The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
21 March 2003


This book is vile and depraved. Sick and twisted. The protagonist, Frank, kills rabbits and sticks their heads on poles. His brother Eric sets dogs on fire then calls Frank from phone boxes to tell him he's done it. It's lovely. It's been a very long time since I read anything so relaxing, and it was so good to take out my book on the train each morning with such real eagerness. Unfortunately it didn't last for many mornings - that same eagerness meant that I finished the book in just four days.

I enjoyed the violence and cruelty quite well once I got used to it, and that didn't take long. After an initial flinch at the rats' heads on the Sacrifice Poles I accepted Frank's clinical narration and when the sheep burned at the end, I thought very little of it. Perhaps because of this adjustment, the description of Eric's "unpleasent experience" failed to affect me much. I can see intellectually why it was so horrible that it drove him mad, but it doesn't shock me at all. It probably would have before I read the rest of the book. It's rather unsettling to think that I may have been permanently desensitised by a mere first novel.

Dare I type this? Banks is almost as good a storyteller as Roald Dahl. I say this because I had no problem believing the most unlikely events in the story. This willingness on the part of the reader to suspend belief is a hallmark of Dahl's work. And it seems that Banks's imagination is even more advanced than Dahl's. Every sick detail of his protagonist's private pagan-religious world is planned and executed in the most accurate manner.

It wasn't long before I was treating the book as a treasure-hunt-cum-mystery. In the first chapter Frank obscurely referred to a number of odd phrases and events, and the rest of the book was devoted to finding out what it was all about. The nine images above are from the book's cover and I quickly realised that they are clues; as I read I would flip back to the cover, counting how many I had "got". I didn't "get" the last one, the key, until the last chapter, so the mystery was well played out.

However, the ending was a little dissatisfying. I expected - even desired - blood and fire and thunder and brimstone, death and horror, maddening truths and maybe a few more murders. At the climax Frank does discover a truth about himself that, given his earlier ravings about his hatred of women and sex, should have driven him over the edge to which he is perilously close all through the book. Instead he accepts the revelation perfectly calmly and the story closes on him wondering how to break the news to Eric.

No. No, that is so wrong. Frank should have gone beserko, killed his father, killed Eric, gone into town and killed Diggs and Mrs Clamp and maybe even Jamie, injured some dogs for good measure and then set fire to the town and/or island. We could have had a marvellously grim ending about the mad hermit who lives in the ruined house on the island. Instead, Banks seems to have succumed to the scourge of compassion in the last two pages. Stephen King reckons that "no one likes to root for a guy over the course of three hundred pages only to discover that between chapters sixteen and seventeen the pig ate him". Well, no one likes to become depraved and desensitised for a pithy head-and-body story, only to find that between pages 178 and 179 it became another blasted heart story. The disappointment is sharpened by the horror imagery's earlier promise.

A satisfying journey, but a rather dull destination. He must have just run out of ideas, a terrible thing to happen to a horror writer. Go ahead and read it, but just lay aside your expectations first, okay?


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