Written by: Matthew J. Barbour
The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks, has garnered many accolades since its initial release in 1984. The book has appeared on a number of greatest horror lists and in a poll was even named one of the top 100 novels of the century. To some, Banks is a visionary crafting a tale of the macabre. While others have viewed The Wasp Factory as little more than nonsensical garbage. The truth is probably somewhere in between.
The Wasp Factory follows Frank Cauldhame, a teenager living with his father. Frank is not a normal child. By Frank’s own admission, he has killed three other children. Frank consoles himself that this was just a phase and has taken to divining the future with a contraption he has named “the wasp factory.” Frank also explores the possibility of telepathy utilizing the skull of a long deceased canine companion and warding off threats to his person utilizing “sacrifice poles.”
The latter task requires Frank to kill small animals. His brother, Eric, had a similar pastime. Eric felt the need to set dogs on fire. The law caught up with Eric and placed him in a mental institution. Now, Eric has escaped. He calls Frank and informs his brother that he is on his way home.
The novel centers on Frank as he awaits his brother’s return. Frank takes time to reminisce on his past and seeks answers to the future in the wasp factory. Frank relishes in control of all things. Yet, no one’s fate is certain and in the end, nothing -not even Frank- is what it seems.
Banks tells the story of The Wasp Factory through the eyes of Frank Cauldhame. Frank is the quintessential unreliable narrator. He is insane, perhaps more so than his brother, Eric. Frank’s reality is the construct of a sick mind. His deviant actions are justified as means to bring order to an otherwise chaotic world. Eric’s own machinations challenge the world Frank has fabricated. The fragile balance threatens to spiral out of control with his brother’s homecoming.
The Wasp Factory is a difficult read. Piecing together the truths –if there are any- from Frank’s narrative are nearly impossible. The only thing that remains clear is Frank’s hatred for women and the sea. The story is less about Frank’s relationship with Eric and more about Frank’s relationship with himself. In the end, Frank’s revelation and the author’s point is somewhat diluted by Frank’s own mental instability. Is any of this real?
For lovers of the grotesque, there are some truly disgusting imagery in The Wasp Factory. The event which serves as the catalyst for Eric’s own descent into psychosis is among the best written passages to ever grace horror literature. Banks is to be commended for the work, but the ending loses much of its intended purpose. Frank is not a scion from which lessons can be learned and that leaves only the madness. Enjoy the journey.