Thursday, 24 May 2012

Where The Evil Dwells

Clifford D. Simak Where The Evil Dwells (1982)
One of Simak's last novels and his third foray into full blown fantasy territory, Where The Evil Dwells recycles the formula of 1978's The Fellowship of the Talisman taking it somewhere much less comfortable. There's always been a streak of pessimism running through Simak's writing, a dim view of humanity's ever diminishing sense of responsibility usually taking the form of wistful acceptance that we as a species tend to make bad decisions. Here it sticks on the first Swans album and rams the volume up to ten:

"And nature, when you think of it, is cruel. Cruel and uncaring. Nature has no love; it cares not what happens to anyone or anything. There is no way in which it can be appealed to. You live according to its rules. Make one small mistake and it kills you, carelessly it kills you. the definition of evil is the lack of love. A thing cannot be truly evil except that it feels no love, perhaps doesn't even suspect the concept of love. The truly evil may not even love itself."

This is nothing new for Simak, but it's still a long way from his more customary assertion of the inherent wisdom of the natural world.

The emphasis is strikingly different from that of The Fellowship of the Talisman wherein even Scratch the demon is just some guy with horns and an unfamiliar set of values trying to do his job as best he can. Here the obligatory band of questing types are all more or less human, at least assuming the Knurly Man to be a neanderthal as implied, and the non-human is almost uniformly evil - even the unicorns and faeries. Stranger still is that none of the human protagonists are necessarily likeable. Harcourt, their leader and roughly speaking the hero, is himself a bitter, angry man who conspicuously acts like a massive cunt towards the troll who joins their less-than-merry band in search of a bridge to call his own.

Simak always had a knack for throwing the unexpected into the mix, suddenly taking the story in an entirely different direction on an apparent whim and nevertheless making it work. He does the same here, ending with the heroes realising that their quest has been a complete waste of time and their sought after grail equivalents weren't worth the effort. Whilst this may appear cynical, it works surprisingly well, suggesting that lessons have been learnt, the journey was more important than its destination and all that good stuff; and Harcourt finally stops abusing that poor troll.

I'm not convinced that Where The Evil Dwells works as a whole. It's mostly dark and conspicuously lacking in Simak's usual charm. If anything, it reads like a good idea that didn't work out because Simak himself never really had a well developed concept of evil.

Finally as a point of interest, as with The Fellowship of the Talisman, this novel sits at a particularly Simakian tangent to its declared genre, occupying a present in which Rome never quite fell and human culture was pretty much snuffed out around the time of the Renaissance by, of all things, the arrival of elder Gods of a distinctly Lovecraftian flavour - Clifford having been a fan of H.P. Himself in his younger days according to Frank Lyall. Despite the reservations stated above, thoughts are nonetheless provoked and the prose has a certain weight as is appropriate to its tone. I'm fairly certain that with a more dignified cover and less hysterical title this might have been recognised as a minor classic of the genre.

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