The Shadow of the Torturer

August 6, 2005

Shadow of the TorturerThis is the introduction of a new category to the website. Since I don’t really have much else to say about anything right now I decided what I could do is talk about books that have been influential in my life as both an artist and a person. They will be part review, par ramble, part homage and whatever else I feel like adding but they will be all book.

I’d be remiss with this if I didn’t start off with what I consider one of the three greatest books ever written: The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe.

As many of my friends know, Wolfe is one of my favorite writers. But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, I came to Wolfe fairly late, though I was introduced to him when I was young.

In my teens I voraciously read everything I could get my hands on. My mom worked at a library and she would often bring home books she thought I might find interesting. I was about sixteen and had recently begun playing Dungeons and Dragons (explains a lot, doesn’t it?) and I was fanatically devouring everything in the fantasy cannon at the time. I was reading Tolkien, Vance, Donaldson, Kurtz, Lovecraft, ER Edison, Anderson, Lieber, Moorcock, Howard, you name it I was reading.

One day my mom brings home a book and says she thought I might find this interesting. I was a little taken aback that my mom was giving me a book with ‘torturer’ in the title but I thought what the heck.

Over the next two weeks I tried to read the book and I couldn’t. I just couldn’t do it. I’d read some odd stuff before (the aforementioned Edison wrote the Worm Oroborus around the turn of the 20th century – it’s a precursor to the Lord of the Rings – and is a bizarre read) and managed to get through it, but I just couldn’t grasp this book. Couldn’t get a hold of the imagery for some reason.

To this day I have no idea why.

Flashforward about 15 years. I’m getting ready to start graduate school and given how heavy the workload will be I decide I’m going to get something to read that I can meander through over the course of all three years.

For some strange reason, as I was walking to the local bookstore, The Shadow of the Torturer pops into my head. Again, like an unsolved mystery, I have no clue as to why it popped in there after 15 years.

Regardless, I set out to find it.

To my chagrin, it was out of print. I checked two of the local used bookstores ( we’ve got some good ones here) but no-go. Seems they’d been out of print for a while.

Dismayed but undeterred, I decided to just keep browsing the store until something really caught my eye. That day I picked up something and I can’t recall what it was. It mustn’t have left a lasting impression.

The following week (we only had Monday’s off in grad school so I’d head over to the bookstore then) I was back. I browsed the shelves, looking for something intriguing, reading the backs of books, maybe the first page or two to see if it sparked interest.

Shadow and ClawHoly crap! What is this? There were two dark books, with the title of each in bold white and a vivid splash of red. The first was “Shadow and Claw” and the second was “Sword and Citadel.” Both by Gene Wolfe.

It couldn’t be?

They’d republished the books, taking the four volume (five if you count the Urth of the New Sun) Books of the New Sun and putting them into two volumes. Not a week after I’d gone on the hunt to find out they were out of print, here they were back in print.

I was not going to ignore this little nudge for sure.

I picked up both volumes, headed back to my apartment and settled down to begin reading a book I’d begun over 15 years ago.

Sword and CitadelMy eyes were opened.

Over the next two months I devoured the entire Book of the New Sun (for the record: The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lichtor, and The Citadel of the Autarch.) I couldn’t put them down and only becuase grad school was so immersive did I not finish them even faster.

I was literally blown away. Wolfe’s imagery, his use of words, his evocative and sometimes painful descriptions of action, character and locale; they were unbelievable. I’d never read anything like them. I found the idea of a hero, Severius, burdened with the gift of perfect memory and the journey from boyhood to manhood to eventually something even greater to be a punch in the stomach. Wolfe’s powerful prose was so dead-on for me that I still have dreams that I’m now able to label Wolfe-ian.

His literary touches are exquisite. In one section, one of the characters, the Doctor, is quoting from a play and I immediately recognized the quote was from Christopher Marlowe’s The History and Tragedy of Doctor Faustus. Marlowe’s my favorite playwright and here was a quote in a book that was stunning me with every turned page.

I was hooked. Wolfe was my new passion. I wanted to read everything he’d ever written. He’s written nearly a score of novels and a great number of short stories and I wanted to read them all. Many are still out of print and I’ve scoured ebay and used bookstores in search of the few I couldn’t find. Last winter I completed my collection and I am almost through all of his works (despite the fact that he continues to put out more – i.e. I’m eagerly awaiting Wizard, the second book in his Knight-Wizard duo.)

And when I am done, I get to go back and read the Book of the New Sun once more.

I can’t wait.