Saturday, 17 February 2018

Wulfheim (1950) by Sax Rohmer

Sax Rohmer aka Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward is remembered today primarily for his Fu Manchu novels, and even those are brought up mostly to cringe at the Yellow Peril aspect of the franchise. Yet he also penned outright genre fiction, including the phenomenal masterpiece of the form that was Brood of the Witch-Queen.

Wulfheim was published towards the end of Rohmer's life, under yet another pseudonym, this time as Michael Furey. To my knowledge this is the only time Rohmer used this name and I'm not quite sure why. Perhaps he wanted the work to not be tinged with expectations his name may provide, as it probably is a completely different book from what his readers would expect ?

Either way, this is a work of his that has, quite frankly, garnered very little attention. I do not, however, believe that to be justified, as Wulfheim is a fine work indeed.

Set in an unspecified period of time not quite modern but no longer renaissance or Medieval either, it follows the Monk Hilarius, formerly Otto of Wulfheim, who ran off to a monastery for very personal and very troubling reasons. He returns home to tell his father the Count of Wulfheim why he did so, especially given that this way the Wulfheim name passes and the Domain falls to the Church on Otto's death. When he arrives in the Domain where he is virtually a stranger, he meets not only his father and sister Fragia, but also Fragia's best friend Loe, her parents, Loe's almost-fiancé and the resident no-bullshit-taker, Dr. Oberon. Along the way he finds that people in the Domain shun him, he feels an evil presence about, discovers the ruins of an Abbey that burned to the ground as well as discovering two rogues digging up the heart of Caesar Wulfheim, the last Abbot who had been burned at the stake for devil worship.

The story focuses on the interactions between the people in the oppressive atmosphere of Wulfheim Castle that is, in the truest sense of the word, Gothic, without having any of the usual pretensions that happen when an author tries to do this idea straight in modern-ish times. The people at the Castle are slowly revealed to be suffering various stages of depravity and erotic mania. Loe's father the General can't help but try and make the light-as-a-feather Castle Maid and her mother is purposefully blocking Loe's engagement simply because Loe's chosen husband refused to sleep with said mother. Meanwhile the true nature of Otto's mania is revealed to us, and it is perhaps only slightly less interesting because the novel very bluntly hints that the half-sister he can't but think of isn't actually his sister. I will, however, commend Rohmer on having this revelation only come after it's too late for it to mean anything beyond making Otto feel better about himself.

In the background of all this is the creeping aura of some ancient evil, culminating in the post-mortem possession of Fragia's body by another, long departed soul. And while the few reviewers out there seemed to suggest the story up until this point was gearing up for literal lycanthropy, what we get and how we get there isn't bad at all, especially since the atmosphere is quite strong throughout.

Now, the most sure-fire way to drag a book down and make it tedious is to have a character who likes to wax philosophical. In Visiak's Medusa, whenever Huxtable got into his habbit of speaking in saccharine analogies and long winded spiritual diatribes, it made the already floundering book flounder even more vehemently. This book, however, is the rare exception to the rule. The character of Dr. Oberon is by far the most engaging member of the book's cast. He is snarky, he likes to say seemingly irreverent or intentionally provocative things, likes to be sarcastic to the point where one imagines him rolling his eyes visibly, and does, as a rule, not take anyone's crap and just gets right on to the point that they are either not seeing or trying not to see. This, along with the narrator's own tone, hovering between sarcasm and sardonics, makes for an interesting reading, and generally does not spare anyone.

If I am to lay any criticism against this book, it is that the possession itself is of rather brief duration, cut short by the dramatic and very ironic denoument. Other than that, this is a fine work that I fully believe is worthy of the Rohmer name.

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