Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Book Review: Wolfhead

© 1978 by Charles L. Harness


Jeremy Wolfhead doesn’t actually have the head of a wolf, he assures us in the second sentence of this eponymous novel. Though, of course, an ancestor may have had one, due to all the genetic mutation and so forth from the Desolation.

How can on opening like that not hook you?

Wolfhead is a short and sweet novel, straight-forward and linear, a page turner I finished in three hours over four days (including being read at my daughter’s basketball game, stealthily, whenever she caught her breath on the bench). The first third sets up a sparse and spartan background, visualized with copious snow and ice, much like my current climatic conditions, then we dive into Jeremy’s mission of vengeance and rescue into the underworld.

Our story begins 3,000 years into the future, after this “Desolation.” From what I gathered, mankind now lives at a sort of 18th-century level, with some 20th-century perks, like nuclear engineering, brain surgery, and hovercraft technology thrown in. Jeremy Wolfhead’s grandfather is a wealthy businessman who considers his grandson too stupid to inherit the company since his son – Jeremy’s father – died under mysterious circumstances. But the young man is not too bad off. He enjoys hunting and has just married the most beautiful girl in the Washton and Ballomer area.

That is, until one evening, out in the cold to see the “god’s-eye” fly overhead (a sort of satellite, I presumed). Jeremy and his new bride are attacked by underground-dwelling humanoids. Our hero is left for dead, a bullet – or laser – hole through his head. Beautiful Beatra is abducted, vanishing without a trace.

The cryptic Brotherhood saves Jeremy’s life, discovering – and training – his new-found telepathic and telekinetic abilities. They need the boy to descend into the underground city to stop an imminent second Armageddon. He needs to make the journey to save his wife, or destroy those responsible if she has been killed.

To aid in his quest, Jeremy is given a partner, one who can see where he can’t (the dark), a dire wolf, with a piece of Jeremy’s brain grafted to hers. Naturally, the two form an uneasy alliance. Jeremy names her Virgil, his guide down into hell.

There were a lot of things I liked about Wolfhead. I liked the whole concept of the “Brotherhood,” monks of uncertain background who utilize telepathic powers to stop the second Armageddon from the “god’s eye” satellite of death. And there were two fairly neat SF ideas Harness handled well: seeing through another creature’s eyes through telepathy with said being, and the Vortex, giant spinning massive plates that offset the energy from earthquakes (“temblors”) and somehow aid and amplify telekinetic abilities.

Yet I couldn’t help but ponder how much better, tighter, more suspenseful and intriguing the whole tale might be in the hands of a Master. The idea that Roger Zelazny should have authored this kept invading my thoughts. Also the off-the-wall meta-novel that might have happened had, heaven help us, Philip K. Dick tried his hand with Harness’s notes.

Not sure the backstory of the novel nor of the author, but being published in 1978 it seems somewhat plausible to me that the tale or the writer may have had Watergate on the brain. Why? Well, the evil underground entity turns out to be … the government of the United States of America, led by … the President! And they’re hell bent on genocide! And the freedom fighters are revealed to be the … Democrats!

However, there is a nice two-part surprise at the end, having to do with the identity of the stranger known as “the Returner.” The first you’ll see a mile away, thanks to an obvious clue Harness drops nonchalantly in a paragraph of exposition (hint: see Paragraph 4 of this review). But the second surprise fooled me so completely I actually slapped my forehead. Yes, actually.

Wolfhead has a sad, bittersweet ending. The novel is bookended by fragments of poetry, and the final one is entitled Snowflakes on a Grave. Read in light of the final chapter, it was touching.

I also liked the snippets of Dante strewn throughout the book. Virgil, the name of the wolf. “Dis” the name of the underworld from Inferno and also short for “District of Columbia.” Dante himself is even mentioned as a “prophet” of sorts early on. And again, how much better the book would have been had the references been fully developed.

So, Wolfhead was a mixed bag for me. Some good, some not so, and lots of room for improvement.

Grade: B-

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