Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive


Timothy Findley


US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-517-59827-2

440 pages; $23.00

Date Reviewed: 08-22-1994

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



Horror, Mystery, Fantasy, General Fiction

04-29-02, 06-07-02

Horror novels typically portray the mentally ill as vicious, not visionary. Canadian writer Timothy Findley has a different take on the matter in his luscious, layered and literate novel "Headhunter". Following Francis Ford Coppola's lead, Findley takes the characters from Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and sets them loose in the modern world. In "Headhunter", however, the jungle is Toronto, Kurtz's citadel is the Parkin Psychiatric Institute, and both Kurtz and Marlowe are psychiatrists. As in Conrad's narrative, Kurtz is an enigmatic, powerful man, who has gone deep into the wilderness (of insanity) to achieve stunning commercial success, while Marlowe is the outsider journeying towards an understanding of the extent of Kurtz's power and magnetism.

Findley shows a flair for the absurd in his opening pages, when Lilah Kemp, "a spiritualist of intense but undisciplined powers...inadvertently set Kurtz free from page 92 of 'Heart of Darkness'." This mordant tone allows him to be unusually effective in treading the thin line between a novel of the supernatural and a novel of psychological delusions. When Lilah is told that the Kurtz she sees in the library is the head of the psychiatric institution that dispenses her anti-hallucinogen, she is alarmed, but her Marlowe will appear -- next door to her, in fact, employed by the very same Parkin Institute headed up by the venerable Kurtz. "Marlowe used literature as psychotherapy. He believed in its healing powers -- not because of its sentiments, but because of its complexities."

As Findley moves further into his milieu he reveals and revels in the gossipy mixture of the corrupt and the inept who run the city. Toronto is beset by a plague called sturnusemia, which, it is believed, is spread by birds, which are being gassed in city parks. Kurtz, understandably, is a troubled, lonely man, desperately searching for the envelope which will redeem him if he finds it, but condemn him if found by another. Lilah's neighbor Marlowe is the newcomer, trying to see what casts the shadow that's hanging over his friend and colleague, Austin Purvis, whose patients are being systematically transferred to Doctor Kurtz. Kurtz is aware that his patients are involved in "The Club of Men", a forum for living pornography. Findley takes his time, creating a miasma of people and places through which Marlowe must move if he is to find how they all connect to the enigmatic Kurtz. Kurtz's mysterious envelope, the dead birds in the street and the dead souls who buy flesh seem to be symptoms of the same disease. Madness, however, has never before been contagious.

It's Findley's sense of the absurd that keeps the reading lively, his ability to wring humor and horror out of a single sentence the linchpin around which this complex novel revolves. Findley skillfully begins Kurtz's breakdown when his thoughts are infected by the erotic, horrific work of the painter who runs the Club of Men. "Kurtz was mesmerized. Somehow the painting soothed him. It verified his fears. But it also informed him that fear was wonderful. It told him that there was nothing in the whole world of madness that was not the property of sanity as well." It's the first sign that Findley's Kurtz, the psychiatrist, has gone native -- in an insane asylum.

Throughout the novel, Findley's prose is exemplary. Witty dialogue helps to leaven the writer's and characters' bleak world view. And, while it uses classic horror devices, it surely is not a typical horror novel. "Headhunter" is one of those novels that defies classification, using elements of the absurd, the supernatural and even a bit of science fiction to create a dark but real-seeming vision of our world.

When a literary critic is invited to dinner with the city's finest citizens, he describes his journey to Toronto, via boat of course, because he's afraid of flying. '"You journey up the river made me think about what it was those others who came before us had in mind. They might be greatly surprised by what they found here today. And greatly dismayed, I fear...there is nothing here of what anyone proposed. There is little beauty left -- but much ugliness. Little wilderness -- but much emptiness. No explorers -- but many exploiters. There is not art -- no music -- no literature -- but only entertainment.'" In "Headhunter" Findley displays an alarming ability to frighten us with the plain truth.