“The High House” is a startlingly original book. It is, in some ways, young adult fantasy. In other ways, it is fully adult allegory. Naturally, such double effect, whether of allegory or some other adult theme, is the hallmark of all great fiction putatively directed at the young, from the “Chronicles of Narnia” to “Alice In Wonderland.” (This is why I think that in a few decades, nobody will remember Harry Potter—sure, it’s original, in many ways, but it is what it is. There is nothing to unpack.) Much of the allegory in “The High House” is Christian, or rather Judeo-Christian, as well as conservative in its view of reality, aside from religion. But the book is compelling simply as a fiction read, for young adult or old adult.
“The High House” is the story of Carter Anderson, a child at the beginning of the book and a young man at the time of most of the book. He lives in Evenmere, the “High House” of the title. It is a house, to be sure, but it is also connected, through doors sometimes locked and sometimes not, to the rest of the Universe, which consists of extensions to the High House, apparently of infinite size and districts. The House’s ageless (but not deathless) servants perform tasks necessary to keep the Universe running. The lord of Evenmere (who is not its owner, merely its administrator), known as the Steward, is Carter’s father. The Steward is tasked with maintaining the house and defending it and its allied lands from the evils without. Of those evils, the prime, or at least immediate, one is the Society of Anarchists.
These aren’t really anarchists in the modern political sense (you can ignore the bitter complaints of other reviewers that they are being slandered). Rather, they embody the distilled essence of all utopian movements. They promise what the serpent promised Eve, and what every modern political ideology has promised its adherents:
“You think us faceless bombers, madmen bent upon destruction. There is more. [We] anarchists wish to tear down, it’s true, but only to rebuild, to create a better house. Has it never occurred to you that all the universe is wrong? Haven’t you felt it? The world is full of pain, sorrow, injustice. Children go hungry; the poor remain poor while well-meaning governments stand helpless, their leaders corrupted by the love of power and material gain, controlled and coerced by those seeking the acquisition of wealth through hypocrisy, cunning, or brute force. If things were better managed, such indecencies would never occur. We seek not simply to annihilate, but to escape from the bondage of time itself, to give mankind the chance to control its own destiny. Imagine, a world where the ravages of the years caused no harm, where corruption befell no one, where death was abolished, where no accident ever harmed man or beast. A world of flowing rivers, endless summers, never the dropping of a single leaf. Where greed would not win the day, and capricious fate have no hold. A planned world, wholly devised, patterned for the good of all. A universe without ugliness, where all were truly equal not just in vain prattle, but in every way—equal in love, temperament, beauty, intelligence. This house holds the power to arrange it so. We will have to destroy much, rebuild from the ground up, but when we are done, time and space will do our bidding. We are called anarchists, and rightly so, for we rage against the injustice of the universe, against God Himself, if you will, and this reality where so many have suffered so long. You could aid us. Join our cause! Fight no more for the balance, the status quo; be bold, innovative, seek a new thing. Those who are rebels today can become the Founding Fathers of a new age, the patriots of eternal justice. Will you be one of us? Against us, you have only the Room of Horrors; with us you have ultimate authority. Make the pledge and I will set you free.”
It would be hard, and I am certainly not capable of, summarizing one side of modern politics better than this. We know, of course, where this leads, and has led so often.
Against the Anarchists are set the forces of good and reality, led by the Steward. Among his forces are the House’s servants, including Enoch (yes, that Enoch), who lights the lamps, and Chant, who winds the clocks. If these tasks are not done, “suns perish and segments of Creation die.” Others serve the Steward or his purposes throughout the worlds attached to the House: the Firemen of Ooz (who fight fires throughout the worlds attached to the House); Jormungand, a dinosaur, or Leviathan, or dragon, that lives in the House’s ever-shifting attic and also serves, or at least obeys, though with a genie’s cunning and dubious loyalty; the Dusters and Burnishers of the Seven Halls of Kitinthim, who rule their kingdom until their king returns, but when asked when he is expected to return, reply “Why never, of course. Do you think we’re fools?” And many more.
The story, without giving too much away, follows Carter Anderson as he searches for his missing, perhaps dead, father. Bereft of the normal resources given to a new Steward of Evenmere, he must explore the worlds connected to the house, which are under attack by the Society of Anarchists, who have obtained tools that make their conquest of the House possible. The story flows swiftly and compellingly. Characters are drawn incisively. From a mysterious figure who appears to help Carter, of whom Carter asks “Who are you?,” the response is “The Face Outside The Window. The Thing the dog barks at in the night, which it cannot see. I am the Thin Man. In here, quickly.” The reader rapidly becomes invested in Carter’s quest, and, of course, invested in Carter’s view of the world and reality.
While “The High House” is part of a trilogy, it stands completely on its own. It rewards the reader with an enjoyable read, as well as much to think about, if the reader is interested in dwelling on the underlying philosophy of the book. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.