Alden Dennis Weer is alone, rattling about in a house built from his memories, with nobody living in any close proximity to him, the little town of Cassionville having fallen into terminal decline over his lifetime. At first we think he’s sick – he had a stroke recently – but as the recently-deceased Gene Wolfe’s Peace unfolds, one of the more obvious secrets it gives up is that Weer is in fact dead, his house being the sort of “memory palace” built from his experiences.
But with close attention and further readings – for what Wolfe story ever gave up all its treasures on a first pass? – the situation seems even more disturbing than that. Take the matter of little Bobby Black – who falls down the stairs at Weer’s fifth birthday party, eventually dying of his injuries, prompting a certain amount of social awkwardness which nudges Weer’s parents into an extended overseas excursion, with Weer left in the care of his aunt Olivia, who we can detect in the prose a certain incestuous affection for which might have been reciprocated. (If it were not, it’d be certainly odd for Olivia to have Weer as a teenage boy attend on her whilst she’s bathing.)
It’s very easy to miss it on a first reading, but Weer mentions struggling with Bobby at the top of the stairs – and mentions doing this because he knew that if Bobby were allowed into the upstairs room he’d throw an apple and spoil an old painting and Weer would take the blame for it. This is an astonishingly specific thing for a five year old boy to anticipate – but is, perhaps, the sort of thing you might expect someone looking back over the course of their life and gifted not just with the knowledge of how it went but how it might have gone to be aware of. And since Weer shows some capacity to step into and take control of his past selves – he uses this to try and get his favourite doctor’s advice on his stroke a decade or two before he has the stroke – the mind-boggling possibility arises that, far from resting in Peace, Weer is extraordinarily active, directing the course of his own life from his private afterlife to direct it to the end he desires.
But if that were the case, what are we to make of the terrible culmination of Weer’s life – as corporate overlord of an industry which is sucking the life out of the very soil around Cassionville, and (it is implied) ultimately makes the town vulnerable to a disaster which prompts everyone to leave? What are we to make of it that Weer is so frequently around death? If this is the life that Weer has chosen over all alternatives, is he really the sweet, charming Midwestern soul he presents himself as, or is he a silver-tongued devil, the entirety of Peace a bid to persuade the reader to overlook Weer’s crimes even as it also acts as a sideways confession?
As Neil Gaiman notes in How To Read Gene Wolfe, Peace really does come across as an essentially mainstream memoir of life in a quiet Midwestern town the first time you read it; it’s only when you look closer that the more disturbing implications lurking within really come out. As is often the case in Wolfe, he offers you the key to unravelling a lot of the story – or, at least, to work towards your own interpretation for it – hiding out there in plain sight.
You see, as well as offering the narrative of Weer’s life, Peace is positively loaded down with additional stories, which at first seem to be self-contained little tales which don’t seem to go anywhere. This, however, is not altogether the case: the stories are all going somewhere, each and every one of them, but Weer doesn’t tell us the ending.
Wolfe gives us a big fat hint to this early on, when Weer is discussing a fairytale he reads before going to bed and mentions that when he was young he felt it was somehow against the rules to pick up a story again midway through if he was interrupted reading it – you had to take it from the beginning or not at all – and when you look closely at the stories in question (and the anecdotes from Weer’s life), it’s apparent that almost all of them are missing the ending. Is this Weer reverting to a childish habit of his, or is that merely an excuse for him to stop narrating these stories as and when they come to subject matter Weer doesn’t want us to know about?
Either way, looking at the stories, working out what has been left unsaid, and considering how that might reflect on Weer’s life is a big help in perceiving the story behind the story in Peace. For instance, at one point Weer is told by his family’s Irish servant a yarn about a lad who must face down a banshee in order to win his beloved’s hand in marriage, and the story mentions that banshees are the unquiet spirits of midwives who murder newborns. Before the end of the story is broken off, the defeated banshee foretells that the hero will sire the Antichrist, and it’s mentioned in passing that the hero and his love interest live together childlessly, with the woman in question eventually coming to resemble the banshee as time went by. Why would that be the case? The obvious implication is that the couple did have a child – but that she murdered their baby immediately after birth because she was convinced by the banshee’s prophecy.
