BOOK (1984)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 July, 2009, 12:00am

The Wasp Factory

Iain Banks

(Little Brown)

It's hard to believe that 25 years have passed since Iain Banks first slithered onto the literary scene with this dark, dank psychological thriller and its infamous twist in the tale. In only 250 pages, Banks established the range of his black arts: a claustrophobic atmosphere, a palpable sense of menace, a mordant wit and characters who are singularly unlikable but naggingly compelling as well.

Our narrator is Frank Cauldhame, a peculiar young man who lives on an isolated Scottish island. Apart from the plentiful wildlife and a dwarf called Jamie, Frank's only company is his father, a man whose hobbies include being gruff, angry, drunk and secretive. Being secretive might well be the Cauldhame family motto; as their story progresses we learn they have more mysteries than an anthology of crime fiction.

Wild and unsocialised, Frank roams his kingdom pretty much at will. When he's not making and exploding bombs he observes the strict rules of his own baroque personal mythology.

At the centre is the titular Wasp Factory, a sort of home-made fate machine fashioned from a giant clock. Behind this symbolic surface lurks a maze that provides a gruesome game show for wasps: the captured insects wander minute passages before meeting an unpleasant death behind each of the 12 numerals. Each end has a specific meaning for Frank, and influences his choice of murderous action throughout.

Adorning this gothic shrine are relics from Frank's own life: hair from his father and his absent brother, Eric; portraits of other Cauldhames; and in pride of place the skull of Old Saul, the dog which, we are told, chewed off Frank's genitals when he was a wee nipper.

The shrine allegorises Frank's life, and above all his relationship with the unhinged Eric who, as the novel opens, has escaped from an insane asylum and is coming home. The grizzly pasts of this grizzly pair slowly unravel until the reader (and Frank) begin to glimpse the secret kept in Mr Cauldhame's study.

While Frank's history of violence is not for the faint-hearted, what really chills the blood is his coolness when relating his serial killing: 'Looking at me, you'd never guess I'd killed three people. It isn't fair.' This tone of petulant sangfroid shocked many when the book first appeared: Banks' debut was called a 'video nasty', 'juvenile delinquency' and a 'repulsive piece of work'.

In a smart act of reverse-marketing, these bad reviews were put to sensational use on the paperback cover. Both reactions - shock and awe - are as justified now as they were back in 1984. Whichever is your poison, The Wasp Factory will haunt the imagination.