The Sound of His Horn Critical Essays

John William Wall


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Despite being set in an alternate future, The Sound of His Horn is fantasy, not science fiction. The predominant emotion is fear, the fear experienced by hunted prey. There is a nightmarish feeling to the story, created by the dark woods, the gigantic and barbaric Master Forester, the mythic hunt, the savage cat-women and boar-hounds, the naked youths bred or trained for amusement, and the devaluation of human life. Although there are some scientific advances in this future world— the Bohlen Rays, textiles, and animal and human breeding—the Master Forester’s estate is distinctly medieval in appearance, costume, weapons, and amusements. The terrors arise not from the science and technology but from darker instincts manifested by the count’s sadistic behavior and awakened in turn in his victims.

Sarban is the pseudonym of the British career diplomat John W. Wall. The name comes from a Persian word for a storyteller who traveled with caravans. Under this pseudonym, Wall published only three books of fiction, all of them fantastic in nature. The other two are collections, published immediately before and after The Sound of His Horn: Ringstones, and Other Curious Tales (1951) and The Dollmaker, and Other Tales of the Uncanny (1953).

The Sound of His Horn (the title comes from “John Peel,” the English hunting song) is the longest of Sarban’s fictions, yet it is scarcely more than a novella. The story is told economically, but with great vividness and intensity. Querdilion describes in detail the horrors he experiences, so that the reader, like the protagonist himself, is likely to be both fascinated and appalled. Sarban knits the entire story together, including the beginning and end frame story, with a recurring cat motif extending from Querdilion’s fiancée regarding him with a catlike gaze at the beginning to his final remark that “Cats are a damn nuisance.” In between, there are the terrifying cat-women, the self-sacrificing Kit, and Querdilion’s own name, presumably an anglicization of “Coeur de Lion” (from Richard the Lion-Hearted), an ironic reversal suggesting that the brave soldier (and former hunter) can know a fear more deeply threatening than even that of the modern battlefield when he becomes the prey. The Sound of His Horn is a compelling, disturbing story, a minor masterpiece of modern British fantastic literature.