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 knowledge for the subject he teaches, which is gender studies.
The third literary work that keeps cropping up is Measure for Measure. Lawrence likens Angelo to Mayor Giuliani and sees them both as cleaning up street crime:
There was the sexual miscreant, Claudio, that “warpèd slip of wilderness,” on death row for his sins. There was his judge, Angelo, “this ungenitured agent,” as the dissolute scoffer Lucio calls him, battling (with underappreciated sincerity, I felt) his own ungovernable urges.
“Underappreciated sincerity” is a brilliant take on Lawrence’s view of himself. He knows Measure by Measure by heart because he played Isabella in the production of the play at his all-male English public school.
Lawrence is British, though he has lived in the US for seven years. He recalls an episode from his adolescence that makes Gosford Park look naive in its portrayal of British class attitudes. His father died when he was little, and his mother worked as a secretary until her employer left his first wife and four children in order to marry her. She is not quite socially acceptable in her new husband’s milieu—she says “serviette,” for instance, instead of “napkin.” His stepfather (who has sent him to the posh school) also enrolls Lawrence in a posh country club to which Emily, one of the children of his first marriage, belongs. He asks Emily to befriend her stepbrother, and she obliges: she treats him charmingly, and so do all the exquisitely mannered members of her young set. Lawrence is intoxicated with pleasure, “the euphoria of being part of a group of friends travelling together into the future. Love overflows your heart….”
Then someone asks Lawrence what his mother does, and Emily quickly replies for him: “She’s sort of a high-class prostitute, isn’t she?” Lawrence is proud to have quipped back: “Actually, no, she’s a low-class prostitute.” But, he says,
I have distracted myself ever since. Anytime I begin to feel comfortable with people, I immediately conjecture a parallel version of myself arousing their secret loathing. Pretty soon it gets hard to tell which version reflects reality, and I find myself splitting the difference, withdrawing into an attitude of detached neutrality.”
The Horned Man is the saga of a paranoid inferiority complex gone berserk.
The fact that he is an English public school boy gives Lawrence his angle on American life. The irony that runs through the novel faces both ways—toward Britain as much as toward America—and Lasdun (himself British) shares it with the reader, though definitely not with Lawrence. It is especially in evidence during the meetings of the Sexual Harassment Committee and the Disciplinary Committee at Arthur Clay. Lawrence becomes a conscientious, even enthusiastic, member of both, although—or maybe because—he realizes that “the proceedings of these committees had by now become a stock-in-trade object of satire in popular plays and novels.” When a professor is told to make a written apology for a remark deemed to be racist, and resigns instead, Lawrence complains:
For several weeks the members of the Disciplinary Committee, myself included, had been pilloried as fanatics of the new religion of Political Correctness. Given the low level of reporting in these newspapers, not to mention the extreme reactionary position they took on all social issues, this wasn’t as painful as it might sound—there was even a sense of martyred righteousness to be had from it.
That is the nearest Lawrence himself gets to irony. He has no sense of humor either. He presents himself as a well-intentioned prig, and this makes him hard to like. His sincerity, like Angelo’s, is underappreciated. It also makes him a comic figure, but by the last pages, Lasdun has led one to feel quite heart-rending pity for him in his sorry fate.
Lawrence loves America: America, he tells his analyst, makes him feel “released…everything in it, from its architecture to its patterns of speech, was the single, simple expression of release.” It sounds like a triumphant liberation, but it hasn’t really worked for Lawrence: what he has not brought forth from within him destroys him in the end.
Among the book’s underlying themes is the one chosen by Carol for her doctoral thesis on “113 ideas of purity and pollution in mediaeval and Renaissance Europe.” Carol is young, beautiful, and scholarly, and when he talks about her, Lawrence stresses her honesty, directness, and lack of guile—her purity, in fact, until he begins to suspect her of having an affair with Bruno Jackson, another British lecturer at Arthur Clay. Jackson, too, comes up before the Sexual Harassment Committee (now with Lawrence as a member) for the alleged sexual harassment of a student. He too is asked to make a public apology, and he too resigns instead. To Lawrence’s amazement, the students march in a demonstration in favor of Jackson instead of welcoming the punitive line taken by the committee:
No more harassment! No more abuse!
Give us the freedom to fuck who we choose!
As Lawrence pursues his suspicion of Carol’s affair, Lasdun’s plot thickens to the point of impenetrable convolution, especially since he also involves his hero in an affair of his own with the well-meaning but unalluring college attorney Elaine Jordan. They sit on the same committees, and she shows signs of falling in love with him. More from an overdeveloped sense of duty than from desire, Lawrence accepts an invitation to dinner at her house; and then what he interprets as an invitation to make love. Suddenly “a wave of desire, unexpectedly powerful,” overwhelms him. He goes too far in his advances. Looking “extremely upset,” she pushes him off. He leaves. She is never seen again in college, and is said to be in a hospital after a serious car accident.
