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By 1975 when this book was published, just about everyone I knew had smoked pot, taken LSD, and popped prescription uppers and downers. It was time for the “perfect drug”. It was billed as having no side effects, was not addictive, enhanced brain activity and physical stamina, and made the ladies ball like bunnies. The only downside was that it was quite expensive.
By then lots of ex-collegiates had moved on to professional lives and starter-kit marriages. As for imbibing, many returned to The Lizard King and forsook Don Juan's Yaqui Way of Knowledge. But, any way you swallow it, gettin' high is gettin' skunked, and for those who sought enlightenment, many found paranoia instead.
Not to mention that good ol' American Calvinistic scourge: Guilt.
And that, my friends, is what makes the horror in this dirge scream.
Most of the action takes place in a private hospital, which is far closer in concept to an expensive de-tox clinic than a modern-day HMO. Vulnerable, young, and innocent Karen Tandy is swelling with unknown pregnancy. But it's more like giving birth to a crack baby with Down's syndrome, epilepsy, and a deformed body future playmates will use for home plate. Literally, it's a Manitou, or a 300-year old soul of an Indian medicine man forming out of a fibrous tumor in her neck. Karen quickly becomes an IV drip bag for Misquamacus who is hell-bent for revenge on the White Eyes. Emblematically, it's about the fear and guilt of every expecting parent over their baby's possible abnormality. Or, to be more culturally topical, read past tune ins, turn ons, and drop outs. For subtexual ignition, everything's working just fine, except that our demon is a Redskin, and that brings up other societal considerations.
Dee Brown published “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee ” three years before this novel and changed America 's historical attitude forever. Its profound effect cannot be overlooked or dismissed here. Harry Erskine, the protagonist, toys with this new re-definition and momentarily sees Misquamacus as “a lone survivor from our country's shameful past, and to kill him would be like grinding out the last spark of the spirit that had given the United States such a colorful and mystical background” (Pinnacle Books, ISBN 0523402333, fifth printing, July 1979, p.99). Of course, Harry and his new paid friend, Singing Rock, a Sioux medicine man hired by Karen's parents to exorcise this “mythical hero of legend” (Ibid, p.99), do just that. The plotline makes it obvious and essential. He is a “merciless Indian savage” (Ibid, quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson, p.97) and he is conjuring an even greater monster, Cthulhu (see introductory quote from HPL), to smother humanity with unspeakable horrors. While some might feel indignant over furthering the old myopic representation of Cowpokes-an'-Injuns, slack must be accorded to author Masterson. He is not an American himself, but a bloody Redcoat. Besides, if he had portrayed Misquamacus sympathetically, we would not have this bestselling horror story.
But that's not to say we should. The writing style is startlingly hesitant with over-chewed dialogue and metaphors that make you groan. For instance, “he looked like Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush ” (Ibid, p.3), or, “what I saw there made . . . my scalp rise like a terrified porcupine” (Ibid, p.161). Whole sections like Lieutenant Marino and the police interventions are so clichéd they can be skipped over entirely. Characters are built up then whacked off-stage, like Harry's séancers, Amelia and MacArthur. Others are used for information spurting then abandoned, like Prof. Snow. There are no interesting or meaningful relationships built except for the foxhole-buddy bonding between Harry and Singing Rock. Dr. Hughes has to choose a body part for sacrifice to Lizard-of-the-Trees, so he offers his hand. And he's a surgeon, for Chrissake.
This is a first person narrative, so the ultimate burden of credibility falls upon Harry, who is a self-taught “mystic” bilking old ladies with phony Tarot readings. “The constant tide of middle-aged ladies who came simpering into my apartment, dying to hear what was going to happen in their tedious middle-aged lives' (Ibid, p.17), does not recommend him as a sympathetic, stand-up, risk-taking kinda guy. But in all good stories, characters change, and, by the end of this novel, Harry has soloed against a demon of immeasurable power, the Star Beast, with successful conclusion. But nothing is brought forth to justify this kind of courage and self-sacrifice. In the midst of the action, Harry proclaims, “but I'm a clairvoyant” (Ibid, p.166). Such self-delusion inevitably leads to self-destruction in most novels' heroes. Harry, unfortunately, possesses no magic.
But the real squeaking anachronism here is Unitrak. Indian folklore has it that everything possesses a manitou, even super computers like this one, and “is bound to be Christian and God-fearing and dedicated to the cause of law and order” (Ibid, p.189). Singing Rock must have a gut full of firewater to grunt out this one, but, off he goes armed with “the great spirit of white technology” (Ibid, p.208). The ensuing climax is described as “incandescent grid shapes [and] tier after tier of brilliant circuitry” (Ibid, p.210).
Horror novels, like their counterparts in cinema, must have current resonance to maintain any popularity. When was the last time you watched Them! and cringed in terror when the atomically-mutated ants tried to chew through the screen? Seemingly, Masterson's debut novel has maintained some of its guilty pleasures with the 1st generation of drug-experimenting baby boomers. As for the following generations? Hell, they invented Heavy Metal, Punk Rock, and Rap. They have their own demons to face.