Book Review: Candy Man, Vincent King (1971)

(Patrick Woodroffe’s cover art for the 1973 edition)

3.5/5 (Good)

The Candy Man wanders from place to place in a crumbling mega-city with his sole companion, a mechanical dog named Wolf who comes with a handy handle. Candy Man instigates the lobotomized, with primal speeches and drugged sugar floss tinted with pulverized beetles, to revolution. His reward for turning in those he encouraged deviate from the will of the Deep Machine and their Teachers? Vials of drugs. Enter the hypnagogic world of Vincent King’s Candy Man (1971), an unsettled landscape inhabited by the degenerate remnants of humankind and the arcane workings of a computer program that cannot escape its original perimeters.

Fresh off Vincent King’s short story “Defense Mechanism” (1966), I tracked down a copy of his second novel. Occupying a similar space as “Defense Mechanism” (conceptual breakthrough in a decaying world city), King pushes the narrative into a surreal overdrive. While not “the most demented novel of all time”—Charlie Jane Anders on Vincent King’s later Time Snake and Superclown (1976)—Candy Man operates in the same generalized setting as innumerable post-apocalyptic science fictions, but the vocabulary and delivery feels different, as if it slipped into our world from a parallel universe…

Somewhat recommended–especially for fans of out there 70s science fiction—due to the shear kaleidoscope of ideas that whiz in all directions. The novel is something of a blunderbuss shot from the hip, if you can’t aim, toss a lot of pellets at something at once… King succeeds in creating memorable individual sequences and the overarching formulation of the surreal landscape. But the parts meander around and tire, often as aimless as the novel’s lobotomized looking for a nutrient nozzle.

Brief Summary/Analysis (*spoilers*)

“All that pale green-gray…. that crumbly lichen, rubbery and crumbly… exquisite convolutions, beautiful like brains… but so strange” (1).

In a world city of layered Streets, nutrient nozzles, and music “beating synthetic” from the Speakers (4), the Candy Man looks for his purpose and bemoans the lack of a name.* Not the name people call him, but the “real” name given out by the Teachers (whose worship is socially conditioned) at the Rites: “I had a scar myself, but I put it there. I didn’t go to any Rites, that’s why I didn’t have a name, not really. They called me Candy Man, but it wasn’t the same (5). With his dog in tow, he rouses the lobotomized (those that fail the Rites) with the promise of deep revelation….


….and the evil of the rituals that keep the Teachers in power: “AND THE RITES! The Rites, brothers, they put the evil in us then!” (6). Whether or not Candy Man believes the sermons, isn’t entirely clear. He justifies the orgiastic acts that follow his sermons as preventing the “coming extinction” of humankind lulled into inaction (15). He wanders on, eyes covered, rubbers over his white skin, muting out the world.

Candy Man plays a role–obscured amongst the ruins–in the archetypal workings of a fragmented yet timeless mythology. Myths abound of the The Saver and a Great Robot that must be stopped. He encounters the Boy. And then the Girl. They are remarkably similar. And in the shadows they could be the same. The Boy seeks to kill him. The Girl to study him. And The Potter looks for the perfect pattern. The Fat Man with his mechanized cat knows more than he says. And into the grips of this strange assortment of individuals, Candy Man finds himself enmeshed—and soon discovers his own place in the leaning edifice of the world.

Final Thoughts (*spoilers*)

The Urban Landscape: As was common in New Wave SF, the landscape becomes a symbolic manifestation of humanity’s interior state. As Candy Man learns more about his purpose, the city takes on more distinct form with a beginning and end. Matter Machines, controlled by the Deep Machine, overlay Street upon Street, block upon block, creation as entropy (144, 145). The city marches up the mountains while the Atlantic Ocean, presented as a seldom seen primordial entity, sloshes below. At its crumbling edges, fragments of humanity eek out a living. Those that rely on the nutrient nozzles, dwindle in population (a dystopic program designed to curb population growth)—while the city’s structures expand and expand. Candy Man’s visions of the history of the city give his life shape and place him firmly within a chronology that has lost all sense of time.

Rituals and Fragmented Mythologies of the Past: The final third of the novel unleashes more than one narrative twist. And when it all falls into place and a sense of time is reestablished, Candy Man’s surreal wanderings crystallize into an Odyssean voyage with a distinct end. The characters he encounters (The Boy, The Girl, etc.) are possessed by their own programming—and are but attempts to maintain sanity under the erosion of time. Unusual sequence filled with Earth imagery (WWI, WWII, etc.) suggest forces that play that remember something of the world that is. But all referents are erased by the new layers and layers and layers created by the Matter Machines.

