House of Rumour by Jake Arnott
Published by Sphere, July 2012. Review copy received.
Review by Mark Yon
This one’s a bit of a surprise: a non-genre author better known for his tales of homosexuals, contemporary gangsters and seventies pop culture, a Brit who gave rise to the term ‘geezer chic’, turns in an ambitious piece of genre fiction that cleverly blends facts with fiction. Result: an occasionally brilliant novel.
From the outset it’s a combination of disparate ideas that really shouldn’t work together: Golden Age pulp SF writers, James Bond author Ian Fleming, German deputy Nazi Rudolf Hess, the British government of 1941, UFO’s, the Space Race, Tarot Cards and Satanism is not a combination you would normally think of. Indeed, it rather seems like some sort of manic miscellany.
Despite this, the tale is literate, engaging and, most importantly, just the right side of plausibility. The book’s tale is begun with a narrative from Larry Zagorsky, an fictional SF writer of the 1940’s and 50’s. This was my initial surprise – Arnott creates such an evocative picture of the SF fan-scene of that time that I was immediately reminded of the early days of the Futurians on the US East Coast and, more importantly, the West Coast compatriots of Heinlein, Sprague de Camp, Cartmill and their associates. Zagorsky soon spends time amongst the West Coast fraternity and comments on their meetings. In the wrong hands this tale could be told just for laughs, with a sneer at the fledgling fan-group. In reality it’s handled with humour, yet there is a love and respect given here suggesting the sense of wonder created by such well-intentioned chinwag sessions is maintained without making the lead figures ones of ridicule.
As the story progresses we get a variety of different characters and we are told of events shown from different viewpoints. In the present, Zagorsky is given details of a mysterious file that suggests that Hess’s defection to Scotland in the Second World War was possibly connected to the consequences of an occult temple service in the US in 1941. The story then goes back to the 1940’s and 50’s and tells of members of that meeting, which includes many SF filmmakers and writers whom Zagorsky knows. Jack Parsons, one of the founders of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) was not only a scientist and avid SF reader, with many connections in the genre, but also an active member of a Satanist cult who, in this story, is encouraged to perform strange deviant acts in order to encourage the world’s race into space. As flying saucers are first reported and Sputnik launches into space, UFO cults and space-based religions occur in the late 1940’s and 50’s as part of this global hysteria. Many of these people known by Zagorsky become involved in the move to the SF genre being more mainstream and B-movie film making.
Mixing non-genre people such as Zagorsky with others, such as Intelligence Officer and James Bond author Ian Fleming, Nazi deputy Rudolf Hess, not to mention a minor visit from Aleister Crowley (also in Arnott’s previous novel, The Devil’s Paintbrush) with Arnott’s fictional characters is an inspired decision. Though many of these ‘real’ people are cameos, they help create a factional world that allows the reader to imagine: ‘what if’.
I understand it wouldn’t be an Arnott novel unless there were some ‘unusual’ events and characters, and this is quite true here: we have sado-masochism, sex-orgies, transvestitism, gender realignment (written in a time when such things were uncommon), and a smattering of homosexual relationships….. it’s a secret world that existed beneath the veneer of straight-laced Britain, Germany and the USA in the 1950’s (and probably miles away from the real one!)
However, this culturally fertile environment, despite being filled with lots of brilliant moments, crucially fails to gel into a cohesive plot. Whilst illuminating bizarre cults and conspiracies, as well as the secretive world of espionage and the environment of the fledgling genre writer, in the end it all becomes a tale of style over substance. There are a number of separately interesting plot strands that on their own keep the reader entertained. However, despite a great setup, at the end I was left feeling unsure what the actual point was. The great reveal seems to be less important than the way the disparate threads converge and diverge. Perhaps this is ‘the Great Secret’, that only acolytes of occultists like Crowley can understand.
Paranoid conspiracy theorists will love this book. Rather like the progeny of Neal Stephenson and Charles Stross, with a touch of Philip K. Dick, this is a crazy, chaotic and brilliant, if uneven, read.
There was enough here to keep me interested, and I was pleased I read it, even if it is a victim of its own ambition that doesn’t quite hold together in the end. Reminiscent of Paul Malmont’s books (reviewed HERE), there is enough here to enjoy that makes it overall a great read. It most definitely is not for everyone, yet there is enough to show an active mind at work.
Surprisingly, yet pleasingly, recommended.
Mark Yon, July 2012