PEACE, AGYAR, Neil, and Me

Warning: This post contains major spoilers for Peace by Gene Wolfe, Agyar, and how to make me swear loudly.

I came to Gene Wolfe late, and at first didn’t like him; I stopped reading Shadow of the Torturer about a quarter of the way through because I wasn’t enjoying it. Then, when everyone I respected kept raving about it, I tried again, this time forcing myself to read slowly and think about each word, each sentence, and, well, you know what happened.   There aren’t enough o’s in wow.  So then I went out and grabbed everything of his I could find, like you do.  And all went well until I came across Peace.

I read it.  All the way to the end.  Then I scratched my head, and did what everyone does when confused by a Gene Wolfe novel: I called Neil Gaiman.  “Neeeeeillll?” I said.  “Help meeeeee?  I just read Peace and I don’t get it.  An old guy wanders around his house.  Wolfe would never write a book that’s just an old guy wandering around his house.  What am I missing?”

“Right,” he said in that delightful accent I used to be able to imitate perfectly but no longer can which is probably for the best.   “You know that tree that falls over on the first page?  Halfway through the book he plants it.”


“He’s a ghost.”


“And, during the course of the book, he commits between four and six cold-blooded murders, but he doesn’t tell you.  Well, he tells you, but he doesn’t tell you.”


“Remember when he goes prospecting with his partner, and then after that he’s rich and you never hear from the partner again?”


So I read it again, and, like, there aren’t enough o’s in wow.  It set off almost every one of my Cool detectors, which is hard to do, because some of them are set up to only be on when another is off.  But let’s not get into that.

A year or two went by, and one night a chance remark during a conversation with my brother-in-law on an entirely different topic closed the final switch in the “I know what let’s do!” circuit.  I stood up, mumbled something at said brother-in-law, dashed upstairs to my study, and wrote all night.  Because what had clicked was this: What if I wrote a vampire novel, but never said he was a vampire?  Just, you know, this sociopath wandering around doing terrible things, and maybe I could plant a few clues so some people would get it, but never actually say what’s going on.  Wouldn’t that be fun?  I mean, I’d decided years before that I’d never write a vampire novel, because Chelsea Quinn Yarbro had already done everything I’d have wanted to do in Hotel Transylvania.  But then this happened, and I stayed up all night writing the first chapter.

I showed it to my writers group, wondering if I should tell them right away what was going on, or if I ought to wait and see how well it worked when they didn’t know.  They said, “Oh, you’re writing a vampire novel.”

I showed it my agent, who said, “Oh, you’re writing a vampire novel.”

I showed it to my editor, who said, “Oh, you’re writing a vampire novel.”


Anyway, I wrote it, it’s one of my books I’m most happy with, and I’m also happy that, many years later, I got to tell that story on a panel when Gene was in the audience, and he laughed a lot.

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30 thoughts on “PEACE, AGYAR, Neil, and Me”

  1. I liked Agyar a lot.

    Maybe now I’ll read Peace and come back to this post. (I avoided the spoilers.)

  2. The audio book is NOT fscked. Seriously. Everything is fine. 1-2 days if they are the right days. For the benefit of the home audience..

    To appease ACX we are adding start/stop buffers because we clipped our chapters too tight, splitting the opening credits from the prologue because that’s requires, and cutting together a 1 minute teaser because the one i hastily cobbled together was rejected. Then the whole sets needs to be reuploaded because the numbering will have changed and designing a decent ux is hard even for tech companies. Maybe this week, probably next.

  3. Any time I recommend or lend Agyar to someone, I always tell them “But DON’T read the back cover blurb”.

    The edition I first read didn’t spoil the book on the back cover, but the ones I’ve owned since do.

  4. Coincidentally, Agyar was the book I posted in my ‘post seven covers in seven days’ challenge. Really love that book. Thank you for writing it.

    — Shawn

  5. *Agyar* was great. I didn’t care that it was obviously a vampire story, it was still great.

    *Peace* doesn’t say what people think it says. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing. You can look at the place where the dog’s eye is supposed to be and just KNOW that it’s a brown eye. But you don’t know. Your mind just filled it in the way you thought it ought to be.

