On to my second book review. This one is of a book that has now become a living part of my DNA. I carry it around like an extra heart. And I have to once more thank Liz Hand for this. In her benevolence and wisdom she told me about this book — I don’t think I would have found it on my own. And Sarban was the nom de plume of the Brit diplomat John William Wall.
The beauty of perversion would be one way to describe Sarban’s seminal work The Sound of His Horn. The novella was originally published in 1951, but, like a wild beast, it has trotted into the future without losing any of its literary seduction. The reason for this lies not so much in the originality of Sabarn’s vision but in the controlled and even fastidious handling of the narrative. There’s a familiar sarcasm and cynicism and a controlled absurdity to make a reader immediately wonder if this novella isn’t a contemporary work of fiction.
The story begins as all great Gothic novels (since Sarban’s novella is deeply rooted in Gothic tropes) begin with a supernatural ethos: “It’s the terror that’s unspeakable.” This is spoken by the main protagonist, an Englishman named Alan Querdilion, and so the stage is set — it’s as if Sarban has cast out his narrative demon, leaving no doubt in a reader’s mind where the arc of this story is going to lead.
Ironically, though (or more aptly, intentionally), Sarban reins the narrative in after this outburst. He actually presents a reader with a benign first chapter, Querdilion silent and awkward after his initial confession, reluctant, even, to say anything more about his ordeals after being captured by the Germans during WWII. But the tension has already begun and as Spinoza has written: “Desire is the essence of man.”
And what a delicious desire Sarban creates in the second chapter. As expected, Querdilion is unable to stay silent. He is not so much coaxed as relieved to tell the tale to a friend who served in the army with him. And now the story within a story begins, and the POV of the narrative shifts firmly to Querdilion.
In fact, Sarban creates a bewildering and thrilling range of tension and plotting as he mixes realism and horror, sci-fi and fantasy. As Querdilion retells his tale, we learn that after he escapes from a Nazis prison camp he discovers a strange light in a wood and is drawn to it and literally experiences his first shock. “It jarred along every bone in my body and shattered its way upwards, tearing out at the top of my skull… my body, bereft of all its weight and cohesion, went whirling and spiraling upwards like a gas into the dark.”
Here begins an alternate history as Querdilion finds himself a hundred years after WWII, one in which the Germans have become the supreme master race with under-race slaves and genetically altered feral cat women in tight skin jerkins and “leopard claws of steel” sheathing each hand. And these hunters are fierce, sensual, and bloodthirsty. Their quarry are other humans and Querdilion becomes a hunted man, the quarry of Count Johann von Hackelnberg, Reich Master Forester, who rules his domain with the iron fist of a feudal lord.
Sarban is superb at creating the dark, menacing spirit of old hyperborean woods and the diabolical aspects of a human hunt. And his portrayal of the cat women is erotic as much as it is sadistic: “Sweat glistened on their thighs and their breasts heaved…. Blood dabbled all their faces, their breasts and arms and their sleek coats and the clear bright brown of their bellies and smooth thighs.”
But the eroticism is not purely gratuitous. It is more a wild, metaphysical Eros. Sarban’s eroticism is prurient without being lecherous, it’s more a voracious avatar of seduction; the cat women more a force of nature, a pagan spirit set free. And the bloodthirsty violence of the Baron is like a primeval force, a force of twisted nature, but still red in tooth and claw. And the book is more than just a visceral force of literature, especially when Sarban introduces the character of Kit, a female prisoner who is also being hunted. With her introduction into the narrative, Sarban transcends the purely animalistic and perverted pleasure of the Count. The author creates a wonderful pathos since Kit sacrifices herself to the Baron’s wild hunt so that Querdilion can go free, return to his present time. It’s as if the seductive perversions of the master race have been finally neutralized by one virtuous act.
Although you have to wonder, who has the more seductive powers? The great storyteller Sarban or his wild women and bloodthirsty Count?