cover image An Evil Guest

An Evil Guest

Gene Wolfe, . . Tor, $25.95 (304pp) ISBN 978-0-7653-2133-6


Reviewed by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Near the conclusion of An Evil Guest , a character of no particular importance to the plot rather nicely sums up something central to understanding the story and the world in which it is set: “The distinctions we draw between past, present, and future are discriminations among illusions.” This paraphrase of Einstein stands as a sort of thesis statement for this deliriously anachronistic novel, which, though seemingly set near or at the end of the 21st century, feels more like a wild confabulation of the '20s, '30s, '40s and '50s, with a bit of the '80s sprinkled here and there, and just a dash of the first decade of our new millennium.

After striking an unholy deal with extrasolar ambassador and wizard Gideon Chase, Cassie Casey—a plucky amalgam of Grace Kelly, Claudette Colbert and Nancy Drew—becomes an overnight theater sensation and spends the rest of the novel coping with the cloak-and-dagger consequences. In a rapid-fire game of double-crosses, Cassie must come to terms with a world whose boundaries are not where she once believed, while avoiding death or worse. Though much of the action revolves around Lovecraft's fictional town of Kingsport, Mass., the book isn't the sort of baroque gothic horror that “Lovecraftian” usually denotes. Indeed, Wolfe moves deftly from the Oval Office to backstage Broadway and from faerie restaurants to South Sea islands menaced by the dread elder god, Cthulhu, in the nearby underwater city R'lyeh, concluding with a poignant scene that leaves Cassie looking back on the Milky Way as she races toward an alien planet.

Even as Wolfe warps time and space, he also warps and dismisses the too often indulged expectations of genre readers. There is no slavish devotion to dull futurism, but a swaggering, romantic, unabashedly unlikely tomorrowland. The gilded age of the Busby Berkeley musical rubs shoulders with a film noir curiously free of smoke and grime. The Shadow 's Lamont Cranston is a real historical figure; one may have breakfast at the International House of Toast and make calls on cellphones. Buck Rodgersesque science fiction careens headlong into Cold War intrigue. Lovecraft's mythos and Miskatonic University exist alongside iPods, the Internet and intergalactic flying cars.

As befits such an homage to the pulp tradition, the novel's style is terse, minimalist, at times reading like a screenplay (or a stage musical's “book”), advancing primarily through dialogue. It succeeds by tumbling from unexpected world to unexpected world, from one grand absurdity to another, from one choreographed dance scene to the next, without ever missing a beat.

Award-winning author Caitlín R. Kiernan's most recent novel, Daughter of Hounds, was published by Penguin in 2007.