Are we, then, to believe that Weer is the Antichrist, or at least a metaphorical Antichrist, perhaps one whose coming past generations tried to prevent but couldn’t? That painting Bobby Black would have damaged is of a young boy from Weer’s parents generation, an uncle of his who died not long after the portrait was made, at about the same age as Weer was at the time of the Black incident; does little Weer’s discovery of the painting coincide with him being possessed, or at the very least influenced, by a spirit of evil which had already claimed at least one ancestor of his?
Further stories suggest a certain artificiality to Weer. Some fans have made much of the fact that Julius Smart, the pharmacist who discovers the chemical process crucial to the industrialisation of Cassionville which Smart initiates and Weer then directs in later life, can be seen as a sort of alchemist; the sole chapter in which he actually makes a major “onstage” appearance is entitled The Alchemist and it is unclear whether the chapter heading refers to Smart or Mr. Tilly, the mysterious pharmacist that Smart worked for once upon a time whose concoctions deliberately induced mutations in customers so that they could get work in circus freak shows.
Weer does, passingly, mention that Smart can be seen as the central character of the entire book, and in many respects Smart’s actions actually do more to resolve certain major plots than Weer’s do. It is Smart who, out of four suitors, wins the hand of Olivia – Weer, due to the familial connection, never having been in the running, and the courtship of Olivia having been a major theme of the first part of the book. It is Smart who has the curious adventure with Mr. Tilly which takes up much of the middle of the book, and which has resonances going forwards and backwards throughout it. It is Smart who invents a way to make a delicious orange-flavoured drink out of potatoes, which becomes the basis for the factory.
And it is through Smart that Weer inherits the factory – Weer being Olivia’s next of kin and Smart and Olivia’s marriage having been childless. One wonders whether that would have remained the case had Olivia not been run over and killed by a car… especially since Olivia, having rejected three suitors for Smart, ends up having a more energetic sexual relationship with at least two out of the three rejectees after the marriage than she ever did before. Smart, then, has built an empire of sorts – only for the venal Weer to eventually take control of it, by hook or by crook and perhaps with a little pinch of infernal patience, at which point Weer ends up having vast power over Cassionville, which has become dependent on the factory.
The Antichrist heralds the end of the world, but Weer is not a global Antichrist – he’s far too parochial. Cassionville is his stamping ground, he is Cassionville’s homegrown Antichrist, and it’s the little world of Cassionville that he brings to an end. One of the Irish stories related in the book is a yarn about the various evils of Ireland being transposed to the Americas, back before human settlement is believed to have taken place. As well as possibly hinting that there’s something fey about Weer, this is perhaps foreshadowing of how Weer’s factory establishes in Cassionville much the same conditions which existed prior to the great potato famine: all the fields grow nothing but potatoes, and increasingly they are vulnerable to disease.
It will take but one harsh blight for the town’s economy to disintegrate entirely. Just as some of the Irish characters Weer meets or their forebears had to travel to America to get away from the famine, anyone wanting a future would need to leave Cassionville at that point, and with the factory’s economic setup depending on a plentiful local supply of potatoes, it seems like Smart’s legacy is doomed by Weer’s hand. In what passes for the “present day”, Weer seems convinced that more or less everyone in Cassionville is dead except him. Was there an industrial accident – or have the living simply abandoned the place as a result of an agricultural, economic, and ecological slump of Weer’s own making? Yet again, we’re left hanging, Weer glossing over the end of the story.
If that were not enough, consider this: there is a real chance that this is a Cthulhu Mythos story. Consider the aforementioned story about an ancient race settling the Americas before humans made it there; consider Professor Peacock’s interest in the archaeology of the Cassionville region. And consider most of all Louis Gold, bookseller, who for a sufficient price will sell you a very rare edition of Cultes des Goules, or Morryster’s Marvells of Science (strictly speaking a tome invented by Ambrose Bierce, though incorporated into the Mythos via Lovecraft’s citation of it in The Festival), and is currently examining a copy of the Necronomicon…
On the surface of it, Louis Gold’s little sideline in occult nightmare is a red herring; the books are fakes, forgeries produced by Gold as a nice little sideline. However, Wolfe doesn’t definitively show us Gold working on the Necronomicon he shows Weer when Weer confronts him over this, and it’s entirely possible that the Necronomicon was real even though the other books were fake.
