This is my year of horrible reading. I am
reading the classics of horror fiction during the
course of 2016, and each week will write about
a significant work in the genre. You are invited
to join me in my
annus horribilis. During the
course of the year
if we survivewe will
have tackled zombies, serial killers, ghosts,
demons, vampires, and monsters of all
denominations. Check back each week for a
new title...but remember to bring along garlic,
silver bullets and a protective amulet.  
T.G.
fractious
fiction
a website devoted to radical,
unconventional and experimental
fiction with a particular focus on
the rise of modernism and its
aftermath.
You can find young sociopaths everywhere in the world. But for the young
sociopath as highbrow literary character, you must defer to Britain. No one
does it better.  The sun has set on the British Empire, but even in post-colonial
times United Kingdom sets the standard for royal weddings, afternoon tea,
and psychotic teen protagonists.

I give credit to William Golding for showing
how it's done with
Lord of the Flies (1954), a
book that shocked readers in its depiction of
young savagery. But Anthony Burgess raised
the bar with
A Clockwork Orange (1962),
which presented hitherto unknown degrees of
fictive depravity.  
John Fowles tried to live up
(down?) to this standard the following year
with
The Collector (1963), whose protagonist
could win a gold medal if creepiness were an
Olympic sport. For a few years these works
marked the limits of acceptable British villainy
…then along came J.G. Ballard, whose
The
Atrocity Exhibition (1970) and Crash (1973)
made Fowles, Burgess and Golding seem tame
stuff indeed.

Game over, no? Who would even try to compete with these classics of young
nihilism? Well, Mr. Iain Banks would, and at the late date of 1984—three
decades after
Lord of the Flies—he delivered The Wasp Factory. The days
when novels would be censored were now long behind us, but Banks showed
he could shock readers even in a tolerant era. "It’s a sick, sick world when the
confidence and investment of an astute firm of publishers is justified by a work
of unparalleled depravity," announced one newspaper reviewer. Others
dismissed the work as "rubbish" or "a joke." No one actually burned copies of
The Wasp Factory, but the book department at Harrod's refused to put
Bank
s's novel on the shelf (although by some accounts, the clerk would sell
copies discreetly at the cash register).

Indeed, Banks set off a new stage in UK literary degradation, which would now
be centered in the vicinity of Edinburgh. It was sort of like the Scottish
Enlightenment all over again, but without the Enlightenment part. A short
while after Banks issued
The Wasp Factory, fellow Scot Irvine Welsh released
Trainspotting, which did for vomit what Proust did for the madeleine. Then
Edinburgh-born Alice Thompson did her sweet updating of the Marquis de
Sade with her award-winning
Justine.

And you thought they just played golf and wore kilts in Scotland.

I should note that The Wasp Factory is credited to "Iain Banks"—the author
also published books under the name "Iain M. Banks."  The middle initial was
used for Banks’s science fiction books, but was removed for his mainstream,
realist novels. Or so we are told. I would hesitate to describe
The Wasp
Factory
as either "mainstream" or "realistic." If this is reality, and I were
living in it, I’d start looking for an alternate reality.

The novel begins with the teenage protagonist Frank Cauldhame learning that
his older brother Eric has escaped from the mental institution where he has
been incarcerated. Frank lives with his father on an otherwise unoccupied
small island in a sparsely-populated part of Scotland. Frank realizes that his
brother will likely return home to the community where he is known as the
"mad boy who set fire to dogs." But as the readers get to know the Cauldhame
family better, they will realize that the oldest son has no monopoly on
craziness in this highly dysfunctional clan.

The father is a pathological liar who obsessively measures every item in his
household. He claims to have written a book proving that the Earth is not a
sphere, but a Möbius strip, and tells tall tales to his children. "For years,"
Frank complains, "I believed Pathos was one of the Three Musketeers,
Fellatio was a character in Hamlet, Vitreous a town in China, and that the Irish
peasants had to tread the peat to make Guinness." But these are mere
eccentricities. The real question is what is Dad doing in his locked study, where
he spends much of his time?

But the youngest member of the
family, Frank, is not to be outdone.
"I hope you weren’t out killing any
of God’s creatures," his father says
to him accusingly at the outset of
the novel. Frank makes no response,
but thinks to himself: "Of course I
was out killing things. How the hell
am I supposed to get heads and
bodies.…There just aren’t enough
natural deaths. You can’t explain
that sort of thing to people, though."

