A few years ago, I decided to read the most important other Herbert novels before starting a reread of the Dune series. A review of Children Of Dune on the always thoughtful Gaping Blackbird, made me eager to start that reread. That review focuses on the Nietzschean inspiration of CoD, and it led to an interesting discussion in the comments. So, I was eager to dive into Dune again, but as I still had Soul Catcher on my TBR, I started that.
Yesterday, after finishing Soul Catcher, I decided to kick the reread of Dune even a bit further back, and I ordered Destination: Void, on account of Joachim Boaz, who praised Herbert’s handling of its characters’ psyches in the comments of my Whipping Star review – as Soul Catcher is first and foremost a character driven novel, and one that even succeeds at that. I have to admit I had given up on Herbert as non-Dune writer, as Whipping Star, The Dosadi Experiment and The Santaroga Barrier all disappointed. So I’m all the more pleased to report Soul Catcher was a good read, and one that invigorated me to give Destination: Void an honest chance.
Genre classifications being what they are, potential readers should be aware that Soul Catcher is not speculative fiction. Rob Weber reported in his review on Val’s Random Comments that the publisher, Putnam, even put the following on the back flap: “This is Frank Herbert’s first major novel. He has written numerous science fiction books, of which Dune…”. Novels were not the same as science fiction books in 1972. Interestingly enough, there is no trace of that attitude on my 1979 edition, on the contrary. As you can see on the 1979 cover I included here, both the illustration and the text try to tap on to a speculative vibe: this is a “terrifying novel of the Spirit World” – click on it if it shows up too small. Apparently Soul Catcher didn’t really catch on as regular literary fiction, and 7 years later, marketing decided to firmly latch it to Herbert’s other output – it’s pretty clear if you compare the vibe of the covers of the first two editions to the later one. The 2012 cover reverts the approach again. As always, ISFDB has a good overview of all the different cover art.
As Rob also wrote, the fact that this isn’t a SF book should not deter Herbert fans: “the ecological and mythological themes in the book especially, ties it to a lot of Herbert’s other works.”
Soul Catcher deals with a Native American kidnapping a 13-year old boy with the intent to kill him, as symbolical revenge for the rape of his own sister by a gang of white men, and her ensuing suicide – and by extension all the other crimes against the indigenous humans of the continent. As such it is a book that simply would not be published in these times of hired sensitivity readers. It would not get published just because of sensitivity issues: on top of that a white man writing a story like this without a doubt would get accused of cultural appropriation too. The fact that Herbert researched the subject extensively and clearly does not sympathize with white, Western genocidary imperialism would not excuse him. I’m sure today no publisher would dare to take a chance in our era of hair trigger culture wars.
After the jump you’ll find a rather lengthy discussion of a few different things: Soul Catcher as a psychological novel that also teaches us about today’s ‘terrorist’ violence; Soul Catcher as a critique on Western society and its interesting, realistic use of the ‘noble savage’ trope; a discussion on the use of ‘soul’ vs. ‘spirit’; a nugget for Dune fans; and my thoughts on the powerful ending and that ending’s relation to a movie adaptition that might or might not be made.
Certain sections are quote heavy, but obviously you can skim those if the particular topic doesn’t interest you that much.
EMPATHY FOR VIOLENCE & VICTIMIZATION
While Soul Catcher is dated in some respects, it still has something to offer to contemporary readers, most notably big emotions & a keen psychological understanding.
The story has only two important characters, Charles Hobuket, the Native American Charles Bronson, and David Marshall, the kidnapped boy. Herbert switches viewpoints between the two, and manages to evoke empathy for both. Part of why the story works so well is the fact that David is only 13, and as such more prone to Stockholm syndrome, and more easily awed by Hobuket’s mythological delusions. The dynamic had not worked with two adults.
Charles Hobuket has mental problems. Herbert doesn’t say so, but he is delusional. The fact that Hobuket – who renames himself Katsuk – manages to fit everything that happens in the story into his own narrative is a clear indication of his mental state. The fact that these mental problems in part stem from both traumatic loss and structural racism makes us sympathize with the character, who clearly is a victim too. Hobuket is not a typical villain, and writing a character like this – violent, delusional, hurt – is not an easy thing to do.
I’m guessing this character would not be applauded today: a non-white character becoming a violent, mentally deranged militant, whose delusions are based on Native American mythology. One could argue that treating indigenous mythology as the source for psychotic behavior is not ‘respectful’.
The other side of this argument is that events like this could very well happen in real life, and actually do happen. It struck me how much Herbert’s book was in sync with what psychologists have found to be the mental dynamic in some of present-day’s violent killers.
In 2012 criminology professor Adam Lankford, author of the book The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers, wrote an insightful article in the NYT, What drives suicidal mass killers?. Charles Hobuket fits all 3 criteria his research showed: Hobuket has mental health problems; he has a deep sense of victimization, deeming an entire category of people responsible for his suffering; and he has the desire to acquire fame, staging his act for symbolic effect.
