Sunday, March 14, 2021

Image of the Beast

Science-fiction author Philip Jose Farmer's very peculiar horror novel IMAGE OF THE BEAST (1979) combines two novellas, "Image of the Beast" (1968) and "Blown" (1969). This work depicts multiple graphic sex acts, but it certainly isn't "porn" (as at least one person pronounced it, according to the foreword by Theodore Sturgeon) or even erotica; most of the scenes in question have a bizarre, often sadistic quality that very few readers are likely to find erotic. The cover blurb's label of "sexual horror" accurately describes the tone. Moreover, the book has a three-dimensional viewpoint character and a convoluted plot with an intriguing paranormal mystery. It takes place in Los Angeles in the near future (relative to the date of publication) where smog envelops the urban area so densely that people either stay in their homes or flee the city, with traffic congestion far beyond the norm. As the story begins, the protagonist, a private investigator, views a movie that apparently shows his partner's murder. The man in the film, who seems to be drugged, is first seduced and then genitally mutilated by a woman with a snake-like appendage that uncoils from inside her vagina. As he bleeds to death, she and a man costumed as Dracula drink his blood. Later, another film of unknown origin arrives at the police station, showing a similar scenario that includes an ostensible transformation from human to wolf. The protagonist, Herald Childe, a name obviously meant to hold connotations of knight-errantry, projects the stereotypical world-weariness of the loner hardboiled detective, yet he also displays deep knowledge and appreciation of classic literature. He has the fictional private investigator's usual connections with friends on the police force, who unofficially share information with him and, in this nebulous case with no solid leads, rely on him to dig up facts they can't afford to spend official resources hunting for.

After an interview with an eccentric collector of supernatural-related material, Childe visits the castle-like mansion of a baron descended from Romanian nobility. The estate is supposed to be haunted, and Childe glimpses the alleged ghost, whom the baron and his household seem to take for granted. Despite the strangeness of his hosts, he holds firmly to his rejection of the supernatural and flees their hospitality not quite unscathed but substantially unharmed. However, when his ex-wife, Sybil, with whom he maintains mostly friendly relations, disappears, he pays a return visit to the baron's castle. As a prisoner there, he witnesses incredible phenomena that shake his rational beliefs. He realistically wavers between acceptance of the paranormal and a conviction that the whole experience has been an elaborate hoax, augmented by drugs.

According to the baron, the monsters of folklore exist, but they're actually utterly inhuman beings from parallel universes that can't survive in their natural forms in our world. Earth is haunted by creatures that have entered our space-time continuum through "temporary breaks in the walls, accidental cracks" between our realm and those other universes. Among these are the supernatural beings of earthly mythology, including vampires. "But they have forms so alien," the baron explains, "that the human brain has no forms to fit them. And so the human brain gives them forms to explain them." Human beings do not merely perceive these alien invaders as vampires, werewolves, fairies, and so forth; rather, "It is a matter of the aliens actually being molded into these forms." Ghosts are entities that haven't fully taken on corporeal form, so they slip back and forth between worlds. Once he manages to escape from his captors' clutches, Childe relapses into doubt again. When Sybil finally turns up, she shares her own experience as a "guest" of the baron, including a sexual encounter with a man, or manlike creature, who emits electricity. From her, Childe learns that the baron and his fellow monsters take an intense interest in Childe himself. Is the baron's account of these alien entities completely accurate? And what buried secret, unknown to himself, lurks in Childe's background?

The author apparently envisioned hard-core fans of speculative fiction as this novel's main audience, for it includes, as a minor character, Forrest Ackerman, real-life magazine editor famous for his vast collection of horror/fantasy/SF memorabilia. Farmer has created a unique twist on the "all myths are true" trope. Readers who can stomach the occasional scenes of "sexual horror" might find this book interesting. It's out of print, but several editions are listed on Amazon, so you can acquire one if you don't mind paying a trade paperback price for a used mass-market paperback. (Ignore the copies listed for hundreds of dollars.) Herald Childe comes across as a flawed but basically decent person, sympathetic enough for the reader to hope he survives the weird situation in which he becomes entangled. And I can definitively state that I've never seen quasi-human monsters quite like these in any other work of fiction.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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