Vincent King succeeds at plunging the reader into a truly alien far future Earth. The ideas are fascinating/intoxicating.


*Vincent King deploys stylistic gimmicks that annoy 1) Random capitalized words (I’ve reproduced them throughout the review). 2) A disturbing quantity of that dreaded ellipsis. While I use it also on occasion, I get the sense that King would use them in every sentence instead of a period (they are more common in his first novel and earlier stories) if the editor allowed him.

(Dean Ellis’ cover for the 1971 edition)

(Patrick Woodroffe’s original canvas for the 1973 edition)

(Tibor Csernus’s cover for the 1976 French edition)

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14 thoughts on “Book Review: Candy Man, Vincent King (1971)

    • In this particular instance the novel is as bizarre (if not more bizarre) than Woodroffe’s art. In the image, the Candy Man runs with his robot dog (with handle) from the Teachers (back cover on the levitating chair).

  1. The Dreaded random Capitalization! I do So So Want to kill it. But what, sirrah, is your animus against The Sacred Ellipsis…are you falling for the H8rz’ propaganda…silly man….

    • Whenever I see an ellipsis I imagine someone’s voice petering out. A half finished thought…. an incomplete sentence…

      It’s as if Vincent King was German, all the nouns are capitalized (hah).

      Thoughts on the book? the ideas in the book? Have you read it?

      • It wasn’t remotely comprehensible to me in 1972. I lacked any framework for its points. Now, I wouldn’t Dream of revisiting it….

          • I just did a review of the Czech SF collection; I love the generation-ship thing; I’ve got Gertrude Friedberg’s THE REVOLVING BOY glowering at me from the bedside stack; I’m still slowly wending my way through Andre Norton’s space operas from the 1950s, and a few of the 1960s things like MOON OF THREE RINGS and THE ZERO STONE; it’s all about mood for me, stuff I remember liking or authors I couldn’t comprehend, etc etc. I bumble along behind you most of the time, and a friend on LT whose SF addiction has him reading all the DAW books in the order they came out. (He’s a librarian, they’re extra weird.)

            • Cool, I look forward to reading your thoughts on the stories in The Lost Face. I was somewhat ambivalent. But it was fascinating as a historical artifact of the era.

              Yeah, I’m a reader who operates entirely on mood or whim. And I’ve soured a bit on the generation ships. Not because I don’t enjoy the premise, but there are narrative ticks that are increasingly frustrating — especially presenting the generations inbetween as cultural wastelands with zero pursuits outside of making a ship stable. How do you keep people sane? Allow them to consume and create culture! The only author whom I’ve encountered who gets this is Samuel R. Delany in The Ballad of Beta-2. The problem with that book is that it’s almost childishly written in comparison to his later masterpieces (the symbolic cultural production that is mined by the main character to learn about the society of the generation ship is a really awful poem).

  2.      I bought this a few decades ago and read a chapter or two into it, but couldn’t seem to make much sense o out of it. I felt maybe it would make more sense if I just kept going; but the difficulty of following it overcame me, and I didn’t finish.
         Yet the book intrigues me. Do you think it would be worth my while trying again? Does it make sense if you keep going? Or is it like a dream, in that, even if you go right through, nothing makes sense or means anything?

    • Thanks for visiting!

      It does make sense if you keep going — the last third in particular. That said, my main critique which I leveled in the review was the aimless/repetitiveness of the first section (Candy Man runs away with the Boy, the Boy tries to kill him, maybe it’s really the Girl, the Candy Man escapes, etc.).

      It’s a tentative 3.5/5 from me — take that as you may.

  3. Hi

    I just scanned your post because I thought I had a copy of Candy Man and wanted to read it first. But a cursory search did not turn it up which means a trip to the disorganized basement shelves, gasp! I did pick up King’s Light a Last Candle recently so if I don’t find Candy Man I can try that, It does sound fairly scattershot and frenetic so I will wait until I am ready for a reading challenge. I still have Egan’s Schild’s Ladder to finish. But after some vole related yard work I am in the mood for something old school so I am thinking of “Proof” Hal Clement’s first published short story.

    Happy Reading

    • Hello Guy!

      “Scattershot and frenetic” is somewhat of an understatement — for some it adds to the novel’s charm. I’m not convinced King has control of his narrative.

      If you end of reviewing Light a Last Candle definitely come back and link it.

  4. I think I’m more bothered by random capitalization in a nonfiction prose work (esp. business or academic article), but I can see how – over the course of a novel – it might become aggravating.

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