Eldritch Evil Beneath a Pulp Facade

Somewhere in the late 21st or early 22nd Century, the invention of the hopper – a type of space-warping travel device – has not only made near-instantaneous worldwide travel easy, but also enabled contact with the Wolders, an alien race who live on far-off Woldercan. Bill Reis, a former US Ambassador to Woldercan, has returned from this world and gone into business for himself – exhibiting astonishing abilities and amassing incredible wealth. The President, needless to say, is worried. Gideon Chase is a scholar, wizard, and problem-solver to the rich and powerful – and the son of a previous ambassador to Woldercan. He’s the natural person for the President to go to with his problem, but he’s interested in investigating Reis for his own reasons.

Cassie Casey is a modestly successful actress, currently appearing in The Red Spot, a play currently running in Kingsport. One day, Gideon Chase steps into her life and offers her a deal – he’ll awaken the mostly-dormant charisma in her and turn her from a good actress into a crowd-drawing star overnight. All she has to do in return is help him lure in Bill Reis. Sure enough, Bill becomes aware of Cassie with remarkable speed – and after The Red Spot closes, he steps in to finance a new play, a cheesy musical about a missionary family in the South Seas called Dating the Volcano God.

Chase and Reis both in their own way love Cassie – and Cassie finds she loves both of them. But a mere love triangle is the least of their worries. Other government agencies are beginning to put the heat on, Reis and Chase show sinister capabilities, and Reis turns out to have bigger foes than Chase. For Reis has used his wealth and skills to make himself the high king of Takanga, an archipelago of South Seas islands… and Takanga is the closest land mass to R’lyeh, and Cthulhu is far from a friendly neighbour…

An Evil Guest finds Gene Wolfe in a playful mood, weaving into the story an absolute morass of sly references ranging from classical myth to classic SF and fantasy to Cory Doctorow stories. (Reis being a guy who’s gone to an alien world for a while and come back different in a slightly sinister fashion – and indeed might not actually be as human as he was when he left – feels very like Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.) For much of the book, however, the main framework he’s working in appears to be pulp, with elements of pulp detective fiction, pulp romance, pulp science fiction, and pulp horror all mingling together.

Naturally, there’s something more going on here, and much fun is to be had both from undertaking your own speculations and in checking out the theories others devise. Wolfe is playing along with you, almost dangling some clues in front of you (though he’s such a master of misdirection that it’s easy to be fooled). For instance, Chase has a watch engraved RC from his friend HPL. (Though the idea that Lovecraft could have afforded to give his friends engraved watches is rather fanciful.) “RC” is perhaps Randolph Carter, Robert Chambers – or, if we’re willing to extend HPL’s lifespan a few decades, Ramsey Campbell – though it’s most likely Robert Chase, Gideon’s father.

If that’s the case, though, this suggests that there might be some sort of time travel business going on here, because it seems unlikely that a man whose father is a mid-21st century spacefaring diplomat would have known Lovecraft otherwise – and, indeed, many of the fan theories out there suggest that there’s some sort of time travel angle going on here, though what exactly it is seems to vary from fan to fan. (It’s possible to come up with a lot of theories which don’t quite work, but feel too tempting to entirely let go of, but I don’t think I have yet seen a theory which I subscribe to 100%.)

To take more of a big-picture look at things, on a very superficial reading An Evil Guest risks coming across as a fairly shallow story chronicling a bunch of things which happen to Cassie without particularly hanging together. However, particularly by the end, the strands come together in alarming fashion. Despite Wolfe spending much of the novel delving into one genre after another, my feeling is that the centre of gravity here is horror, and all the lighter, more frivolous incidents earlier in the book are merely a mask for this.

Wolfe, in fact, accomplishes here a rather clever trick: whereas in the hands of a less capable writer those lighter moments would have wrecked the atmosphere, here Wolfe seems to be using the structure of the book as a way to make a point about how malevolent forces don’t just show up in their full awfulness – they can also infiltrate things in a slow manner, as you’re nattering over a late breakfast, only to reveal the true horrors of their nature when you are in so deep that you only realise you are surrounded when it’s just a bit too late.

Cassie, in particular, shows a tendency to fail to be afraid of or question things which perhaps she should have been more wary about (Chase’s Faustian offer being an early example), and is perhaps too easily charmed by surface appearances – even when she is near-directly told that she is moving in circles where surface appearances are mere glamours. Individuals she has so far trusted implicitly prove capable of grim acts in the final reckoning, though admittedly they may feel compelled to do them because of the horrors they are facing, horrors called down by Reis despite their direct warnings.

