Tuesday 4 December 2012

The Sound of His Horn by Sarban (Sphere, 1970, orig. 1952), feat. Introduction by Kingsley Amis: Book Review

Our next novel in this, the SF segment of a longer series of posts on paperbacks, is a cult work of alternate future fiction originally published in 1952 and largely set roughly 100 years on from then, in a Europe where the Nazis triumphed in World War II:

It's the second Sphere printing of Sarban's The Sound of His Horn, published in paperback in the UK in 1970. I bought this copy for a quid at last year's London Paperback and Pulp Bookfair, the novel – or rather novella; it's quite short – having entered my consciousness as a result of reading Len Deighton's fine alternate history thriller SS-GB. It's one of only three books that Sarban – alias British diplomat John William Wall – published in his lifetime, the others being Ringstones and Other Curious Tales and The Doll Maker and Other Tales of the Uncanny, which were issued by Peter Davies in the years either side of the original Davies edition of The Sound of His Horn. It took until thirteen years after Wall's death in 1989 for further fictions to emerge – two previously unpublished novellas, collected in the limited edition The Sacrifice and Other Stories by Tartarus Press in 2002, followed eight years later by additional bits and bobs in another limited Tartarus edition, Discovery of Heretics.

In the UK, there was quite a gap between the 1952 hardback edition of The Sound of His Horn and the first paperback edition, too: seventeen years to be precise, the first Sphere printing appearing in 1969. That edition can be seen over on The Groovy Age of Horror; it sports a different cover to the 1970 second printing – photographic, as here, but even more graphic, showing the metal-clawed glove of one of the surgically altered cat women – more on them in a moment – raking across a female stomach. Personally, I find the cover of the 1970 printing, which looks to me like the work of Beverley le Barrow maybe, or Chris Yates, more effective: it's evidently meant to be titillating, but I find it a rather disturbing and queasy affair.

As is sometimes the case with paperbacks, the text in the Sphere edition isn't taken from the Davies first edition; it's taken from this:

The Ballantine paperback edition, published in the US in 1960. There's a copyright line to that effect in the Sphere paperback, but the real giveaway is that the Sphere paperback contains the introduction that Ballantine commissioned especially for the novel, written by none other than Kingsley Amis. Amis's long-held enthusiasm for science fiction was becoming common knowledge around this time: that same year, Ballantine also published in paperback New Maps of Hell, a collection of his lectures on SF, while in 1961 Gollancz in the UK issued both New Maps of Hell and the first volume of Spectrum, an anthology of SF stories selected and edited by Amis and his friend Robert Conquest. 

The Sound of His Horn merits little more than an, admittedly glowing, paragraph in New Maps of Hell, but Amis's introduction to the novel itself stretches to eight pages. Amis identifies Sarban's tale as fantasy rather than science fiction, pointing to its rural setting and the "sexual fantasy" that "gives it its irresistible energy and conviction". This takes various forms: the sadomasochistic garb worn by many of the characters; the aforementioned cat girls, turned into savage killers by the hulking Count Hans von Hackelnberg, Master of the Reich's Forests; an orgiastic feast – all aspects of the brutal regime the Nazis have established in northern Europe fifty years hence, a kind of feudal amusement park where flabby Obersts hunt game – both animal and human – and indulge their every pleasurable whim. All this is described by Alan Querdilion, an escapee from a wartime German prison camp who finds himself inexplicably flung into the far future.

Kingsley Amis, whose opinion in such matters I greatly respect, quite rightly hailed the "literary qualities" of The Sound of His Horn, qualities it shares, I'd suggest, with the work of Geoffrey Household. For the books that The Sound of His Horn most readily brought to my mind were Household's: Rogue Male (1939), A Rough Shoot (1951), Dance of the Dwarfs (1968) and others. Not so much the sexuality, although that is certainly evident in at least Dance of the Dwarfs; more the rural locale and the theme of hunting. Like Household, John Wall had a passion for the countryside and for hunting, and seemingly shared with Household the belief that hunting should be for the pot, not for sport. Querdilion's plight in The Sound of His Horn, pursued by cat girls and dog boys, recalls that of Raymond Ingelram in Rogue Male, and even Wall's elegant first person style is very similar to Household's. That said, The Sound of His Horn is a thing all its own – a brief but haunting novel, a "strange combination of daydream and nightmare", as Amis puts it in his introduction, adding: "So compelling is it that I shall always feel a slight twinge whenever I am reminded of the innocent English hunting song from which the title is taken."

Next: Ray Bradbury.


  1. Only novel in this vein I've read is Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle", and that was some time ago--I remember being impressed by how convincing it all was, and how people living in that reality (which we're given to understand was brought about by Franklin Roosevelt's succumbing to polio much sooner than he did in our reality) think about how much simpler life's choices used to be--just like we do.

    The idea of a protagonist suddenly ripped from his or her own time, and sent hurtling into a frightening dystopic world, is also employed in Octavia Butler's "Kindred", published in 1979 (and for all I know, influenced by Sarban's novel). Difference is, this reality isn't imagined--it's Maryland in the early 19th century, and the protagonist is a black woman from the late 20th century, who suddenly finds herself a slave in that world--the protagonist of "The Sound of His Horn" might consider himself well-off by comparison. Seriously, forget fiction--read some of the better slave narratives. It all really happened, a few generations ago. And now Obama is President--again. No story is stranger than history.

    Butler offers no explanation for the time travel, and although she was one of the greatest science fiction writers of her time or any other, insisted the book should be categorized as fantasy. I haven't read it yet, but I'm been working my way through her relatively small body of work, and I'll get to it in the near (but not alternate) future.


  2. I have the Ballantine paperback you picture towards the end of this post. Have yet to read this, but I have read a few of Sarban's weird stories in RINGSTONES. I found SOUND OF HIS HORN in a used bookshop along with two other Ballatine books, all part of their horror series and all with artwork by the same artist as SOHH. The other books are THE VICTORIAN CHAISE LONGUE by Marghanita Laski, THE DOLLMAKER by Sarban. All of them are in amazing condition and I was very happy to find them. The place where I found them is known to have utter junk.

  3. Ah! Reading more carefully, Nick does mention Sarban being a pseudonym used by John William Wall (have to read so fast in the morning). His real name strikes me as an admirable one for an author, but yeah--maybe this wasn't quite the thing a civil servant was supposed to be getting up to in the 1950's.

    But what a pseudonym! Sounds like the title of a John Boorman movie. "SARBAN!" Cue Sean Connery in a loincloth. ;)

  4. I believe "Sarban" is Persian in origin, but I don't know why Wall chose it. Perhaps a passing Sarban scholar could comment...?

    1. Sarban is a Persian word. I am told it means the kind of storyteller who traveled with caravans and entertained people around the campfire during the nightly stops.