“The Horned Man” by James Lasdun

A professor on the sexual harassment committee becomes convinced a philandering homicidal derelict is hiding in his office.

Topics: Books,

Paula Fox is the undisputed master of the short, spare, eerie tale of contemporary white urban disquietude, in which a seemingly nice individual’s life starts to go off the rails as a result of some tiny yet resonant bit of trouble. Her “Desperate Characters” defines the genre, if genre it is, but James Lasdun is a worthy practitioner of the art. His new novel of low-key disintegration, “The Horned Man,” comes with Fox’s recommendation printed on the back.

“The Horned Man,” for better or worse, is a less delicate example of the form. Lasdun’s narrator, Lawrence Miller, a professor of gender studies at a small college just outside New York, lives in the East Village apartment he once shared with his estranged wife. When not preoccupied with pining for her, he serves on the faculty’s sexual harassment committee, and comes nose-to-nose with one Bruno Jackson, a cocky, skirt-chasing lecturer who, like Miller, is an expat Englishman. The committee’s discussion of the Jackson problem prompts a fellow member to reminisce about the college’s worst offender, a Czech named Bogomil Trumilcik, who “made passes at practically every woman he taught” and went raging mad and disappeared when confronted by the administration. Something about this tale captures Miller’s imagination. Eventually, he becomes convinced that Trumilcik is secretly living in his office, scrunched into an alcove between two desks, and intent on ruining his life.

At first it appears natural that Trumilcik should fascinate Miller. The Czech let his predatory impulses run riot, while Miller is bullied by the noisy widower who lives upstairs and worries so much about his attraction to a student intern in the department office that he can hardly stand to have a conversation with her. He knows that sexual harassment committees have by now “become the stock-in-trade object of satire in popular plays and novels,” but he feels obligated to “follow through on my intellectual principles.” He’s something of a milquetoast, so why wouldn’t the notion of his polar opposite speak to his suppressed anger?



Gradually, though, more mysteries and minor catastrophes cluster around Miller than can be adequately explained as the work of even a fiendishly malevolent derelict. He starts lying to his shrink. A colleague appears to think he is sending her amorous messages of one kind or another. He follows a sexy woman into Central Park. He steals his neighbor’s glass eye. He has no idea where his own mother is living. He thinks a lot about the Shakespeare play “Measure for Measure,” in which a seemingly supervirtuous magistrate threatens to kill a virginal novitiate’s brother if she doesn’t sleep with him. Miller thinks he’s discovered evidence that his wife has been carrying on with Jackson. He disguises himself in drag to infiltrate a battered woman’s shelter in search of one of Trumilcik’s shadowy female victims.

You know Miller’s heading for some kind of crackup from the very start; he’s too tightly wound and too much of a goody-two-shoes to make it to the end of any novel unruptured. But Lasdun uses the very real paranoia and isolation of metropolitan life as the hard surface on which to break him, and so the entire city becomes Miller’s tormentor. From the smirking sex radicals of the underground theater scene to the cyber-cafe where “well-heeled-looking kids in neat black sweaters and slacks” with their “slim, angular limbs moving elegantly between keyboard, mouse, beverage, Palm Pilots” and “discreet brushed-steel headsets, adding to the general entomological appearance” suggest “a detachment of plutocratic ants,” the city’s denizens make him feel profoundly alien. A piercing flashback from his youth, his years as the stepson of an aloof aristocratic father who married Miller’s vulgar secretary mother and lived to regret it, indicate that this is far from a recent development.

When Miller’s personality finally begins to unspool, we learn in a rush that even the truths we’d snatched a glimpse of through the increasingly demented reasonableness of Miller’s facade don’t tell the whole story. This, like David Searcy’s masterly and underappreciated “Ordinary Horror,” is Poe for the 21st century, a brainy chiller that finds the most terrifying monsters are those within.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 17
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    John Stanmeyer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Container City: Shipping containers, indispensable tool of the globalized consumer economy, reflect the skyline in Singapore, one of the world’s busiest ports.

    Lu Guang

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Man Covering His Mouth: A shepherd by the Yellow River cannot stand the smell, Inner Mongolia, China

    Carolyn Cole/LATimes

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Angry Crowd: People jostle for food relief distribution following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti

    Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    “Black Friday” Shoppers: Aggressive bargain hunters push through the front doors of the Boise Towne Square mall as they are opened at 1 a.m. Friday, Nov. 24, 2007, Boise, Idaho, USA

    Google Earth/NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Suburban Sprawl: aerial view of landscape outside Miami, Florida, shows 13 golf courses amongst track homes on the edge of the Everglades.

    Garth Lentz

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Toxic Landscape: Aerial view of the tar sands region, where mining operations and tailings ponds are so vast they can be seen from outer space; Alberta, Canada

    Cotton Coulson/Keenpress

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Ice Waterfall: In both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, ice is retreating. Melting water on icecap, North East Land, Svalbard, Norway

    Yann Arthus-Bertrand

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Satellite Dishes: The rooftops of Aleppo, Syria, one of the world’s oldest cities, are covered with satellite dishes, linking residents to a globalized consumer culture.

    Stephanie Sinclair

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Child Brides: Tahani, 8, is seen with her husband Majed, 27, and her former classmate Ghada, 8, and her husband in Hajjah, Yemen, July 26, 2010.

    Mike Hedge

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Megalopolis: Shanghai, China, a sprawling megacity of 24 Million

    Google Earth/ 2014 Digital Globe

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Big Hole: The Mir Mine in Russia is the world’s largest diamond mine.

    Daniel Dancer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Clear-cut: Industrial forestry degrading public lands, Willamette National Forest, Oregon

    Peter Essick

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Computer Dump: Massive quantities of waste from obsolete computers and other electronics are typically shipped to the developing world for sorting and/or disposal. Photo from Accra, Ghana.

    Daniel Beltra

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Oil Spill Fire: Aerial view of an oil fire following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Gulf of Mexico

    Ian Wylie

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Slide 13

    Airplane Contrails: Globalized transportation networks, especially commercial aviation, are a major contributor of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Photo of contrails in the west London sky over the River Thames, London, England.

    R.J. Sangosti/Denver Post

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Fire: More frequent and more intense wildfires (such as this one in Colorado, USA) are another consequence of a warming planet.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>