As explained recently, I maintain an interest in Frank Herbert’s non-Dune books. Not only do we see many of his Dune ideas and inspirations in other forms, but we can also see that his ambitions as a writer extended well beyond his signature series.
Soul Catcher (1972) is Herbert’s effort to break into mainstream literary fiction. It tells the story of Charles Hobuhet, a Native American of a Northwestern tribe, who abducts but then bonds with the thirteen year-old son of an important government official. It is an adventure saga suffused with religious, philosophical and psychological themes. I became interested in SC after reading Bormgans’ generously thorough review on his blog Weighing a Pig Doesn’t Fatten It. I definitely recommend following the link, and my article is meant to be a companion piece to Bormgans’, hopefully with minimal overlap.
SC begins with Charles, a gifted graduate student, discovering a new identity for himself in the wilderness. This is soon after his young sister committed suicide, after being raped by a group of drunk loggers. Herbert suggests that Charles has been hearing voices in his head recently, which he attributes to natural spirits summoning him. An encounter with a bee leads to a revelation:
Cold came with the bee, too. It was a special cold that put ice in the soul.
Still Charlie Hobuhet’s soul then.
But he had performed the ancient ritual with twigs and string and bits of bone. The ice from the bee told him he must take a name. Unless he took a name immediately, he stood in peril of losing both souls, the soul in his body and the soul that went high or low with his true being.
This concept of two parts to the soul is also known to Western philosophy, mainly through the arguments made by Nietzsche. In his Beyond Good and Evil (sec. 12), we find the famous German thundering away at the Cartesian tradition:
. . . one must also, first of all, give the finishing stroke to that other and more calamitous atomism which Christianity has taught best and longest, the soul atomism. Let it be permitted to designate by this expression the belief which regards the soul as something indestructible, eternal, and indivisible, as a monad, as an atomon: this belief ought to be expelled from science!
In the middle of SC, Charles (now Katsuk) echoes this sentiment to David, whom he has been referring to as hoquat:
[Katsuk:] “Your dream told you that you aren’t yet ready.”
[David:] “Ready for what?”
“To go anywhere.”
“Oh.” Silence, then: “That dream scared me.”
“Ahhh, you see — the hoquat science doesn’t liberate you from the terror of the gods.”
“Do you really believe in that stuff, Katsuk?”
His voice low and tense, Katsuk said: “Listen to me! Every person has two souls. One remains in the body. The other travels high or low. It is guided by the kind of life you lead. The soul that travels must have a guide: a spirit or a god.”
“That isn’t what they teach in church.”
Katsuk has found his guide in the spirit Raven, and throughout the book he interprets the behavior of a flock of — actually, a conspiracy of — ravens as the actions of a supernatural being in alliance. If these blackbirds were actually crows, they would be a murder, hewing even closer to Katsuk’s intentions.
Katsuk’s mission, as revealed in the opening of the novel, is to take David away from an upscale wilderness camp (where he was working as a councillor), educate him in his naturist religion, and kill him as part of a sacred ceremony. Just like the birds, Katsuk interprets David’s actions as signals of a soul in transformation. David must complete his spiritual journey as someone willing to be sacrificed for Katsuk’s “message.”
As their friendship develops, Katsuk and David both have their struggles with competing motivational drives. Katsuk wants to use David for revenge against the society that took away his younger sister, but he also cares for his well-being and growth. David knows he must escape from Katsuk, but thrives under his guidance. In each person, one of these drives will ultimately win over the others, as anticipated by Nietzsche:
But anyone who considers the basic drives of man to see to what extent they may have been at play just here as inspiring spirits (or demons and kobolds) will find that all of them have done philosophy at some time — and that every single one of them would like only too well to represent just itself as the ultimate purpose of existence and the legitimate master of all the other drives. For every drive wants to be master — and it attempts to philosophize in that spirit.
— Beyond Good and Evil, sec. 6
SC is dedicated to Ralph and Irene Slattery, a married couple who were each highly-regarded clinical psychologists in California. They were friends with Herbert and gave him many insights into human motivation. Irene was a student of Carl Jung in Zurich, and fled Europe soon after witnessing the rise of Hitler in person. She translated her notes from Jung’s lectures for an eager Herbert, and impressed upon him many ideas over time – not only the Jungian understanding of racial memories and the subconscious, but (from experiencing Hitler) the dangers posed by emergent national heroes.