“(…) I send another kind of message. I draw a design upon the emotions. My design will rise up inside people where they have no defenses. They will not be able to shut their ears and deny they heard me. I tell you, they will hear Katsuk!
So, while Herbert has written a book that is difficult to reconcile with today’s sensitivities, the real world complexity and psychological intricacy he brought to the table are fully in sync with today’s scientific insights. In other words: this is indeed not speculative fiction, but a form of fictional realism.
As recurring readers of this blog might know, a particular interest of mine is how the non-existence of free will is portrayed in fiction. Again both characters cannot escape their own path. David did not choose his predicament, and Charles did not either. Charles explicitly does not see himself as somebody who made a choice, but as somebody who was chosen.
“Why was I chosen for this? (…) Out of what mysterious necessities did the spirit world act?
What we end up with is an emotionally powerful book, with two characters that are both tragic, and both victims, and both have a flawed understanding of reality, but for very different reasons.
THE NOBLE SAVAGE: VS. SCIENCE – VS. THE WEST – VS. LANGUAGE – PRO BODY – PRO WORSHIP
Herbert seems to use Charles Hobuket as a mouthpiece for critique on a number of things. While it would be a mistake to think everything Hobuket says or writes corresponds 100% with Herbert’s own thinking, parallels with what I’ve read in his other novels make me believe Herbert at least wants us to ponder some of our society’s traits.
I guess the following quotes speak for themselves, and do not need any further explanation. Obviously, some of these statements are generalizing, but that is the result of letting a character speak about ‘Western society’ as a whole, not of sloppy thinking by the author.
Lucretius was a liar! Science doesn’t liberate man from the terror of the gods!
The alien fabric sent a message to his nerves, telling of the mechanical giant the hoquat [= white men] called civilization. (…) In this land, Katsuk would have other powers, older and stronger and more enduring than those of the hoquat.
And you destroy the earth to plunge your houses into it. (…) You are insensitives. You live against the earth, not with it.
You do not support your fellows, yet complain of being unsupported. You scream for freedom while rationalizing your own self-imposed limitations. (…) Through all your fraudulent pretensions and roundabout self-trickery, you say you would risk anything to achieve equal happiness for all. But your words risk nothing.
You are always running away from your bodies. You hide yourselves away in words of desperate self-justification. You employ the most despotic rhetoric to justify lives that do not fit you. They are lives, in fact, not lived. (…) You say love is futile and you pursue it. Finding love, you place no confidence in it. Thus, you try to love without confidence.
“How’m I going to learn if I don’t talk?” “By opening your senses and by understanding what your senses tell you.”
It’s hard to say how much Herbert himself fell for the Romantic illusion of the noble savage, but statements like the one above do seem realistic for a character like Hobuket, whose self-justification needs a binary narrative of us vs. them, glorifying his indigenous past. I’d think Herbert himself is too smart to not understand that reality is more complex, humans being humans.
Of particular interest is the question of ownership: who is entitled to a land, a region? Who came first? Territorial conflicts are older than the nascence of homo sapiens as a species, and as such claims to who belongs where are relative at best. Again Hobuket’s reasoning has a strong Romantic flavor – as if older cultures never depleted their lands or resources, or as if inter-tribal warfare was non-existent (both of which obviously are no excuse for the atrocities of white imperialism).
You are the immigrant invader. You have not learned how to worship this land. It is my land because I worship it. The spirits know, but the land does not know it.
Living in a state of respectful harmony with the land obviously is a worthy, even necessary goal, and the current state of environmental world politics is nothing to be at ease about. But especially in the premodern age, living in harmony with the land seems to me to be a question of a particular society’s scale, and thus success (in the sense of numbers) – not innate nobleness.
‘GEIST’ VS. ‘SEELE’
In the comments of that Children Of Dune review I linked to above, Pete of Gaping Blackbird wrote the following:
Some misreadings of Nietzsche seem to come from the translation of the original German terms Geist and Seele into the English “spirit” and “soul,” respectively. (…)
Geist usually gets trans-literated into “spirit,” but its meaning is “mental presence,” or “mental state of being.” Zeitgeist is an intellectual concept, not really a religious one, but gets translated as “spirit of the times.”
Seele usually gets trans-literated into “soul,” but its meaning is more central, as in “depths of the soul.” Steele has much more to do with the unconscious, emotional identity.
My question about Herbert had to do with whether you thought he kept those two concepts separate in his fiction or not. They are definitely conflated in a lot of popular culture (…).
Before I get to Soul Catcher, a few quick remarks. Dutch is in my mother tongue, and a language even more closely related to German as English is. In Dutch we also distinguish between ‘geest’ and ‘ziel’, but likewise there is some overlap in usage, as I believe there is in German too: the word ‘Geist’ especially has numerous meanings: referring to both ‘mind/intellect’ and ‘spirit’.
