The Sorcerer’s House, by Gene Wolfe
Posted August 26, 2010on:
One of the most talented and underrated authors of our time, Gene Wolfe is a master of subtle story telling. The Sorcerer’s House is told entirely through letters, and if you’ve ever written a letter to someone, you know how easy that selective memory or urge to exaggerate can kick in.
Baxter Dunn has just been released from prison. He needs to find a job, and a place to live, and fast. After squatting in an old abandoned house, he inquires about purchasing the property. When the real estate woman informs him that he is already the owner of the home as per the last will and testament of a mysterious Mr. Black, Baxter only appears a little surprised.
Baxter spends a few weeks working on the house, getting it cleaned up, moving old furniture out, and new furniture in. He even writes some letters to his twin brother George and George’s wife, Millie, hoping to patch up that relationship as he is patching up an old house. Things begin to get a little strange when Bax catches an adolescent boy running through his house. Thinking the child might be stealing or vandalizing, Bax tries to catch him, and the boy drops what he was carrying. Bax watches him jump out a second story window. However, the window is closed, the glass unbroken, and there are no footprints in the shallow snow outside.
As one supernatural occurrence leads to another, Baxter becomes intimately involved with the ghostly creatures who inhabit his property. He comes to learn that the two ghostly adolescent boys Emlyn and Ieuan are twins, one a good boy and one a bad boy. The boys have gotten a hold of their father’s Triannulus, a device which can bring what you desire within reach. However, they don’t quite know how to use the device, and haven’t yet learned to be careful what you wish for. Baxter also gets visits from a female fox spirit named Winkle, a very hungry werewolf, and a skeleton-like butler, among others.
What’s amazing is how well Baxter takes everything in stride. He could easily say “This isn’t happening, you aren’t real,” but instead he just goes with the flow. In his letters to George and Millie, he talks about Emlyn and Ieuan and Winkle as if they are real people who need his help. George believes Baxter is telling bald faced lies as a way to extort money from him, and Millie thinks it’s simply a coping mechanism to adjust to a new life outside of prison.
The similarities between Baxter and George and Emlyn and Ieuan are uncanny. And how is it a mysterious Mr. Black (who Baxter had never heard of) would know that Baxter would be in that town at that time to claim the property? Baxter desperately wants to understand what is happening in and around his house, and besides, Emlyn and Ieuan need his help.
Depending on how you choose to view the main character, the novel can read very differently. Baxter’s cool emotional detachment to magical events makes it easy to believe that he could be hallucinating, or lying. If you believe that Baxter Dunn is honestly describing the events, the story is about a man who has a beautiful, magical supernatural experience. If you choose to believe that Baxter is a lying criminal who should never have been let out of prison, the story is suddenly about a con artist trying to extort money. Or perhaps this is a story about a man losing his grip on reality. Wolfe is subtle – slowly seducing you with characters living their lives in a matter of fact fashion, encouraging you to come to your own conclusions. But come on, people don’t just leave random haunted houses to random ex-cons, do they?
Quick and accessible, The Sorcerer’s House is a great place to start if you are new to Gene Wolfe. But be aware his style of characterization, especially in this story, might take some getting used to – he rarely introduces a character, as all these people writing letters to each other already know one another. We only find out what characteristics Baxter or George or Millie choose to mention in one of their letters. Only through these letters to we learn that Baxter is trying to turn his life around, that George is quick to anger, that Millie often acts as the peacekeeper between the two brothers. There is so much unsaid. The subtlety, and the wonderful supernatural world that Wolfe creates balanced with everything he chooses not to tell us makes this the kind of story that changes every time you read it.
I read The Sorcerer’s House twice, and my husband read it once, and we had three completely different experiences.