This past week I finished reading The Helmet of Horror, a 2005 novel by Russian author Victor Pelevin. The book is a part of the Canongate Myth series, which takes ancient myths from across different cultures and has them retold by contemporary authors. This novel serves as a retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.
In the story, eight strangers are locked in their own private, identical rooms. They have access to the necessities, as well as computers linked to an isolated Internet forum. They have no contact with the rest of the Web, only each other via these devices. Outside of their respective doors exists a surreal world that appears to manifest as a labyrinth, but in a different form for each of them.
I found identifying the genre of the novel to be a little bit contentious. While the back cover and a lot of the content made me want to label it as science fiction, I feel it is best described as surreal fiction. Everything about the novel is bizarre, be it the setting, the characters, or the titular helmet of horror itself. The book is full of concepts that are difficult to wrap one’s head around without some thought.
Most surreal of all is that, despite what the premise might imply, plot is all but nonexistent. While there is certainly a sequence of events that can be followed, and a progression of their situation that reaches a climax, I wouldn’t say the story is all that driven by what one would conventionally call a plot. More than anything else, the novel is a fictional discourse. The characters are forced into a situation of confinement, are confronted with new ideas and strange situations, but instead of taking action the characters primarily begin a dialogue, trying to understand the nature of what they are dealing with.
While this kind of story might sound like a rather difficult read, it is written in a format that makes it much more accessible than conventional prose would have been. As I’ve stated, the characters can only communicate to one another through an isolated online forum. What you read is essentially a transcript of this forum conversation. There is no outside narration, there is only their screen names, and what message they have conveyed beneath that. This creates a more conversational story, where a lot of complex concepts are discussed, but written in a way that isn’t as daunting as a wall of prose text.
Though there isn’t much to them at first but a screen name and dialogue, the characters themselves became recognizable, despite the limitations of the format. When I first started I found each new addition to the discussion a little hard to keep track of, as three participants eventually grew into eight. Despite this, I found that I didn’t have trouble remembering who was who, each person having their own distinctive voice that I could recognize most of the time.
I find The Helmet of Horror hard to recommend. To a casual reader, I would say that it is best to avoid as it is a more challenging and unconventional read. I consider the book to be a work of quality, but one that requires a lot more work on the part of the reader to understand. Though a passive observer compared to the characters, the reader in their own way is also part of the discussion taking place, meaning the book isn’t going to hand you all of the answers — at least not in a clearly spelled-out way.
If you generally love challenging yourself with philosophical and surreal ideas, or are curious about doing so, I would recommend it. The format makes it a fast read, while at the same time presenting a lot of ideas and perspectives for the reader to consider. I find this factor to particularly benefit the novel, as it makes repeat readings a lot easier for those who really want to dissect its ideas.