Andre Norton’s 1964 novel Night of Masks is a claustrophobic reading experience — and not in a good way.
This book followed her novel Catseye, published three years earlier, and, like that work, its central character is a resident of the Dipple, a ghetto area of the planet Korwar, a seedy slum where refugees and deportees from forty worlds have been unceremoniously dumped. Some serve the purposes of the rulers, residents and visitors to the playground world; others simply scrape to survive.
Catseye was a well-made sci-fi adventure, hinging on the ability of Troy Horan to communicate telepathically with animals. It was his ticket out of the Dipple and into a place on the edges of the luxurious lifestyles of well-to-do Korwar people.
In fact, his time in the Dipple, in terms of the book, is very short. An opening chapter, and then he’s in the better part of town.
The hero of Night of Masks, Nik Kolherne, is also from the Dipple, and, like Troy, he is finding a way out of there in the first few pages of the book. Unlike Troy, however, Nik doesn’t have any special skills. In fact, the bottom of his face is grotesquely scarred from a childhood accident, and he is often putting his hand up in front of it as a kind of mask.
What Nik does have is a bodily resemblance to Hacon, the fantasy hero that a Warlord’s son named Vandy, about 10 or 12, has concocted to console himself while in a kind of exile from home. That, and a willingness to undergo plastic surgery to shape his face into that of Hacon.
There are a variety of bad guys/aliens behind this, and somehow they have a way to tap into Vandy’s daydreams. They want to get a hold of Vandy to get at some information locked up in his brain and apparently not as accessible as his daydreams.
So they fashion Nik as Hacon to trick Vandy into leaving Korwar with him and travelling to the planet Dis where he is expected to trick the boy into revealing the secret.
In most of her books, Norton has characters on planets where the air is breathable and the terrain is relatively earthlike. Not on Dis, though.
Dis is a planet with an infrared sun. That means that, even at noon, the world is dark. The only way to get around is with infrared goggles. So, for the bulk of the novel, Nik and Vandy are moving around in a world where they can’t see unless they have the goggles — and, often, one or both are without the eyewear.
Also, Dis is a world with a vast array of tunnels, and that’s where Nik and Vandy spend a lot of time. It’s dark, humid and oppressive inside these, even with the goggles, and there are a whole host of evil, smelly, unhealthy aliens, including something like a pillar of gold light.
The cold radiating from that alien thing was eternal — alien as the rest of Dis, in spite of its weird life, was not. The hunters, the Disians, and their hounds were strange to off-world eyes, but this thing of the burrows did not share blood, bones, and flesh with any species remotely akin to life as Nik knew it.
Norton is trying to do a lot of unusual things in Night of Masks — set her story in a world of darkness, set many of the incidents inside a maze of dark tunnels, create a range of especially creepy aliens and trot out an alien presence that is something other than flesh-and-blood (or whatever the equivalent on Dis would be).
Ambitious though her hopes are, her story is crushed under the weight of so much strangeness.
The reader ends up working hard trying to picture what’s going on — in the dark.
And the weight of such heavy-handed oppressiveness ends up transmuting into boredom.
Patrick T. Reardon