Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Evil in Pemberley House: A Review

The Evil in Pemberley House

A darkly erotic thriller.

A Review

One of the more exciting books coming out this summer is The Evil in Pemberley House by Philip Jose Farmer and Win Scott Eckert.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit from the onset that I have long admired the works of both of the authors and that they were and are personally known to me. Although some people may consider this to be a prejudicial and biased review for these reasons, I think that I am fair minded enough to be impartial.

The Evil in Pemberley House is a collaborative novel by Philip Jose Farmer and Win Scott Eckert. Farmer had begun the novel in the early seventies, probably around the time he was finishing up his magnum opus Tarzan Alive but left it unfinished. Having found the manuscript and a detailed outline, Eckert asked to finish the novel, so that it could finally be published.

Mr. Eckert is perhaps uniquely qualified to be Farmer’s collaborator on this novel since the background of the novel concerns Farmer’s Wold Newton Family, a subject near and dear to Eckert’s heart. Eckert has been webmaster and publisher of the premiere Wold Newton family website An Expansion of Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe for over a decade. Eckert was also the editor of Myths for the Modern Age, a collection of essays that expanded upon Farmer’s Wold Newton Family concept.

Although some reviews may call The Evil in Pemberley House a posthumous work, it is not. Although it will be published after Phil Farmer’s passing, the novel was finished, approved by Farmer and bought by a publisher prior to his death.

Most reviews will most likely examine The Evil in Pemberley House in context to its Wold Newton Family, however I am taking another tact and looking at the novel in the context of Farmer’s erotic fiction.

Farmer is, perhaps unfairly, known as the man who introduced sex as an important plot element into science fiction in his novella “The Lovers”. His name became further equated with sex due to his popular forays into “pornography” and his unflinching look at sexuality in many of his mainstream science fiction novels. It should be mentioned that although, Farmer did write science fiction novels that do have a strong sexual content to them, these are main stream novels and are not considered by most to be pieces of erotica. Among these are Flesh which examines a post apocalyptic world given over to the worship of the Goddess, Lord Tyger which, as part of its overall theme, demonstrates how sexually uninhibited a Tarzan figure truly would be, Fire and the Night about an interracial affair that conjoins sexuality and race in an interestingly psychological way, and Dare which pits the sexually inhibited humans against the sexually open horstels.

Farmer’s three major pieces of erotic fiction are A Feast Unknown, Image of the Beast and Love Song.

Phil wrote these three books for a publisher of erotica and did so for money. It was not uncommon however for known writers of differing genres to write pornography for money in the forties, fifties and sixties. However most of these written under pseudonyms but Phil Farmer used his own name. He also wrote for a publisher that specialized in experimental erotica. Essex House was created to compete with Olympia Press which published classics of erotica such as the poetry of Sir John Wilmot and the works of de Sade. Essex was intended to create modern classics of erotica, serious novels with sexual themes.

So when A Feast Unknown, Image of the Beast and Love Song are labeled as pornography, it may seem that they were intended to be prurient or masturbatory fiction. Anyone who has actually read them will soon realize that this is not the case. In each one of these Phil Farmer the sexual theme and the graphic sexual depictions to illustrate a larger theme.

In A Feast Unknown sex and violence were inexorably intertwined and these primal urges are tied to the most primal urge of all, survival. The sexual scenes A Feast Unknown are almost always married with an act of violence.

Image of the Beast sex and violence are connected but are not seen stemming from the same primal urge. They are two methods by which resurrection or regeneration can be achieved. The graphic sex scenes are horrific in their exposition. Not horribly written mind you but written to evoke strong reactions of disgust and horror.

When reading A Feast Unknown and Image of the Beast, it always struck me that the trickster Phil Farmer was laughing his ass off. People expecting to find “hot” passages found exactly the opposite. Some of the passages are enough to turn people off of sex for some time.

Love Song is perhaps Farmer’s tamest sexual, and most erotic book of the three, however the sexuality in the novel services a purpose beyond titillation. Although the sexual content in Love Song is more erotic than in the other two, there is still a strong undercurrent of violence connected to the eroticism. The violence however is a consequence of the underlying theme of haunted sexuality. All of three of the main characters are psychologically damaged and these neuroses manifest as either as severe sexual inhibitions or complexes. Canador House is supposed to be haunted by a leering, sexually charged ghost, but when the ghost is revealed, the denouement is even more horrifying than any specter could be.