Frank kills animals in a variety of ritualistic ways, although sometimes with
20th century technological additions to the ceremony. ("First I took a twenty-
centimetre electric-piping bomb out of the War Bag. I slit the buck in the
anus…") For a while, the youngster killed people too, but gave it up after three
unpunished murders. "That’s my score to date," he explains. "Three. I haven’t
killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I
was going through."

Nowadays, he is more interested in his "Wasp Factory," a device made out of a
large antiquated clock face Frank has salvaged from the local dump. A hole in
the center allows wasps to enter into the device, and from there move into any
one of twelve corridors—corresponding to the 12 hours on the face—where
different traps, each offering a different path to death, await the winged
insect.  Take your choice, wasp, do you prefer the Acid Pit or the Ice Chamber
or the Volt Room or some other, equally unappealing option?

Banks describes this contraption with loving care, over the course of many
pages.  I suspect that this intense fetishizing of violence, infused at every step
with the narrator’s (and perhaps the author’s) obsessive-compulsive complex,
is what readers found so unsettling in this novel. The bloodshed itself is no
greater than one finds in many other books, but the lavish attention to its
varieties and manifestations stands out in
The Wasp Factory. We are all
familiar with brutality, but the creepy connoisseurship of violence is less
familiar, and always disturbing.

The story itself is reminiscent of
Lord of the Flies, even in its most specific
details—both books represent adolescent savagery as a ritualistic process;
both link these behavior patterns with isolation from role models and
socializing influences; both reference insects in their titles, and rely on them as
resonant symbols; the Cauldhame home is even isolated on an island, as were
the characters in Golding’s novel. But Golding retains a clinical tone
throughout, his story presented through a third-person narrator who creates
emotional and psychological distance between the readers and the unsavory
aspects of the story.  Banks allows no such objectification: the unhinged
narrator imposes his distorted worldview on us. We see the physical and moral
universe as he sees it, in all his derangement and nihilism. The extreme clarity
of his exposition, which at times borders on the poetic, merely adds to the
claustrophobia of the prose.

These ingredients make
The Wasp Factory painful to read. Only a few pages
into this novel, you realize that you will be spending a long time with people
you would not only prefer to avoid, but want to imagine don’t exist in our
normal day-to-day lives. Herein lies the horror of the novel, and it is a very
raw horror, one that no zombie or vampire tale can possess. The three
decades that have elapsed since the publication of
The Wasp Factory have
introduced us to a host of real-life characters who bear more than a passing
resemblance to Frank Cauldhame—they show up at schools or movie theaters
or other public settings, usually armed with something far more dangerous
than a macabre clock.

So give Banks credit for creating a distinctly contemporary style of horror.
Yes, he was correct when he emphasized the realism of this novel, in contrast
to his fanciful sci-fi offerings. But also acknowledge the foresight of those early
readers who found the story in this book repulsive. They were given a glimpse
of the future—indeed, of the worst aspects of the future—and decided they
didn't like what they saw. The general public doesn't like it any better
nowadays; but, sad to say, they don’t need a controversial novel to learn about
young savagery run wild, merely the daily news.


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His latest book
is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by Oxford University Press.

Publication date: August 21, 2016
Iain Banks and the
Creepy British Novel

A Look Back at The Wasp Factory

Essay by Ted Gioia
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My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
Dracula
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
Carrie
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
Tales
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9
Nausea
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James

Week 16:
Rosemary's Baby
By Ira Levin

Week 17:
The King in Yellow
By Robert W. Chambers

Week 18:
Rebecca
By Daphne Du Maurier

Week 19
The Woman in the Dunes
by Kōbō Abe

Week 20
The Dark Eidolon
by Clark Ashton Smith

Week 21
Off Season
by Jack Ketchum

Week 22
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3
by Clive Barker

Week 23
The Silence of the Lambs
by Thomas Harris

Week 24
The Orange Eats Creeps
by Grace Krilanovich

Week 25
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Week 26
Psycho
by Robert Bloch

Week 27
Fledgling
by Octavia E. Butler

Week 28
Demons by Daylight
by Ramsey Campbell

Week 29
The Complete Short Stories
by Ambrose Bierce

Week 30
Pet Sematary
by Stephen King

Week 31
Our Lady of Darkness
by Fritz Leiber

Week 32
Grendel
by John Gardner

Week 33
White is for Witching
by Helen Oyeyemi

Week 34
The Wasp Factory
by Iain Banks
"It’s a sick, sick world
when the confidence and
investment of an astute
firm of publishers is
justified by a work of
unparalleled depravity."