    People get so excited that they can make sense of it, that they forget that they’re creating the story in their own heads and not reading it on the page.

    Now I want to read it again. I didn’t remember that he got rich after that incident, I thought he inherited wealth from his uncle in law. But it could have been both.

    Various deaths happened. Some others could be inferred. Did he do murders in cold blood? It isn’t clear. Did he kill people? That isn’t clear either. Once you decide the pattern is there, and look for more, you will see more. Did he kill a pedestrian with a car? He said somebody could have. Did he intend to? He doesn’t say. Did he give a girl a fatal STD? He doesn’t say he did. It doesn’t even come out and say she has an STD at all. Did he intend to do that? He doesn’t say. There are some important deaths in the story. There are people who drop out of the story who could plausibly have died. There are people he could have killed. You can read in what you want.

    But then, any time you assume a story is told by an unreliable narrator, you’re reading in what you want. And the story can’t say everything. You always read in lots of things. Just, in *Peace* it’s so overtly done, you can’t help notice that you’re creating the story for yourself in your own mind.

    Except it seems like a lot of people DON”T notice….

  6. Great story!

    In addition to all the other reasons I love Agyar, it’s (as far as I know) the only time Devera has appeared in the cover art :)

  7. My favorite part of the dangerous yarn that is PEACE by Gene Wolfe is the circus story in the middle of it. Slippery stuff. He was a true titan and I thank you for this.

  8. I absolutely had the same feeling when I read Agyar as a teenager. I think I was about halfway through the book before I went, “Oh! He’s a vampire! I have to restart the book.” And I did, then found a whole load of new appreciation for what I’d read. And when I was working at a comic shop in 2000, the owner was travelling to a convention where you were signing, Steve, and I had her take a copy of Agyar for you to sign, because I still think it’s one of your best books.

  9. Probably my favorite book of yours with one of my favorite paragraphs ever. Brought tears to my eyes when I read it:

    “Everything has melted, and spring, with her warm breeze slipping through the boards over the window, has created her own metaphor; that of tears from the melting heart. Two days ago I could not have written that with a straight face, and now I cannot bring myself to laugh, and that is your fault. Did you know what you were doing when you put this here for me to read?”

  10. Thank you, Steve. That means a lot. That paragraph is sort of the hint of the meta-story, or, I dunno, maybe the author’s intent? Something like that. Anyway, I’m really glad to hear it worked.

    Thanks, Larry. Hope you like it.

  11. Hmm. This discussion does ring a bell in my memory…

    “…and listening to the sound of the dripping snow, and to the icicles melting, and it seemed to me that the whole house was melting like the candle, going soft and running down into the lawn.”

    I hadn’t ever connected Peace and Agyar before. At least for me, the twist in Agyar was not immediately obvious. I was probably halfway through the book before I realized what was actually going on. And had to go back to the start.

    But I am also slow some ways. I have probably read Peace twenty times in the last 35 years. And it was probably repeat 5 or 10 before I picked up on anything – the elm, the grave, the ghost story under the story, nada. I am pretty sure that this is a book where I will never, never, completely get to the bottom of the layers. I wonder about the nature of the “huge faces bending between those stars… golden and tenuous” – but I suspect Weer had wandered in his purgatory for a very, very long time.

    “And then the cat jumped off the boat and sat on a stone, and thought about what time the cows would be milked, and at last she said “How long until five?” and the rat laughed, but Brandon said, “Twenty thousand years.”

    I never met Gene Wolfe, but his stories were a touchstone for me over and over again. I knew that he had been ill. When I heard he had passed away a few weeks ago, it seemed to me that a door that had begun to creak shut with Ray Bradbury, and Iain Banks, and Harlan Ellison, and Ursula LeGuin, had stopped its creaking and given a last little click of the latch.

    I don’t happen to own a copy of his short story collection Endangered Species, but last week I picked it up from the library to re-read. And in his introduction I read:

    “Therefore, let me describe the reader for whom I wrote all these stories. I wrote them for you.”