Perhaps more significantly, if there is no reality to the Mythos at all in this world, then it’s an awfully big coincidence that poor Mr. Tilly in Julius Smart’s story is the victim of a serum which turns drinkers to stone… which is precisely what happens The Man of Stone, a collaboration between Lovecraft and Hazel Heald, and if my sense of the timeline is right then Smart even tells the story prior to Lovecraft and Heald’s version being published in October 1932.
Sure, Weer’s conversation with Gold reveals that Lovecraft was an extant individual in this world, but that means little in Cthulhu Mythos writing – particularly when Gold raises the possibility that somehow his fakes end up being true anyway, suggesting that he’s unconsciously channelling the work of dead authors much like Lovecraft is said to have unconsciously channelled warnings about the Old Ones in some Mythos stories (and in some sincerely-intended real-life occult texts, for that matter).
Perhaps even the fact that the first truly infamous mythos tome we encounter in Peace is Cultes de Goules – by the Comte d’Erlette – is significant: for the book was invented by August Derleth, whose Mythos pastiches regularly used Lovecraft as a character and played on the “accidental channeller” angle, though in that case I suspect that this was less to do with Derleth actually believing that nonsense and more to do with this plot point allowing him to plug Arkham House products in the middle of his stories. And of course, Wolfe would have been well aware of Derleth’s controversial habit of passing off his own work as more “lost Lovecraft stories” or “posthumous collaborations”, even when there wasn’t a shred of actual Lovecraft prose in the tales in question; in this respect, Derleth’s activities aren’t that far off from Louis Gold’s.
All this bleeds into a more overarching theme of fake texts supplanting the truth but becoming de facto true anyway; much of the future of the land around Cassionville hinges on a treaty between the local Native American tribe and the original settlers – a treaty which has in fact been lost, and a forged version of which is being prepared by Weer’s mother, Aunt Olivia, and other ladies at the start of the novel, simultaneously with Weer shoving Bobby Black down the stairs. (A life to seal the contract, perhaps?)
According to Blaine, when he dies under the terms of the original treaty all the land thereabouts reverts to the tribe that used to inhabit it; we can infer, perhaps, that Weer successfully used the forged version of the treaty to get a different outcome, since the tribe might have otherwise stood up to him as his factory blighted the land; indeed, if he were able to manipulate the outcome following Blaine’s death in this way, then the extent of the factory’s control of the region would have radically grown in comparison to how it was under Julius Smart, and Weer’s irresponsible wrecking of the local ecosystem would have been given a major boost.
Perhaps it’s notable that the story of Weer’s interactions with Louis Gold breaks off just after Weer has read an account of the art of raising and communicating with the dead from the Necronomicon. As well as having some relevance to Weer’s state as he narrates the novel to us, this might also suggest something about the reversal of Weer’s fortunes at this point in time – for in this point in his personal life he’s living in a cheap apartment, working an unrewarding job at Smart’s factory, and generally not doing well, only for his fortunes to turn around once Smart dies. Could Weer have indulged in a bit of necromancy of his own in his rise to power – a rise which, I would note, he more or less entirely skips over?
(It wouldn’t be the first span of his life he hops over; Weer seems to jump from being a horny teenager getting excited about seeing Olivia’s breasts when she’s bathing to being a skeevy middle-aged guy without much happening in between. Some have theorised that he murdered his parents and did time for it, though you’d think that someone would challenge him on that point; I’m more inclined to think that his parents had an “accident” and Weer went off on a wild tear with the inheritance, which ended up not being as much as he expected.)
For a slim-ish book (my copy is under 300 pages), Peace manages to pack in an awful lot of implications; the above is a cross-section of the impressions I got from it, but there’s as many directions you can stretch it in as there are rooms in Weer’s memory palace. “In my father’s house there are many mansions” and all that – and if Gene gets his own postmortem palace I can only imagine the rooms are luxurious, the maintenance is top-notch (Gene isn’t one to neglect the small details, after all), company is frequent, the time passes joyously and the room Gene wants to find is always right next door, unless it would in fact be more enjoyable or instructive to take a more meandering route. As much as I can’t find myself buying that as an objective truth of reality, it is a comforting way to imagine Gene, just as Alden’s dreary labyrinth which he can barely navigate and doesn’t really seem to enjoy is a worthy Hell for him.