The Evil in Pemberley House as a novel of erotic fiction in the same vein as the three just mentioned, and like them it is erotic fiction with a purpose. Each of the three books in addition to having an underlying theme was also a pastiche/parody of a particular genre. A Feast Unknown was a pulp pastiche, Image of the Beast, a horror pastiche and Love Song a romance pastiche.

The Evil in Pemberly House is a gothic romance pastiche carrying over with more explicitly the motif of ghostly haunting. It plays with all of the genre conventions with an heiress taking over a haunted castle, being menaced at every turn by sinister characters. Hidden pasts and relationships are uncovered. As with the other pieces of erotic fiction, there is an underlying motif or theme connection to the sexuality that permeates the book. This sexual theme seems to be control. Sex is used in The Evil in Pemberley House by the characters to dominate one another, it is also used as a means to control the spirit of the house, that is to physically and psychologically own it.

Only by taking control of her own sexuality, by overcoming her sexual complex is Patricia able to control her own destiny.

As a sexually graphic pastiche of the gothic horror genre, the protagonist is like other gothic protagonist, sexually menaced at every turn. Often the in such novels protagonist is less a heroine and more a victim. While one can sympathize with a victim up to a certain point, there inevitably comes the time when this wears thin. You either become bored or you get angry with the character’s lack of character.

Yet The Evil in Pemberley House takes a different spin on this situation, the main character is the daughter of a famous crime fighter, whose cousin was an extremely capable woman.. Like her famous father she has a tendency to get into sticky situations yet is capable enough to rescue her self. Patrcia Wildman may be the main character in a gothic horror novel she is a stronger, more vibrant character than most such portrayals.

In regards to the sexually explicit material of the novel. The Evil in Pemberley House is akin to that in Love Song, although it is not the main focus of the novel as it was in Love Song. Pemberley House’s graphic sexual content is subsumed almost entirely into the story. When the other three novels were published sexually explicit material in mainstream media was rare and so its portrayal was pretty cutting edge. However the modern audience had become inured to sexuality at least in its portrayal in print or visual presentation. With pornography so common place looses much of its impact and so does not need to be the central focus, even in a darkly erotic thriller.

Besides sex has always been a double edged sword for Farmer. Portraying it brought him both acclaim and condemnation, and I think possibly precluded him from being looked at in the same regard as Asimov, Heinlein or Clarke. For my money, I think his ideas were just as broad and his execution was in many regards more skillful than the Big Three.

While perhaps less explicit than the other three pieces of erotic fiction The Evil in Pemberley is a book for mature audience and does have a strong sexual content. Yet these scenes are never simply prurient and each one is intrinsic to the plot as a whole.

However clever the author of a review wants to be in discussing his favorite novelist, the reader undoubtedly is impatiently thinking. Get to the gist! Is it any good? Does it measure up to Farmer’s other works?

The answer to both questions is a resounding yes. Like many of Farmer’s works it can be read on many levels, a sexually charged gothic thriller, a psychological mystery, a sherlockian/pulp pastiche and yes, as a novel that fits into his Wold Newton Family mythos. Farmer’s skill was always to adeptly take many disparate elements, do some literary alchemy and decant gold from the mixture. The Evil in Pemberley House is no exception to this rule. It is a very good book and a compelling read. I think that it easily stands alongside such works as The Adventure of the Peerless Peer, Greatheart Silver, The Other Log of Phileas Fogg as well as his erotic classic A Feast Unknown.

A good deal of credit for this must be given to collaborator Eckert. Even if a scholar of an author’s works, as Win Eckert is most assuredly is of Farmer’s work has so thoroughly steeped himself in his collaborator’s words that it seems as though they have hijacked and channeled his muse only a writer of talent can make the collaboration seamless. I have read a few works that were unfinished works, finished by other authors, of some note, and invariably there comes a point in your reading where you know where the original text left off and the new writer took up the pen. In the case of The Evil in Pemberley House unless it is pointed out to me, I cannot tell were Farmer left off and Eckert began. While it is a collaboration, it is truly a Farmer book.

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