Monday, October 31, 2011

The Wasp Factory Hums

If you've read my introductory post for All Hallow's Read, you know that the book that scares me the most is Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box. It is, if you can stand the terror, a hell of a read. If you prefer your fear gently on the boil, rather than scalding, try Horns, or his brilliant comic, Locke & Key (with Gabriel Rodriguez). And for now... something that scares him.

When I think about the stories that matter to me, I’m really thinking about the characters that matter to me. I may tell you, for example, that my three favorite novels are THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET and TRUE GRIT and 11/22/63, but what I really mean is that I went on thinking about Jake Epping, Sadie Dunhill, Mattie Ross, Rooster Cogburn, and the titular Jacob de Zoet, long after I laid aside the books they inhabit. In the course of these stories, I came to know each of these people as well as friends or family; I learned what they love, what sickens them, what they won’t tolerate, what tickles them; I learned what they would fight for, and why, and how; I tasted their food, felt for them in their moments of weariness and panic, laughed for and at them; most of all, I was galvanized by the choices they made, decisions which were often completely unexpected and yet somehow inevitable at the same time.

To me, the whole argument about what matters more, plot or character, is a false dichotomy. Plot is an outgrowth of what characters do, and so, naturally, a convincing yet unexpected character will make for a convincing yet unexpected plot.

All my life, I have wanted to read minds; all my life I have wanted to be invisible, so I could spy on the people who interest me in their most private moments. A great novel allows me each of these preternatural gifts, and I didn’t even have to be bitten by a radioactive spider to get them; all I had to do was keep my library card current.

With that in mind, it isn’t necessarily useful, or even all that accurate, to tell you The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks is the scariest thing I’ve read all year. It is better to tell you this: the narrator, Frank Cauldhame, is a child serial killer who happens to be as inventive as Harold of the famous Purple Crayon, as good humored as the Cheshire Cat, and about as psychologically balanced as Charles Whitman, the Texas tower shooter. He embodies all of the worst characteristics of the children from Lord of the Flies while lacking any of their occasional moral qualms (he even lives on his own desert island… connected to the Scottish mainland by a single rickety footbridge).

Twelve brutally concise chapters recount Frank’s adventures in murder, as he wipes out one unlucky acquaintance after another, in increasingly creative ways: he’s an artist of slaughter. In between, he builds a concentration camp for wasps, tends to his sacrifice poles, and engages in psychological warfare with his brilliant, emotionally shut-down father. The icing on the arsenic-soaked cake? Frank’s older brother Eric might be even worse than him and has recently busted out of the mental asylum to make his way home for a little family reunion.

The Cauldhame kids may be soaked in so much gore it’ll never wash off, but the eyes staring from those blood-soaked faces are recognizably human; Eric, in particular, witnesses a horror that ranks among the most grisly scenes ever put to paper. Most readers will find it difficult not to moan aloud while reading it.

Great white sharks, runaway viruses, and grotesque elder gods all have their place in the catalog of human nightmares. The Wasp Factory, and the Cauldhame brothers, though, remind that nothing scares the pants off us like other human beings. These are brilliantly imagined characters, driven by unsettling-but-all-too-understandable desires and tormented by unsettling-but-all-too-convincing fantasies.

Oh and one more thing… read this book and you’ll never look at children flying kites the same way again. Never.