'How could the Outsider have chosen such a bungler? ...When had he ever offered a single sacrifice, however small, to the Outsider? Never! Not one in his entire life. Yet the Outsider had extended infinite credit to him... Certainly he would never be able to repay the Outsider for the knowledge and the honor, no matter how hard or how long he tried.' (Gene Wolfe, Nightside The Long Sun)

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Paranormal Arthurian

'I'm chasing a phantom, he thought, an illusion.  I may need that four-wheel drive.'

-Castleview


I'm only three crisp chapters in to Gene Wolfe's 1990 standalone novel, Castleview, and I'm enjoying it thoroughly.  It very quickly and effortlessly builds up a pleasurably eerie ghost-story sort of feel with equally convincing and engaging contemporary 'family drama' realism.  Surely there haven't been too many novels in the 'paranormal Arthurian' category.  That alone is a treat.  But additionally the pacing and atmosphere are just totally engrossing for me so far.  And there are these delightful little moments of quietly odd humour like the line I quote above.  And really, it's already moving beyond the enjoyably spooky toward hints of the more truly numinous and otherworldly.

Considering all this, I have to admit I'm thinking there's no way this accessibility can keep up!  I'm guessing it's going to get complex and enigmatic in typically Wolfean fashion at some point soon here.  Otherwise this would surely be a better known novel.  Once it goes really lupine and I feel a bit lost, I'm sure I'll still find it rewarding, but in the usual you-have-to-work-for-it way Wolfe's fiction generally requires.  Regardless, I'm really delighted with this opening brush with this work.  Truly good fun.  I leave you with a sample from chapter 3:

'She drove past the motel without stopping, forcing herself, actually, to slow down to take the mileage at the sign.  Five miles, Emily had said, by road.  What was it called?  Meadow Gold?  That sounded like butter.

'An antlered buck stepped daintily onto the road and halted, spellbound by her headlights.  Icy-footed mice scampered up and down her spine as she stopped.  Not only because she might have hit the buck (though that would have been horrible) but because for a fleeting instant the graceful buck had seemed an object of supernatural dread.

'Like the horse and its rider.

'She blew the horn and the buck bounded away--no more than a common deer, a deer to be shot in all probability on the first or second day of hunting season.  Or had hunting season already begun?  Perhaps it was over already.  Who would want to hunt in this rain?

'She had started forward again when she saw a dark something in the rearview mirror.  It swelled and roared around her, tires screaming and throwing up combs of rainwater, a rusted-out sedan without lights.  Already it was gone, leaving Old Penton Road as dark and silent as before.'

4 comments:

Jonathan Strange said...

Castleview is a great one. The brisk pace and eerie vibes keep up through the whole book, but I won't say more. It is probably my favorite of the Wolfe urban-fantasy stand-alones. Enjoy!

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Cool, Jonathan. Just finished it yesterday and found it overall kind of 'mixed' but the great parts of it were GREAT - the magic, the borderland moments and border crossings, the increasing weirdness, the aching mythopoeia of the fairy elements. Amazing. A quintessential specimen of urban fantasy in many ways. Really inspired me as a writer in that regard.

It also struck me as a very interesting precursor to Wizard-Knight in some ways.

The dialogues at times felt painfully ridiculous and unbelievable - I guess that was my main 'complaint'. Hope to do a blog post on it soon. I'd definitely recommend it to Wolfe-heads but I'm not sure about others. Probably not as an introduction anyway (which is frustrating, because it came SO close to being a great intro to Wolfe - but the artistically iffy parts make me hesitate to recommend it be someone's first encounter with Wolfe - they just don't do him justice I think).

Jonathan Strange said...

"the magic, the borderland moments and border crossings, the increasing weirdness, the aching mythopoeia of the fairy elements."

I agree that these were the book's strong points. I would also agree that it acts as a sort of precursor to the Wizard-Knight duology, at least insofar as it blends Norse and Arthurian legend. Other "urban fantasy" books by Wolfe pull in much different mythologies from much different parts of the world, but W-K and Castleview seem linked by this combination. I actually read The Knight, then Castleview, then The Wizard, and at one very sleepy moment I became convinced there was some direct connection between the two worlds. Perhaps the Valfather on his hunts strays into downtown Castleview?

I wasn't struck by the dialogue being ridiculous, although it lacked the zest of other dialogue-heavy Wolfe novels. The dialogue in the Long Sun books, for example, can go on for a long time, but remain lithe and interesting, each character having a distinct voice. Talking about what to order at a Chinese food place doesn't really allow for that kind of sparkle!

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

I think the connections between W-K and Castleview alone make it worth reading to hardcore Wolfe fans. (Even the talking cat! A fave character for me!) What was the Chinese stuff though? I really liked that strain, but was mystified how it fit in (having not in the least delved deeper into the underlying myths and so on going on in this novel).

I was probably too hard on the dialogue - it was perhaps more what was said and when that threw me - sometimes someone would take a moment to 'chat' during intense action scenes or what have you and it felt kind of silly. Sometimes I think these things work in his other books where the very *setting* is so disorienting and strange to us - you kind of expect the 'rules' to be different. Indeed, when some characters in Castleview spend some time actually fully in the land of Faerie, it all works very nicely. Those passages, along with the instances of 'manifestation' or 'interpenetration of worlds' (to borrow a phrase from George MacDonald's Lilith) were by far my favourites and really inspired me in terms of writing. Well, those parts along with the very setting of a contemporary small midwestern town, thus giving it an 'urban fantasy' and 'magical realism' feel. It's really a fine example of this, even if flawed in some aspects of craftsmanship (which I would be happy to be proved wrong about by the favourable reaction of other readers).

Thanks for chatting with me about it, Jonathan!