Thursday, August 19, 2010

Soul Catcher - Frank Herbert

Soul Catcher is one of Herbert's books that has been out of print for quite a while. I've been keeping an eye out for this book for over a year and probably ended up paying too much to get my hands on it. I can't say I regret spending that money though, this copy is in very good condition considering it is older than I am. In Brian Herbert's biography Dreamer of Dune, this book is mentioned a lot. It is one of the more interesting works in Herbert's oeuvre, being the only mainstream novel he ever published. This was not his only attempt to break in to he mainstream market but none of the others were successful. Although there are no obvious science fiction elements in this novel, the ecological and mythological themes in the book especially, ties it to a lot of Herbert's other works. It is not easy to come by but if you do find a copy don't hesitate because it is labelled mainstream. If anything this book shows how meaningless the distinction is.

After his sister is raped by a gang of drunken lumberjacks and commits suicide to cover her shame, native American Charles Hobuhet plans to take revenge on the white man's society he's been living in. Once a promising student of anthropology and nearly a white man, he returns to his roots and takes the name of Katsuk. He kidnaps David Marshall, the thirteen-year-old son of the newly appointed Undersecretary of State. David is he perfect innocent. Katsuk means to sacrifice him in a ancient ritual to take revenge for all the innocents of his people that died at the hands of the whites. Together they travel into a remote part of the Pacific Northwest, living of the land while evading the search parties sent out after them. As Katsuk prepares for the ritual, a bond between the boy and the man develops. Will this be enough to make Katsuk decide to forgo the ritual?

One of the things that struck me about this particular copy is the text on the back flap. The biography bit starts: "This is Frank Herbert's first major novel. He has written numerous science fiction books, of which Dune...". Apparently someone at Putnam didn't want to mix their mainstream and science fiction. At that point Dune has already sold more copies than most mainstream novelist would dream of but somehow Soul Catcher is his first major novel and Dune a science fiction book (and a minor work at that). How it can be good business to piss of such a large part off your potential readers and insult your author in one careless line is beyond me. They must have seen things differently forty years ago.

Potential readers definitely include the people who enjoyed Herbert's science fiction. Both thematically and stylistically there are clear links with his other books. The book does not have chapters but sections are separated by quotes from letters, news stories and the writings of Charles Hobuhet, a technique he uses in a number of his other novels as well. The story also features the in conversations switches of point of view, although with fewer characters around, it is not so prominent is in, for example, the later Dune novels. Herbert clearly didn't think it was necessary to change his approach to writing to produce a more literary result. Makes me wonder what the critics of the time thought about this book. The mighty Google search engine hasn't been able to answer that question for me.

There is one striking difference with though. Without science fiction plot elements and with most of the novel set in the wilderness, this story is much more character driven than his other works. Katsuk is mostly busy with his ritual, the message he wants to send to the world, his connection with the spirit world. His actions may have far reaching consequences for David and himself, the ritual will not have any major effects on the universe. He intends to send a message but if anybody will listen is doubtful. David on the other hand is mostly thinking of escape. To an extend Katsuk makes him see the world through different eyes (perhaps a touch of Stockholm syndrome there) but he is an remains the innocent Katsuk kidnapped. In fact, his innocence is a critical point in the novel. The way Herbert expresses why David is innocent, how Katsuk views the concept is one of the most interesting parts of Soul Catcher.

The story is mostly set on the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington. A region Herbert was intimately familiar with. In a way this novel is very personal. Although he never mentions the name of the people Katsuk belongs to, I suspect he is Quileute, the people who once lived in the entire area. Herbert did extensive research for this book and delved deeply into the mythology and language of these people. It introduces the reader to a lot of concepts and a world view that, to western eyes at least, is completely foreign. The way Charles, a man quite capable of seeing the world through western eyes suddenly switches to the world view of his people is hard to follow for a lot of people. The sheriff tasked with finding puts it like this:
Sheriff Mike Pallat:
Look, the Indian lost his kid sister a couple months ago. He adored that kid. He was her family, understand? After their parents died he raised her almost by himself. She was raped by a gang of drunken bastards and went out and killed herself. She was a good kid. I'm not surprised Charles went off his nut. This is what comes of sending and Indian to college. He studies how we've been giving his people the shitty end of the stick. Something happens... he returns to savage.
Although the sheriff seems to have a superficial knowledge of the Quileute in the area, there is so much prejudice in this statement and it is so horribly simplified reading it made me wince. Which is probably the response Herbert tried to trigger. Compare this to the highly developed mythological framework Herbert introduces and the intimate knowledge of his environment the world savage is just laughable. There's another word that is bound to set Katsuk off. Indian. He feels he should not be named for a five hundred year old mistake. If I remember correctly this book was written in a time when people were trying to retire word Indian. Although nobody seemed to agree how we should refer to Indians in the future. Maybe it is not such a bright idea to try to catch so diverse a group of people in one word.

The real controversy about Soul Catcher is probably the ending. In Dreamer of Dune (which mentions the end of the novel explicitly so if you don't want it spoiled, read the novel first) Brian Herbert mentions Frank got a lot of responses either confirming the ending as something Katsuk would do or that he got it all wrong. Even the Native American community seems to disagree on it. From a literary point of view I'd say it works very well. It's one of those endings that will stick with you, although I already knew how the story would end it still hit me as emotionally very powerful. Soul Catcher is a very sophisticated piece of writing. It shows Herbert's fabulous capacity to research the topic of his novel but also to write a very intense, character driven story. Herbert shows us a side of his talent the reader doesn't get to see that often. I always considered The Dosadi Experiment to be his best novel but I may have to reconsider. Somebody do us all a favour and bring this back into print!

Book Details
Title: Soul Catcher
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Putnam
Pages: 250
Year: 1972
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: unknown
First published: 1972


  1. Great review. I found a used copy of this book at a dollar store several years back, and being a fan of Frank Herbert's works of science-fiction, I didn't hesitate to get it. I'll have to say it's been the best "bang for a buck" I've spent yet! I'm going to agree with the reviewer, it's perhaps the closest contender to 'The Dosadi Experiment' at being his best novel. This isn't just because 'Soul Catcher' has superb pacing, characterizations, and captivating storytelling; it's because this book is so accessible. Frank certainly had within his main body of work a tremendous ability to flesh out intertwining social, political, and societal themes in complex and wildly imaginative futuristic settings, but it doesn't appeal to a wide audience of readers. 'Soul Catcher' surely DOES. It's Herbert's prose and imagination in a more down-to-earth setting many more readers will enjoy. If you like fiction but you don't dig sci-fi, it's okay. This book won't disappoint. If you're lucky enough to find one, get it :)

  2. Ah.. I wish it would be easier to get used English language books around here. You don't want to know what I paid for my copy ;)

    I do hope someone will reprint it, it's a real shame that this book is fading to obscurity.