Don't be modest. After that first article, I spent some time poking around, and you're doing a fine job here. Not pretentious, but not the standard boneheaded synopsis-writing that comprises many internet reviews, either. Just right.

    As to Musashi, I did read an interesting theory where someone suggested that the version of Musashi that Bax and Winker meet in Faerie is meant to be a mythical archetype of the real guy - something Bax pulled from his studies, perhaps. It's intriguing.

    Unfortunately, I'm sadly deficient with regards to my knowledge of mythology; if I weren't, I think the book may have made much more sense in certain parts.

    Maybe I'll get lucky and someone will write a Lexicon Urthus-type book for Wolfe's other novels - probably not, though.

    Anyway, thanks again. I've been wanting to talk Wolfe with someone for a long time - if only for a moment on a blog comment board. (And I apologize for the spoilers here. Feel free to deny the comment and spare your readership.)

    Thanks -