The Horned Man
by James Lasdun
Norton, 193 pp., $24.95
James Lasdun’s short thriller is dark and dense with exotic ingredients. It is threatening, surreal, and barefacedly Kafkaesque, centering on the performance of a play adapted from Kafka’s short story “Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor”—the one in which the eponymous hero is pursued by two mysterious ping-pong balls with lives of their own. The adapter is a Bulgarian academic called Trumilcik: he has recently stormed out after being accused of molesting his female students at Arthur Clay College, a dim-sounding school in the “uninterrupted sprawl running west and north from New York.”
These facts, and most of the others that make up the labyrinthine story, are discovered one by one by the first-person narrator and sleuth, Lawrence Miller, a recently appointed lecturer at Arthur Clay. He never gets to see Trumilcik, and neither does the reader—except as the hairy, smelly silhouette of a man who attacks Lawrence in the basement of the disused synagogue where “Blumfeld” was staged. As the story uncoils through a thicket of sinister happenings and possibilities, it occurs to both of them—Lawrence and the reader—that Trumilcik may be a serial killer of women. Lawrence has been assigned one of the two desks in the room vacated by Trumilcik. The other is also unused: it belonged to Barbara Hellermann, a member of the English faculty who was murdered before the story begins. Two other successful murder attempts follow, as well as an unsuccessful one, all of them without clear motives. Meanwhile Lawrence discovers all sorts of mysterious things in his office: a den—made by pushing two desks together—in which someone male and malodorous has obviously spent the night; a key, a steel bar, a piece of paper with a Latin tag about unicorns on it; finally on his own desk a heap of shit. He concludes that it’s Trumilcik’s, and that Trumilcik hates him. But why? They have never met.
The novel is full of literary allusions, from Tiresias to Rémy de Gourmont, but two of them loom over the story even more significantly than Kafka’s “Blumfeld.” On the first page, Lawrence picks up one of the books left behind by Trumilcik. It falls open at a marker, and he is fascinated by a passage he finds, but a knock on the door interrupts him before he finishes it. Next day, the marker has mysteriously moved to another place. It is not until the very last paragraph of The Horned Man that the reader finds out what the passage was. It comes from the Gnostic Gospels and says: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” How Freudian it sounds. Lawrence regularly sees an analyst: not, he maintains, because he needs help—though he has been very unhappy since his adored wife Carol left him—but in order to gather background …