Arts Reviews

Book of the Month – December

TITLE: Wasp Factory

AUTHOR: Iain Banks

GENRE: Psychological Fiction

PUBLISHER: MacMillan Publishers


PAGES: 184

As the nights grow darker so does our taste in literature. Impact’s chosen book of the month is a perverse horror classic: The Wasp Factory – the controversial, arresting debut from acclaimed novelist Iain Banks.

There’s something horrific about Scotland. Whether it’s the smack-addled back alleys of Edinburgh or some far-flung Hebridean island, that madcap country has served as the backdrop for all manner of spine-chilling antagonists. Among the most notable has to be Lord Summerisle, The Wicker Man’s smooth-talking autocrat who psychologically enslaved an entire community to pander to his avid god complex.

In more recent memory Isserley, the extra-terrestrial femme fatale from Under The Skin, ensnaring unwary hitchhikers for her species to devour. And of course, perhaps most terrifying of all, Trainspotting’s Franco Begbie – the maniacal psychopath who gleefully terrorised seedy Edinburgh hovels, a vile creature spewed from the depraved genius of Irvine Welsh’s imagination.

“The Wasp Factory treats us to not just one crazed lunatic but three”

Set almost entirely on a remote Scottish island, The Wasp Factory treats us to not just one crazed lunatic but three. The novel, Iain Banks’ arresting debut, revolves predominantly around Frank Cauldhaume – a cold and merciless teenager who possesses a penchant for calculated violence. Most alarming is his candid admission of the murder of three of his family members, brushed mercilessly aside as “just a stage I was going through.”

The remainder of the Cauldhaume family is no more mentally stable. Frank’s brother Eric, an aspiring doctor driven to near insanity during his studies, has a history of setting dogs alight and force feeding maggots to local children. Their aged hippie father is pathologically obsessed with measuring dimensions of objects, secreting himself away in a private study that Frank has never entered yet desperately longs to explore.

“Banks is playing his cards close to his chest.”

Growing up in isolation, it’s as if Frank’s childhood games have manifested into deranged adolescent obsessions. He continues to play at protecting the island, but does so by deploying a series of homemade weapons and strange rituals, all executed in devout correspondence with his perverse contraption: the titular Wasp Factory. Although alluded to numerous times by Frank, the sheer torturous nature of the factory isn’t made clear until the novel nears its breath-taking apex. As always, Banks is playing his cards close to his chest.

Despite all its shock and revulsion, ultimately the true appeal of The Wasp Factory lies in its trite, meticulous prose. Banks takes a steely poker-faced approach to plot development: incrementally teasing out strands of ideas only to leave his readers aghast by the sheer ferocity of his reveals. He divulges the catalyst for Eric’s breakdown in one of the most tautly written yet disturbing passages ever committed to print.

“None of his other works seemed to garner quite the same acclaim”

Before passing away at the age of 59, Banks went on to publish a further twenty-seven full length books. His oeuvre includes a number of other horror novels, a series of ruminations on artificial intelligence and even a travel guide to Scottish whisky distilleries. As an author he lived something of a dual identity, writing science fiction under one moniker and the rest under another. And yet, despite his prosperous career, none of his other works seemed to garner quite the same acclaim, or the same controversy, as The Wasp Factory did. A twisted, masterful debut.


Ben Edge

Image courtesy of MacMillan Publishers

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