The novel lifts off gradually like an airplane from the runway, into the realm of the surreal. One begins to wonder whether it could belong to the doppelgänger genre of James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Adalbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlehmil. Could conscientious, drippy Lawrence and terrifying Trumilcik be the same person? After all, Lawrence’s prim desire for mousy Elaine became “unexpectedly powerful” as he remembers “with a familiar swarming sensation, my center of gravity shifted downwards from my head. My mouth and hands, answerable to a new set of priorities, acquired a new boldness.” Lawrence says he is convinced that he has never met the dead Barbara Hellermann, but his intern points out to him that they once attended a seminar together in Portland. Lawrence also remembers a woman running away from him in Central Park as though he were a stalker: a few days later her murdered body is found there. The reader has more and more hints that Lawrence is not at all what he seems.
Then something even stranger happens: after an appalling bout of migraine, Lawrence finds himself growing a horn on his forehead—not two, like a cuckold, or a devil, but one, like a unicorn. He knows about horns, because his real father was a pharmacist and left notes for an unwritten work about medieval ideas on the subject. Carol used some of these notes for her thesis. Horns were supposed to have magical qualities. They might be deadly poisonous, or else the opposite—healing antidotes against poison and sickness. A ground-up unicorn’s horn was thought to be doubly effective either way.
Lawrence hides his horn under Barbara Hellermann’s beret and heads for the Cloisters Museum in Washington Heights to look at the famous unicorn tapestries there—another literary allusion, perhaps, since it recalls Rilke’s hero Malte Laurids Brigge, who spends hours fervently contemplating the unicorn tapestries in the Musée de Cluny. Lawrence doesn’t notice a temporary exhibition in the Cloisters; it is called “Medieval Mariolatry,” and its curator is Carol. Suddenly he catches sight of her in one of the galleries. This is the climax of the novel and the strongest clue to what it’s about. Carol screams when she sees her husband. She claims that he attacked her months ago. She has a “personal protection order” against him and calls for the guards to arrest him. He manages to break free and runs away along the railway tracks familiar to him from his visits to Elaine’s house in the suburbs. He stops when he recognizes a neglected wooden hut in an abandoned fairground. He has seen it before from the train, and noticed that the letters H and M (Horned Man) are all that is left of its painted sign. (It must have housed a freak show.) “The reader of this account,” he writes in a final, defensive summary of his experiences,
not having just walked twenty miles, will surely be a few steps ahead of me here, though in my own defense I should say that it didn’t take me so very many steps of my own before I too had thought of what I should have thought of immediately.
It was still in my pocket.
“It” is the mysterious key left behind in the office by Trumilcik, and it fits the padlock on the door of the hut. Lawrence moves in for the mournful epilogue, writing up his experience in his own defense, and leaving his ramshackle shelter only for occasional trips to the nearest shopping mall to buy food, candles, and paraffin for his stove.
Though the powers arrayed against me have proved formidable, I am confident that my account will bring this unpleasant isolation to an end; perhaps even reunite me with my wife. My faith in the fundamental decency and reasonableness of my fellow women and men [even in his distress he observes a politically correct word order] remains undimmed. I believe the truth will prevail…. If my enemies come—as I presume they will, having gone to such lengths to bring me here—I am ready to confront them; not in a spirit of hostility, but one of forgiveness. Having absorbed so much hatred from so many sources, I have begun to wonder whether this is not some primordial, forgotten, but still useful social function, given me to perform, as others are given other, sweeter, more easily recognizable roles, such as leadership, say, or the spreading of laughter.
Lasdun is recklessly prodigal with the number of themes he has packed into this, his first novel. He is much admired as a poet. Poetry has to be close-textured, condensed, and in a few passages The Horned Man may seem a bit too fiercely distilled for comfort. The story is bewildering, even for a thriller, and there are a few things that are particularly hard to believe: the undiscovered den between the desks is one; Lawrence’s unconvincingly successful attempt to pass as a woman during his hunt for Trumilcik is another; and so is his escape from the Cloisters. But a few slip-ups can’t make this unusual novel less gripping in its deliberate, threatening obscurity, its disturbing clues and possibilities. “I seemed to be up against something impenetrably mysterious,” Lawrence complains. “My father…Carol…Trumilcik… Broken sequences seemed to radiate out from all directions. Elaine… Barbara Heller- mann… Chains of missing links. My mind was whirling.” Mine too.
But The Horned Man is not just a skillful thriller. Almost every sentence is a delight in its penetration, imagination, aptness, and freedom from cliché. Lasdun’s ability to create atmosphere—especially of a macabre or melancholy kind, or both together—is exceptional. This is a black novel, but a beautiful one. Here is his evocation of the sadness of suburbia:
…Gazing out of the window [of the train to the new development where Elaine lives] at the poisoned creek oozing along past the crumbling habitations that lined the track, I wondered what it was that so fascinated me about this spent landscape. Ugly as it was, it had something compelling about it—a strange, fallen beauty that held one’s gaze in spite of one’s horror. Some days, the ledges of ice shelving across the stream were pinkish in hue, sometimes mint green; depending, I suppose, on which gland of which deceased chemical plant happened to have just ruptured and spilt its bilious juices into the groundwater. Even the pockets of woodland still standing here and there had an accursed look—the trees thin and scraggly, so close together they produced not branches but parasitical-looking masses of wire-thin suckers that covered each one with a sinister furze. Bleached plastic bags fluttered up in the twigs, all one could imagine them producing by way of foliage or blossom.
In a way, this passage encapsulates the novel’s deep but unsentimental pathos.