THE WASP FACTORY by Iain Banks (Abacus, 1984)

This is a story of murder, insanity and insects. The blurb warns: “Enter – if you can bear it – the extraordinary private world of Frank, just sixteen and unconventional to say the least”.

Critics are torn between regarding it as a depraved product of a sick mind or as an exceptional Gothic horror story. It’s probably safe to say it’s a bit of both.

I like the fact that my paperback edition (of 2003) includes negative reviews alongside positive ones. The Irish Times said: “The majority of the literate public will be relieved that only reviewers are obliged to look at any of it” while the Sunday Express dismissed it as “the lurid literary equivalent of a video nasty”.  Far from driving away potential readers, reactionary reactions like these are enough pique anyone’s curiosity.

Banks’ death earlier this year at the age of 59 prompted me to pick up this book now.  I had always had the intention of reading but never quite got round to. It is the best known and most notorious of the 26 novels, both mainstream and Sci-Fi, he published in his lifetime.

Its enduring appeal lies in the delight the author takes he takes in getting inside the head of a tortured and vile individual with an uncontrollable urge to take life and inflict pain.

Frank L Cauldhame chooses soft targets and elaborate ways of killing and since he believes that “children aren’t real people” he feels no particular guilt in adding three to his list of victims, all disposed of before he has reached ten years of age.“It was just a stage I was going through”, he recalls blandly.

Thereafter, he confines his attention to pinning the heads of small animals to sacrificial poles and maintaining his factory in which wasps meet grisly ends. At one point Frank says: “I tried to think of nice things but couldn’t think of any”.

A running subtext is the distorted gender relations provoking Frank’s need to put on a ‘masculine’ display of slaughter and destruction out of a fear and  distaste for the sugar and spice world of females.

The teenager’s warped imagination and perverted relations with the ‘normal world’ stem from a traumatic childhood accident, the full extent of which is only revealed at the end of the novel.

This combines with the burden of a dysfunctional family – the distant father and insane brother Eric – each shadowy, threatening figures who help maintain a mood of surreal menace.

Within the fatalism there is a hint that Frank, and by extension all of us when confined to harsh circumstances, have the capacity to make our own destiny:  “All lives are symbols. Everything we do is part of a pattern we have at least some say in”.

Otherwise, as a world in microcosm, The Wasp Factory manufactures a relentlessly bleak, pessimistic vision of humankind.

I’d recommend it to anybody!

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