I’ve read some discussion of SC claiming, with good reason, that the most important theme of the book is that of innocence; I tend to think of David’s repeated identification as “the innocent” as a plot device, rather than the key to a principal abstract theme. The real purpose of utilizing this young character is to facilitate a serious attempt to connect with the reader’s subconscious.
- Katsuk’s revelations are often occurring subconsciously, as he is waking for sleep or in a trance-like state. The encounter with the bee is the first incident, but other messages come to him as he is deeply ill, and while constructing a bow out of driftwood. Some of the descriptions of the spirit world that Katsuk visits have been criticized as inaccurate to traditional Quileute beliefs, but Charles became Katsuk very rapidly — and therefore, imperfectly — and neither his visions nor his actions should be construed as representative of Quileute Indians in general.
- SC includes detailed descriptions of David’s dreams and waking moments, beginning with the morning he leaves for camp. Sentences like “without opening his eyes, he could sense the world around his home — the long, sloping lawns, the carefully tended shrubs and flowers” seem odd at first, but Herbert pursues the subconscious throughout the book.
- David’s youthful perspective is intended to invoke our own memories of childhood experiences. Herbert can overplay the naiveté sometimes, such as when David confuses the ethnicity of his South Asian housemaid with the Northwest Indians of his own state of Washington, but for the most part he describes a plausible young person. The dialogue between David and Katsuk is significantly better than the conservations between the submarine crew of The Dragon in the Sea.
Why do this? Herbert was an enthusiastic fan of Jung’s ideas, and the relative simplicity of this novel offered the opportunity to attempt the ambitious trick. SC (like almost every other novel I’ve read) is appreciably simpler than Dune, and Herbert kept the cast of characters minimal, the setting richly described but simple, and the plot moving in a single direction. Most of the time, the two characters follow a single path through the wilderness, and deviations from it are consistently thwarted.
The novel is effective at building suspense right to the last pages. Will Katsuk follow through on his promise to kill David, after befriending him and teaching him so much? I won’t spoil it here. On the surface, Katsuk’s final actions appeared triggered by a misunderstanding, but throughout SC he has been ascribing intentions on practically everything he observes around him, accidental or not. Once again, the boundary between religious enlightenment and insanity is blurred.
SC was a very important effort in the career of Frank Herbert, and its origins were described in the biography Dreamer of Dune. After completing the entire manuscript in 1971, Herbert spent some days thinking things over before mailing, at one point attending a local seminar organized by Native Americans. After experiencing the outrage first-hand — I admit to have known very little about these issues, at least in the Pacific Northwest, until reading SC — he rewrote the entire novel and replaced the ending. This new conclusion was met with strong disagreement from an influential friend of his, a Quileute Indian, but it received critical praise from the likes of Dee Brown (who wrote Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee).
A small Seattle outfit wanted to make a movie out of SC, but only if Herbert would allow them to change the controversial ending. Herbert refused to allow this, and the film was never made. Bormgans mentions another planned adaptation of SC, which also would have a changed ending. My feeling towards this, and screen adaptations in general, is that there needs to be a monetary return on some level and I’m not going to get upset about something I could just opt not to see.*
Also interesting is the fact that an executive at Putnam wanted Herbert to increase the size of his submitted manuscript, so the author added about 30 pages of additional material. Dreamer of Dune does not reveal what part of SC was added in at this stage. It’s tempting to think that it was the sheriff’s quotes of epitaphs drawn from Charlie’s writings, as they regularly appear throughout the book without changing the plot. But the Dune series demonstrated how much Herbert made use of fictional quotations to deepen his philosophical themes.
My guess that the added section is the reunion Katsuk has with some members of his tribe inside the wilderness, with David in tow. It includes a disturbing interaction between Charlie’s ex-girlfriend and David, something that Herbert may have hesitated to include when submitting the original manuscript. He may have felt emboldened my a second chance to add a controversial passage like that (sometimes, that’s how I manage to push through some of my engineering ideas).
Soul Catcher is an emotional, controversial and challenging book. Herbert has once again managed to package several themes together using his unorthodox style. It is an easier book to get into than Dune, to the point where I would easily recommend it for non-SF readers who aren’t obsessed with political correctness. The contention is the goal. 8/10.
* That said, I was deeply disappointed in the way Amazon Studios shoehorned its own politics into several short stories by Philip K. Dick.