More specifically, as replete though the book is with nods to other writers, and to Lovecraft in particular, I think taken as a whole it is Wolfe paying tribute to none other than August Derleth by trying to do an extended riff on The Trail of Cthulhu. This was a fix-up novel of Derleth’s which is, by most standards, pretty goddamn terrible (see my reviews of the episodes making it up here and here) unless you are very interested in extensive references to better stories by Lovecraft and horror which doesn’t try very hard to be horror, a complete lack of a satisfying overarching point to things, and honking great plot holes. Nonetheless, An Evil Guest and it have ample parallels.

  • Both of them present Lovecraftian themes which have much pulpier window dressing than Lovecraft himself used.
  • Both of them prominently include academics with masses of esoteric knowledge and who may well be not entirely human any more.
  • In The Trail of Cthulhu, Professor Shrewsbury and his allies summon the “byakhee birds”, servitors of Hastur, to swiftly transport them to where they want to go. In An Evil Guest, strange birdlike entities befriend Cassie and whisk her away to safety during Cthulhu’s climactic temper tantrum.
  • The climactic stretch in both stories takes place on South Seas islands, as a bid is made to get the US government to undertake an armed intervention against R’lyeh.
  • In both novels, said armed intervention fails horribly. Those who survive the climactic events scatter to the winds to try and salvage something from the wreckage before things catch up to them.

There’s a ton of differences between the two, of course. For one thing, Wolfe’s doing more of a genre mashup here, as well as throwing in some of his trademark story features – actual werewolves, things which consume you and then take on your qualities, a gentle sort of good-natured Catholicism which is less glibly judgemental than many authors who insert their religion into their writing get, and so on. However, perhaps the biggest distinction is in the way that Derleth’s novel really is just a jumble of incidents with a mere facade of an overarching plot building to the final confrontation, whilst Wolfe’s appears to be such on the surface but is actually better-constructed than you’d think.

In some areas Wolfe doesn’t improve over Derleth as much as one might hope. In particular, whilst the depiction of South Seas islanders is definitely more nuanced than Derleth’s, with a range of characters with distinct personalities giving them a sense of being an actual community of people rather than a mere backdrop and the Takanga residents being able to be a bit more proactive in the story, there are some grim old pulp tropes at use here, most particularly the whole “white hero/heroine gets made high king of tribe by default” angle that people were so fond of in the pulp era.

That said, I don’t see Wolfe’s use of that trope here as being done thoughtlessly. Reis gets the post because he brings his resources to bear to purge the archipelago of the Cthulhu cultists that had been keeping the locals down, so this isn’t so much a case of him colonising the place as him showing up to a place that has already been colonised (by the cultists, and arguably by Cthulhu himself), turfing out the oppressors, and given a ceremonial office as a result.

Where real power resides in the archipelago becomes apparent by the end, and it’s not in Reis’s hands and never has been – there’s a rather Golden Bough twist associated with the high king’s post, and Reis’s reign abruptly ends as soon as he chooses to something the less ceremonial, more actual king of the island tells him not to do (“please do not annoy Cthulhu”). If you are feeling generous, you might argue that this is subverting the trope, though on the other hand the Golden Bough thing was often an aspect of the original pulp-era motif.

At the same time, it can’t be said that Wolfe wholly fails to establish distance between his take on these themes and some of the more racist implications of Lovecraft’s work. Lovecraft’s anxieties about “miscegenation”, in his original stories, were rooted in bigotry about inter-racial relationships and mixed-race children. Here, there’s hints that what’s actually going on with the Deep Ones and whatnot is much stranger, entailing dubious Woldercanian genetic technologies, Cthulhu disassembling and reassembling people into forms more pleasing to him, and so on.

An Evil Guest is very much in the tradition of Wolfe novels where you can’t necessarily put your finger on what exactly has just happened, but where a lot of it stays with you after the fact. Its fun-loving, pulpier-than-typical style makes it extremely readable, and therefore potentially a useful jumping-on point to explore Wolfe’s work if your Lovecraft knowledge is up to scratch. I wouldn’t recommend it to people who aren’t up on their Cthulhu Mythos material, however – as is often the case, Wolfe uses a deep bench of literary references here and unless you were as astonishingly widely-read as he was, you won’t pick up on all of them, but in this case I think he relies on Lovecraft allusions enough that you’ll miss a lot if you don’t have the background knowledge.

2 thoughts on “Eldritch Evil Beneath a Pulp Facade

  1. Pingback: Gene Wolfe Faces the Death of the Author – Jumbled Thoughts of a Fake Geek Boy

  2. Pingback: Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle, Part 1: A Magnificent Saga, Executed Perfectly – Jumbled Thoughts of a Fake Geek Boy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s