Gene Wolfe's novels have grown ever more hermetic, becoming like exquisite but finicky puzzle boxes that deny entrance and pleasure to all but a few aficionados who are adept in the strategies necessary to solve them. Even for those aficionados, however, his latest novel, The Sorcerer's House, is apt to disappoint. Here all of Wolfe's tics are on full display: his casual condescension toward women, which can cross over into outright misogyny; his inability to believably create contemporary characters and convey them credibly through dialogue, thought, and action; his almost sadistic delight in withholding or hiding information essential to readers; his obsession with doubling and doppelgangers, which here approaches absurdly solipsistic dimensions; his annoying affectation of rendering the dialogue of subsidiary characters, often animals, in phonetically based spellings meant to convey accents or speech impediments; his preference for main characters, usually males, whose intellectual arrogance, moral and emotional failings, and conspicuous lack of self-awareness somehow set them above their fellow mortals. In the recent past, these flaws have been not so much hidden as cleverly worked into his overall design, as in Pirate Freedom, for example, where an archaic setting compensated to a degree, or in his previous novel, An Evil Guest, which rendered many critical objections along the above lines moot by armoring his story self-consciously in the conventions and clichés of pulp fiction. You can see how he has increasingly embraced narrative gimmicks less for the metafictional possibilities they offer, as he did so masterfully in his earlier novels, than as a kind of reflexive defensiveness. Once upon a time, back in the days of Peace and Cerberus and Severian, these tics and gimmicks were more in the way of bugs in Wolfe's fiction; now they are features of it.
The gimmick Wolfe embraces in this novel is epistolary. The novel consists entirely of letters, most of them from, and all of them to, the main character, one Baxter "Bax" Dunn, a humanities professor with multiple advanced degrees who also happens to be an ex-con recently released after serving time for fraud committed against a company owned by his more successful (monetarily speaking) identical twin brother, George. Most of Bax's letters are to George, a hot-headed, insecure bully who hates him for this betrayal and other injuries both real and imagined. George writes back but once. Other letters go from Bax to George's wife, Millie, a stereotypical "dumb blonde" who also writes back frequently to Bax; it's clear from these letters that Bax and Millie love each other, and that Millie feels she married the wrong brother. A few letters go to Bax's prison cellmate and friend, one Sheldon "Shell" Hawes, and a number come from him to Bax as well; the basis of the friendship between these two very different men, whose letters touch on such subjects as guns, money, lawyers, and women, is never explained and, hence, is hard to credit. There are a handful of letters to and from Millie's psychic, a formidable woman named Madame Orizia, and two letters from Doris Rose Griffin, a shrewd and somewhat grasping real estate agent with whom Bax becomes sexually involved.
An epistolary novel, like a novel told exclusively in dialogue, depends upon a keen ear for speech patterns and an ability to nail character through distinctive but realistic verbal mannerisms. Neither is among Wolfe's strengths as a writer, and the letters here are not so much windows into distinct personalities as they are signboards proclaiming character by stereotype: the erudite professor; the dumb blonde with a heart of gold; the tough but wise jailbird, etc.
Bax's age is never explicitly given; he seems to be in his late 30s or early 40s. Upon release from prison, he has come to the town of Medicine Man, located near a river somewhere in the American Midwest; no precise location is supplied. Bax, who at first rents a room in a ratty motel along the river, decides to squat in a nearby abandoned house, reputed to be haunted, which he begins to fix up, finally developing the idea that perhaps he can live there as a caretaker. He makes an appointment with the real-estate agent who represents the ownership of the house, a middle-aged woman named Martha Murrey, in order to discuss his proposal, but before that can happen, he surprises an intruder—an oddly dressed teenage boy who flees through the attic window and drops, in his haste, two items. One is a kind of candle that we later learn is called a longlight, and the other is a alethiometer-like device that we will come to know as a triannulus: both of these items are of great importance to everything that happens subsequently, because, unknown to Bax, they are magical in nature, and when he plays around with them, he unwittingly sets in motion a train of events that will include evil wizards, malevolent dwarfs, ghosts, vampires, werewolfs, and magic rings.
But it would be a mistake to see these objects as responsible for everything that happens to Bax. Other events already set in motion long ago and far away are about to come to fruition, and the first among them is Bax's discovery, upon meeting Martha Murrey, that he is, in fact, the owner of the house—that the house's previous owner, a man named Mr. Black, who has mysteriously disappeared, signed over the deed to him before vanishing. Bax is understandably baffled, as he has no memory of ever having met a Mr. Black, and can imagine no reason why Mr. Black would ever have heard of him, much less want to sign over his house to him.
Shortly thereafter, Bax is once again visited—and beaten—by the teenage boy . . . or so he thinks. But it turns out that there are two teenage boys, Ieuan and Emlyn, identical twins who claim to be the sons of the house's former owner. It is Emlyn who explains to Bax how the triannulus works: unlike the alethiometer of The Golden Compass, which answers questions, the triannulus finds things that are lost or brings things that are desired: money, food, people, whatever. Emlyn also intimates that the house is situated between worlds—and in fact, through certain windows Bax can see a very different vista than what he knows to actually exist outside the house. He sees a dense forest, and in the distance the spire of a tower—the tower, Emlyn tells him, of the evil wizard Goldwurm, who murdered his master, the sorcerer Ambrosius, and usurped his authority and power—save for his "weapon of sorcery," an object into which sorcerers place a portion of their magic; Goldwurm is still searching for that. Emlyn tells Bax that his—Emlyn's—father is also a sorcerer, one who can change his appearance to look like just about anyone else he cares to (another Wolfean tic).
The house has still more surprises in store. First is a foxlike creature named Winkle—who talkth with an lithp—and who, it appears, can change into an amorous Japanese woman called Winker Inari; the name indicates her identity as a Japanese kami or fertility goddess (as always with Wolfe, names are beacons of meaning). Emlyn calls her a facefox, which is sort of like a werewolf, only reversed, in that werewolves are humans who put on the pelts of wolves, while facefoxes are foxes who put on the faces of humans.
The second is an old man named Nick, and his dog, Toby, who appear one day and more or less appoint themselves to serve Bax as butler and footman.
Bax's attempts to learn more about the house, its original owner, and the reason why Mr. Black should have gifted it to him are complicated by a romantic relationship he begins with another real-estate agent, Doris, who may not be entirely trustworthy, and a series of gruesome murders and dismemberments that soon have Medicine Man and its environs terrified. Bax learns that the perpetrator of these murders is a werewolf named Lupine, whose appearance may have something to do with the triannulus.
The plot of the novel is far more tangled and complicated than I can do justice to here. Devoted fans of Wolfe will find many echoes of themes and characters from works like An Evil Guest and The Wizard Knight, among others But for all its cunning complexity and intricately woven web of circumstance and identity, 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.