I bought Edward D. Hoch’s posthumous collection The Future is Ours upon its publication four years ago but I’m only reading it now, something which will not come as a surprise to anyone who knows me and my oh so curious reading ways.
No one will be surprised either that I’m reading the stories out of order, starting with the ones interesting me most. I thus began with The Wolfram Hunters, a story I had already read and admired years ago back when Hoch was still alive and I wanted to know whether it stood the test of time.
The answer is a short one: it does, and extremely well. It may be one of Hoch’s best stories, and certainly one of his most original and personal. I find it thus surprising that it is so little discussed by Hoch scholars, including editor Steve Steinbock himself. I’m under the impression that Hoch, like his literary model John Dickson Carr, suffers from criticism that exclusively or mostly focuses on his admittedly spectacular plotting skills and no less spectacular productivity, treating him in the end more like a literary phenomenon than as a writer. He deserves better than that, as The Wolfram Hunters demonstrates.
The story is an early one, having first appeared in The Saint Mystery Magazine in 1964. While Hoch’s record-breaking five-decade stand at EQMM accounts for most of his fame and popularity, much if not most of his best work in my opinion is to be found in his Saint years. As often happens, young Hoch was more versatile and open to experimentation than the elder one; also he didn’t yet have a reputation as a master plotter to sustain, nor did he have to write in this or that series character by popular request. This left him thus more room for things that would take a back seat in his later production such as characterization, atmosphere and matters philosophical and political. In other words, Hoch’s early work may not always be as polished and clever as it would later be, but it makes up for that by being more personal and, yes, literary.
Let’s go back to Wolfram. This is a standalone story, set in a post-Apocalyptic world in which only Amerindians have survived. The main protagonist, a young boy named Running, encounters the last (presumably Catholic) priest left in the area and possibly the world, Father Legion and through him comes to learn about the world before the Bomb and also to question the worldview and traditions of his fellow tribesmen, most notably a quite gruesome version of Easter in which « criminals » – broadly defined – are crucified and left to rot. Of course Hoch being Hoch even at this stage of his career, someone gets missing and it’s up to Father Legion to come up with a suitably clever and unexpected explanation.
What makes the story a standout however is not the puzzle, brilliant as it is, but the way Hoch makes the settings and the characters come to life and describes an alien culture in a non-judgemental way rare at the time. Some political points aimed to contemporary readers are made in the course of the story, with a few still timely such as a character’s rant against the mistreatment of the Natives by white people. At the core however is a debate that is both philosophical and theological. Chief Volyon and Father Legion disagree about the value of « civilization » which the former sees as inherently evil and bound to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, whereas the latter thinks it must be given another chance; but the debate is also between two kinds of Christianity as Steinbock notes in his introduction. Volyon and the tribe believe in, or more accurately practice a ritualistic and Eye-for-an-Eye kind of religion whereas Father Legion advocates forgiveness and condemns the death penalty. That is neither the first or the last time religious themes appear in Hoch’s fiction. Hoch was a Roman Catholic and this frequently shows in his stories but Wolfram is one of the rare instances of him using the mystery story to make a theological point, à la Chesterton. (If you know of any other, please tell me so.)
Hoch was very fond – sometimes too fond – of series characters, an issue about which my feelings are well known and need no dwelling on again. I would have liked more stories set in the Wolfram universe, though, if only to know which of Father Legion or Volyon’s worldviews would prevail in the end, even though Hoch ends on an optimistic, almost Gospel-like, note. It’s a pity we never heard of Running and Father Legion again – and an even greater one that the world at large didn’t and still doesn’t care.