I have the feeling Herbert does separate both concepts, but not necessarily in the German, let alone Nietzschean way. The distinction he uses seem to originate from Native American mythology, which Herbert apparently studied with great care in preparation for this book.
Hobuket/Katsuk does distinguish between two concepts. He uses the word ‘spirit’ in the sense of ‘ancient nature power’, as in spirit of the land, of the water, the bees. These spirits are partly animistic, but at the same time manifest as conscious actors too, and as such they could be considered “mental states of being”. Spirits can also inhabit a human body. You could call these ‘Geists’ – but I’m not well versed enough in Nietzsche to say anything about how he uses this term. The “Soul Catcher” of the title is the name of a spirit that inhabits the mind of Hobuket, transforming him in Katsuk, more or less.
On the other hand Hobuket/Katsuk talks a few times about ‘souls’, meaning something that is fairly close to ‘Seele’ as far as I can tell.
“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.”
His native soul had rotted while living in that white world. But a spirit had spoken to him. A true and ancient spirit.
At the same time ‘spirit’ is used in a more general sense, as having character or mental strength, although part of the story also is about Katsuk’s discovery of the fact that David might have a mythological ‘spirit’ (Geist) in his body too, and in that sense both the general as the mythological meaning are hinted at in these two quotes:
He had spirit in him. Hoquat [= David] was not a whiner. He was not a coward.
This had become a contest on two levels – the straightforward capture of a victim and the victim’s desire to escape, but beneath that a wrestling of spirits.
I’ve carefully considered each and every passage in which the word ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ or a variation appears, and again checked all those passages after I’d finished the book, and the above is the about all I can contribute to the question at hand. I’ll try to follow up when I (re)read more of Herbert’s work.
A WEE WIT OF DUNE
Just a short remark for the Dune fanatic. The following quote clearly re-uses a concept familiar to those familiar with the series. I have no idea whether this concept really has grounds in Native American mythology too, or if this is just a wink of Herbert to his Dune readers. If you have any ideas about it, do not hesitate to post a comment. For what it’s worth, this particular quote is also the only time the idea occurs in Soul Catcher.
He held up the arrow and the arrow held him. He led a cortege up the wood path from the most ancient times to the present. His mind was drunk with all the lives it held. A spirit shouted in his mind: “The earth does not know who owns it!”.
HINT OF A SPOILER: ON THE ENDING & THE MOVIE RIGHTS
Wikipedia informs us that the movie rights for Soul Catcher have been acquired only in 2014. For the same reasons I think a book like this would not find a publisher today, I doubt it this movie will ever see completion.
Producer Dimitri Villard is more hopeful however, and only sees the book’s ending as a problem, he “noted in 2014 that the novel’s ‘not cinematically acceptable’ ending was likely one of the reasons the novel had never been adapted into a film.”
Villard even has the same grand hope for the film’s message as Hobuket has for his actions – just compare these two quotes:
Now, with full support from the Frank Herbert estate, we have the opportunity to make a culturally impactful film that combines elements of suspense, high drama, mysticism and Native American history that will resonate for years to come and appeal to the millions of Frank Herbert fans worldwid. (Villard)
It will be an event in which the world may see itself. (Hobuket)
Ironically, Villard admits that for the movie to get made, Herbert’s original ending needs to change. The story would not remain as powerful however, and might even lose its soul, so to say.
When Villard says “not cinematically acceptable” he actually means “not culturally acceptable”, as it has nothing to do with the laws of movie making, but all the more with society’s sensitivities.
Also Native Americans have voiced their objections to Soul Catcher‘s ending. It seems to me that was exactly Herbert premise: Charles Hobuket’s most important characteristic is his mental health problems, not his Native American descent.
Herbert’s ending is brilliant, both on a dramatic as an emotional level, and it is a powerful indictment of our culture that drives people to madness. To change it would be a travesty – like so many other things the Frank Herbert estate has produced.
What’s left to say?
There aren’t a lot of books that manage to pack so much intricate issues in what’s on the surface an easy story – a straightforward thriller – and at the same time manage to evoke heartfelt emotions. On top of that, all that in just 246 pages.
It’s not perfect, it shows its age, but all things considered, it is superb.
PS – Coincidentally the 4 non-Dune books I’ve read so far have been published as an omnibus in 1984, under the title Four Complete Novels. I guess my initial selection of which novels to read coincided with what the publisher thought to be his best non-Dune material. These 4 books differ widely, and as such provide a broad look on Herbert as an author off Arrakis. It’s no secret his best work is the Dune series, and most other books are not worth bothering if you’re not a diehard fan, so I’m not sure if I’ll read any more of his other books after Destination: Void.
Click here for my other Herbert texts: long analyses of Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune and Heretics of Dune, and more regular reviews of Destination: Void, The Santaroga Barrier, Whipping Star & The Dosadi Experiment. I’ve also tackled Hunters of Dune & Sandworms of Dune, and wrote about Villeneuve’s 2021 film Dune: Part One.