World War II is often the go-to historical moment for alternate history novels. But in Jake Arnott's novel House of Rumour it becomes the focal point for a secret history that's stranger and more elaborate than just "What if the Nazis won?" Arnott weaves figures like L. Ron Hubbard and Virginia Woolf into a quasi-mystical tale.
In fact, a novel about the Nazis winning World War II is one of the many strands that Arnott joins together into his complicated crazy-quilt of a story that takes real events and fictionalizes them slightly.
In 1941, a crucial point in the war, German Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess randomly decided to fly to Scotland, perhaps to try and make peace with the British. Instead, he wound up a prisoner of the Allies for the next several decades. Hess' flight to Scotland is randomly predicted in a novel that came out years earlier called Swastika Night, which is about a possible future in which the Nazis succeed in conquering the rest of the world.
Why did Hess suddenly decide to make a doomed voyage to Scotland? And how did the author of Swastika Night, a woman writing under the name Murray Constantine, predict this event? Arnott takes these questions and runs with them, spinning a weird yarn that comes to include genderfucked pop stars of the 1970s and 1980s, the birth of Scientology, the Jonestown mass suicide, and just tons of other stuff.
In Arnott's version of events, an operation mounted by British Intelligence, under the control of future James Bond creator Ian Fleming, convinces Hess that there are enough Nazi sympathizers in Britain to make a personal outreach worthwhile. But Fleming also enlists the aid of the famed Aleister Crowley to convince Hess, through German astrologers, that mystical forces favor this venture. But meanwhile, in California Jack Parsons and a whole bunch of science fiction writers are doing naked pagan rituals, which may also exert some kind of magical influence on Hess' decisions.
Arnott isn't interested in revealing any great secret, or uncovering any tremendous mystery, about spies and mystics and science fiction authors — instead, his book is largely a character study of a bunch of people who were touched by the strange confluence of war, secrets, rocket science, speculation and dark magic.
To the extent that Arnott's sprawling book has a main character, it's Larry Zagorski, whom we meet as a young struggling science fiction author in 1930s L.A., going to Clifton's Cafeteria and rubbing elbows with Robert A. Heinlein along with Hubbard and Parsons. Zagorski is in love with another science-fiction author, Mary-Lou Gunderson, and his best friend is an idealistic Cuban expat named Nemo.
Zagorski's story sort of traces the evolution of science fiction, from the pulps to the New Wave to the post-Star Wars era. Zagorski starts out writing weird tales, and then after a traumatic World War II experience (including seeing "foo fighters," strange lights alongside his plane) he starts experimenting with speed and then with other drugs. In the 1960s, he becomes a quasi-Philip K. Dick experimenter, and then he goes through other changes as the new millennium approaches.
One strand that emerges from all of this seems to have to do with science fiction's loss of innocence. Larry Zagorski's generation of writers believes in the maxim, "if you change the world, build a spaceship," and talks seriously about building an interplanetary utopia. Zagorski obsesses about the idea of "Jonbar points," moments where history could go in one direction or another. But as the Cold War ends and the Space Age sort of slows down, the idea of changing the world with spaceships and unearthly innovations gets further and further away from everyone's grasp.
And meanwhile, the story of Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard gets woven in to a whole bunch of other stuff about cults and rituals and strange beliefs. The whole novel is structured like the tarot deck, with each chapter representing a card. And meanwhile, Zagorski marries an actress who joins first the "Space Brothers" UFO cult and then later the Jim Jones family.
The mass delusions of Nazism and Scientology come to seem part of a whole pattern of widespread delusions — and it is this human capacity to confuse and bedazzle ourselves, Arnott suggests, that makes the "negritude" (or purposely obscure trickery) of master spies possible.
House of Rumour is fascinating as much for the way it draws connections (sometimes real, sometimes invented) between disparate subjects like the invention of James Bond and Virginia Woolf's suicide as for the story that Arnott is telling. This is definitely a novel that thrives on cleverness and sedulous mining of history, rather than characters or storytelling. But if you're interested in a very off-kilter, fascinating look at the twentieth century, through the lens of science fiction and black magic, then this book is well worth checking out.