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As the Big, Bad Wolfe opens his fairy-tale box of storytelling tricks...,
This review is from: The Sorcerers's House (Hardcover)
Baxter Dunn, a scholarly man with a chequered past, is penniless and just out of prison. In search of a place to stay, he happens on an untenanted and slightly dilapidated old house in the town of Medicine Man, and, rather than just breaking into it and squatting, he decides to offer to repair and look after it in exchange for being allowed to live there rent-free. But when he tracks down the managing agents, he's in for a surprise: the house is his, and has only been waiting for him to come along and claim it.
Told in a series of letters (mostly to Baxter's identical twin brother, who has good reason to hate him), Dunn's story becomes increasingly fantastic, as he delves into the mystery of the Mr Black who once owned the locally-infamous "Sorcerer's House", and as he explores the labyrinthine house itself (which "grows when people live in it, and shrinks when they don't"), meets the good/bad twins Emlyn and Ieuan who seem to belong to another century, acquires a butler (or two), and a footman (who is also a dog), as well as a pet/lover in the form of a facefox -- a creature that is the reverse of a werefox, being a fox that can take human form, rather than the other way round. There is also a vampire and several werewolves. The house's windows, sometimes, overlook a vast forest with a distant, gleaming tower. It's one of those house-on-the-borderland "vasty houses" one finds so often in the literature of the fantastic -- not to mention dreams.
Wolfe has a reputation for being a writer whose stories have hidden depths, which often require a second reading to get the most from them, but this could just be down to the fact that he likes playing with significances. There are, for instance, three sets of identical twins in The Sorcerer's House, a fact which may lead you puzzling your way down all sorts of paths of thought, involving fairy-tale trios and gothic doubles (and there are plenty of examples of both throughout this short novel), but on the other hand, this could just be an expression of the comedic (in the old-fashioned sense of a story that ties itself up with a happy ending) magic of his storytelling. Wolfe's world in The Sorcerer's House is infused with the supernaturalism of story and magic. Open yourself to it, accept the significances as a sort of poetry of the fantastic, and the novel doesn't need a second reading, its magic is laid bare. I could be wrong, and a second reading might well reveal hidden depths, but certainly, the first reading felt satisfying enough to me. Open the fairy-tale box of storytelling tricks (of threes, and twins, and orphans, and sorcerers) and the depths come ready-supplied.
Wolfe's one main weakness, for me, is his rather mannered dialogue. On the one hand it seems to accurately echo the messy disjointedness of real conversations, on the other it sometimes seems totally unreal, and just a way of spinning out the air of mystery. People keep saying "I understand" in response to simple statements which require no understanding; they remind each other of points the reader has well in mind. But The Sorcerer's House suffers a lot less from this than did An Evil Guest, a book which disappointed me with its rather unfulfilled promise of Wolfe-meets-Lovecraft. The Sorcerer's House is, I'd say, a far more satisfying book, and certainly short enough for a second read, if you're tempted to test those hidden depths.