By IAIN BANKS (Macmillan/Warner Books/Abacus; 1984)
This is, quite simply put, the finest horror novel of the 1980s, and one of the most accomplished first novels Iíve ever read. Iain Banksí THE WASP FACTORY is a bold, daring, genuinely shocking and altogether unique piece of work that no one has been able to match--including its own author, none of whose subsequent novels (which include WALKING ON GLASS, THE BRIDGE, CONSIDER PHLEBAS and A SONG OF STONE) can hold a candle to his debut.
Itís the first-person account of sixteen-year-old Frank, a precocious Scottish chap living with his ex-hippie father on a secluded island. Frank spends his days engaged in elaborate war games, utilizing actual explosives he sets off around the island. School isnít part of Frankís life, as his father never bothered to officially register his sonís birth. In exchange for keeping quiet about his non-status Frank is allowed to have the run of the island, and his dad even finances his ďgames.Ē
How much of what Frank relates about his twisted present and even more twisted past is open to interpretation, as it becomes clear very early on that this kid is a psychopath--albeit the most witty and urbane psycho this side of Humbert Humbert. Frankís impeccably described outrages include the murders of countless animals--revenge, apparently, for having had his genitals bitten off by a dog years earlier--and three children, one of them Frankís own younger brother. But Frank is careful to point out that heís not a killer by nature, as apparently the child murders were ďjust a stage I was going through.Ē
Frankís carefully codified routine is thrown into turmoil when he learns that his older brother Eric has escaped from the insane asylum where heís been incarcerated for the last several years. Eric it seems lost his mind after seeing a catatonic childís brain devoured by maggots (a fly having laid eggs under the metal plate strapped to the kidís head); from there the formerly mind mannered Eric became a babbling hysteric with a penchant for setting dogs on fire and pelting children with worms. Frank is horrified by Ericís actions, never recognizing that his own activities arenít that far removed from those of his sibling--as Frank laments at one point, ďEric was crazy all right, even if he was my brother. He was lucky to have somebody sane who still liked him.Ē
Overshadowing it all is the Wasp Factory, the epicenter of Frankís existence. It consists of a retrofitted clock face with glass over it, into which Frank periodically releases wasps that fall into intricately designed traps corresponding to the twelve numerals, which deposit the wasps in tiny chambers where they meet a variety of horrific deaths (fire, acid, boiling water, etc) that allegedly foreshadow events in Frankís life. The Factoryís latest prediction involves fire (i.e. the designated wasp enters a chamber in which itís burned to death), which does indeed turn out to be quite prophetic.
This is a novel of remarkable imagination. It contains passages of profound shock and awe--I havenít even gone into Frankís fearsome encounter with a monster rabbit, or the beyond-outrageous twist ending--that are offset somewhat by the cheerful, high-spirited narration. Frank may be a homicidal maniac, but heís also a complex and fascinating personage who falls somewhere between Tom Sawyer and Norman Bates. His minutely detailed private universe will assuredly leave you shaken, yet the undeniable exhilaration of the novelís still-unsurpassed imaginative richness registers just as strongly. Obviously THE WASP FACTORY isnít for everybody, but for the non-squeamish among you itís an absolutely essential read.