    – Grant Canterbury

  12. I will admit that I have owned a copy of Agyar for many years but that I have not yet read it.

    There are two reasons. First, it appears to be a dark book and I am not ready for a dark book. Second, I somehow need to have at least one unread book by Steve in reserve. Perhaps when I finish “The Last Contract”, but maybe even then I will still keep that hope of a next book alive forever.

    As for Gene Wolfe, one of my most vivid passages was when one of his characters encountering a god, and described that being as one that appeared “as if there was a great light behind them”. Somehow that was far more vivid and ‘real’ to me than the regular ‘dude that glowed’ thing.

  13. Sorry I was late to the party. I had to order Peace and Agyar, wait for them to arrive, read them, then cry a little bit for Mr. Wolfe.

    Now that I am done with both, I will say that it would seem that Wolfe did not believe in true love, but Steve Brust does. Or, at least, still did in the early 90s.

    Also, I figured out “John” Agyar’s secret–he’s actually Hungarian.

  14. Kragar: Is that a “My Fair Lady” riff? Even if it was not intentional, that was still pretty funny.

  15. I think this would be a good time to quote Oscar Wilde. How did that go?

    “Sometimes I am so clever, I have no idea what I am talking about.”

  16. I had a few minutes at work and every once in awhile I get the urge to come check in on the Dream Café and read for a bit.

    Nice to see this thread in here (as I’m now curious to check out a book or 2 by Wolfe).

    Steven, I have always loved Agyar. It has one of my favourite paragraphs you’ve ever written.
    “…strength does not come from passion for justice, it comes from not caring…
    …but if you can say, ‘I don’t care’, that is a strength they cannot take away.”

    Of course, you must mean it.

    I didn’t want to re-write the whole thing…just wanted to voice that. That paragraph has stuck with me since you wrote it. And that was my first read of yours other than the Jhereg books so I really liked that it had a neat twist that was never really spelled out for the reader.

    I think that’s what it was for me…subtlety. That takes some skill.

  17. I was convinced I’d found true love as a teenager with my first serious girlfriend. She was really into the vampire genre and made me watch Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which didn’t really do much for me. Neither did the Anne Rice novels.
    When we broke up and I was devastated and reeling, I happened to read Agyar. I didn’t figure out the reveal until the very end, and I loved it! it was the first vampire anything I’d enjoyed.
    So teenage-me thought it’d be a great gesture to give her my copy, with all the passages about love and pain underlined (!) and a personal note about how it made me think of her.

    She did NOT figure out that it was a “hidden-in-the-margins” vampire novel.

    Didn’t speak to me for months, and when we finally had an awkward path-cross, she asked why I gave her a novel about a creepy stalker, and what kind of person was I? All I could say was, “But…vampires??” We did not get back together.
    Anyway, Agyar now holds a special spot in my own autobiography. I’ve not read anything by Gene Wolfe, but now I’m excited to read one of your inspirations!

  18. I was lucky, living in something of a cultural backwater when Agyar was published. It was the first SKZB book I bought in cloth. (For the importance to me, I would that it were “To Reign In Hell,” but fortune said otherwise.)

    Had an a-ha moment about halfway through the book over threshold issues and thought “That’s a vampire thing.”

    I played the Count in a production of Dracula on stage some years before and had adopted a Frank Langella line: “There are worse things than death awaiting our final days.”

    I sensed a serious world weariness in Jack Agyar, and knew when he could not pass a threshold without invitation the reason behind it.

    I appreciate when my intelligence, limited as it might be, is respected by an author.

    On another note, I shall explore the works of Gene Wolf. In Douglas Adam’s, “The Long Tea Time of the Soul,” a hypothesis gets offered that certain authors whose first and last names had similar type space had literally made a deal with the Devil had discouraged me from reading Wolfe.

    It’s worth noting that Wolfe’s cover art never rose to the level of that of SKZB (who has acknowledged he’s been lucky in that regard) that Wolfe has had generic cover art.

  19. Tried read a couple of Mr. Wolfe’s novels. Never found them enjoyable and always came to the conclusion that hey, there’s a book by someone that I haven’t read and and have always enjoyed and moved on. If I ever have money again I shall need to try “Pease”. I believe that I already stated that Agyar might be my fav of yours, or maybe To Reign in Hell.

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