An Evil Guest

Ambiguous identities. Resolute men and women with curiously opaque motives. An ethical and moral scale at once fluid and adamant, with characters traversing different parts of it unpredictably. Closely observed quotidian details (salad dressing choices) mixed with high fantasy (gods walking the earth). The depiction of a cosmos that inspires both reverence and terror. The bitter necessity of personal sacrifice, even unto the demands of becoming a selfless savior.

That old master Gene Wolfe, whose catalogue of qualities and tropes includes all of the above, plus other virtues and obsessions, is back with another novel. But the purveyor of a single enormous series — his seminal and career-defining saga that began with The Shadow of the Torturer (1980) extends over 12 volumes — and several lesser ones has chosen this go-round to present a standalone novel. And one, moreover, that ventures into distinctly different narrative territory for him — at least on the surface.

Like Paul Malmont’s recent The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril (2006), Wolfe’s An Evil Guest (note the pure gothic melodrama of the title) draws its strengths and inspiration from the garish era of pulp heroes and villains, as contained in the cheap mass-media magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. (This Chabon-like urge to revisit and repurpose, with improved skills and postmodern viewpoint, the literarily unfettered and ideationally and emotionally stoked popular literature of our ancestors is becoming a standard and productive move these days. It could even be argued that Wolfe’s previous book, Pirate Freedom , was a step in this direction, harking back as it did to Rafael Sabatini’s sea adventures.)

But whereas Malmont employed historical figures and set his fiction in the past, as do the majority of pastiche-inclined authors, Wolfe takes the bold and cognitively estranging step of establishing his archaic characters and action some 100 years in the future — the transposition of ancient modes into a future setting being another of Wolfe’s hallmarks.

Yet this time around, such a move is a debatable tactic: for although Wolfe’s future contains cars that can warp space, interstellar aliens, and smart-paper photos, it’s a mostly notional future, existing mainly as stage-dressing. Wolfe’s far tomorrow still features live theater that opens in Springfield before hitting Broadway; a U.S. president who was once a rodeo rider and talks like LBJ; flourishing print newspapers; and a computer “that spoke with the simulated voice of a Japanese woman,” which accent includes the stereotypical confusion of l and r, producing a brief — and laudably unrepeated — cringe factor. That the novel manages mostly to surmount this hurdle of an unrealized future is testament to Wolfe’s vision and skills.

Wolfe’s plan for this book is to stage an archetypical knockdown conflict, with the fate of worlds in the balance, between an utterly evil villainous mastermind and a semi-noble freelance hero of superhuman talents, with a glamorous woman of no mean abilities herself forming the apex of a triangle. Think of the exploits of Doc Savage, the Shadow (referenced explicitly by Wolfe at one point), the Spider, and 100 other pulp heroes, but all skewed and transmogrified by Wolfe’s more subtle insights into life, and by his finer writing.

The novel opens with the man ostensibly our hero, one Gideon Chase, being asked by the president to help pursue a putatively dastardly fellow named William Reis, who’s transmitting secrets to aliens and destabilizing Earth’s economy. (Reis later shows up under the alias of Wally Rosenquist, and Chase as Gil Corby, just two instances of continually mutable identities.) Chase and Reis share a connection to the alien world of Woldercan, whose natives possess many strange talents, some of which Chase and Reis seem to have adopted. Although Chase finally declines to go to work for the government, he decides to pursue Reis/Rosenquist on his own nickel.

Chase’s first move is to enlist the little-known actress Cassie Casey as bait to snare Rosenquist. This involves putting Cassie through a mystical enhancement that will bring out her innate glamour and seductiveness — a kind of latent, almost supernatural charisma that yields instant superstardom once activated. The newly magnetic Cassie becomes a half-willing, passive-agressive Mata Hari. Soon, the plot changes course to follow her harrowing, enigmatic journey through a supernatural underworld that lies outside the perceptions of mundane citizens — leaving Chase nearly entirely offstage. When she falls in love with Rosenquist, and Chase seemingly goes to work for the man, all established relationships are upended and transvalued.

Much of the mythology and apparatus of this paranormal realm is borrowed from the work of H. P. Lovecraft. We meet such old favorites as the obscene deity Cthulhu (under a different name), his sunken city of R’lyeh, and the winged terrors known as night-gaunts, all given a distinctive Wolfean spin. But what’s missing is Lovecraft’s fabled evocation of “cosmic horror,” a sense that the universe is unknowable by the puny brains of humanity. The vistas and forces involved, and the perpetrators of the machinations in which Cassie becomes ensnared, while baffling and at times unfathomable, seem ultimately too intimate and personal to conjure up those peculiarly Lovecraftian frissons.

While Cassie is a tolerable and reasonably plucky attractor for the uncanny events of the story, she pales next to Gideon Chase’s James Bond–like stage presence, and the book suffers when Chase is exiled. True, in light of Cassie’s victimhood and her cluelessness, the novel does emulate Lovecraft more than it hews to, say, Lester Dent and his prime mover, Doc Savage. So many of Lovecraft’s protagonists were doomed responders and cat’s-paws, rather than indomitable take-charge heroes. But this particular fealty to Lovecraft’s vision is not what the novel promised in its first 100 or so pages.

What Wolfe does achieve instead is something along the lines of G. K. Chesterton’s surreal farce of misread theophanic identities, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908). Genre models might be Philip K. Dick’s The Cosmic Puppets (1957), in which Zoroastrian deities battle under camouflage in a small American town. Or perhaps that highly anomalous novella by Robert Heinlein, “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag,” wherein a husband-and-wife team of private detectives encounter an intermittently amnesiacal fellow whose fear of madness proves to be a veil masking the workings of a malign demiurge. A backward influence from a younger writer might even be discovered in John C. Wright’s The Chaos Chronicles, a trilogy that finds gods imprisoned in the bodies of teens. Finally, the improbable science-fictional tall tales of R. A. Lafferty seem to be part of the same family.

Whatever the ultimate effect, the sheer telling of Wolfe’s tale exhibits all his patented deftness and slyness and misdirecting sleight-of-hand. Disjunctions between actions and their reported consequences, such as the transition between Chapters 15 and 16, and cryptic dialogue, such as the banter between Chase and Cassie regarding shape-changers (a favored motif of Wolfe’s since at least The Fifth Head of Cerberus ), all contribute toward a multilayered narrative that demands and repays sustained readerly attention to extract all its meaning.

Wolfe’s foray into pulp thrills (he did something similar in last year’s novella “Memorare”) might not exactly recapture the heady days of Weird Tales. But it still delivers more than its share of slam-bang philosophical action.