DAVID MORRELL, c.1979.
don't read many of those Thrilling Bestsellers, so the
name of David Morrell means nothing to me. However, I do
respect his earlier achievement as something extra-ordinary,
as not many writers give birth to a true exemplar in our
living times as powerful as what came out of his debut
novel, 1972's First Blood.
That's heady stuff, no matter what you think of the
conduct or politics it's repping. And this author has gone
on to write almost 30 novels with 18 million copies in print.
That's a hell of an achievement, whether genre-laden or not.
Unfortunately, my take on this novel was hindered severely
by several factors out of my control, one of which being that
the last pages of my used copy were torn away so I am not privy
to Morrell's concluding thoughts. In 50 years of reading, I
have never fallen prey to this kind of impish mischief from
a fellow reader, if that was their true motivation. But in
1967, worldwide movie audiences were delighted as Peter Cook—playing
The Devil in Bedazzled—puckishly
tore the final page from boxes of pre-distributed Agatha Christie's
latest mystery novel. Life mirrors Art? Hmmm.
Secondly, and more importantly, it turns out that the
original 1979 publication of Morrell's fourth work was hacked
to half its size by the publishers. In 1994, the author released
his first, unaltered version, and this is the one to read,
as the chopped-shop copy stutters and spurts like a Chevy Vega
with fouled plugs. This book has been called "one of the hundred-most-scary
books of all time”* so it might be worth finding
the right copy.
This is a non-supernatural plague story played out in
the small microcosm of a Wyoming township. Like countless others,
a virus has somehow mutated a rabies strain and given “control
back to the limbic brain [making] it act the way it once did
several hundred thousand years ago” (Fawcett Crest PB, ISBN
0449208567, c. 1979, p.184). Think 28 Days Later in
the Rocky Mountains. Morrell saws up his PofV, giving it to perps
and would-be victims, as well as the authority figures such as
the ex-Detroit cop now small-town sheriff, a coroner who likes
the dead a little too much, a besotted, washed-out news reporter,
and a stereotypical power-monger mayor. There's a mysterious
cult of hippie-style, religious communers who disappeared decades
ago. There's a lot of talk about the full moon. Then there's
this thing, “that
strange, half-human, antlered figure, part man, part deer,
part cat” (p.162).
Before I discovered this novel's history, I found the
read to be, well, choppy at best, with unopened characterizations,
and a pretty silly mastermind antagonist who never shows up
for the party. But if you saunter by H.G. Wells' Things
to Come and
Matheson's I Am Legend published well before The
Totem, and try to forget the hundreds of viral infection/vampire
plague/zombie afflictions (where's the werewolves these days,
anyway? Regulated to Underworld?) of the past three
decades, then you might get a retro whiff of horror and fearfulness.
Just make sure you read the director's cut.
KARL SCHROEDER, c.2002.
is an example where the “science” overwhelms
The novel fires off lots of wonderful ideas, either with the
conceptualizations through the characters or the history, evolution
and participation of the cultures encountered. The plotlines
are quite convoluted, exploring how technological advancement
is used to subjugate competition and attitudes, thereby destroying
vitality and individualism. In this case it is Transportation,
as the Cycler Compact worlds are being cut out of the loop from
the capitalistic dystopia Rights Economy. The RE has developed
reality-altering guides called “inscape” that causes the citizens
to only see what they have clearance for. Think of a navigational
system in your head that blocks out all exterreanous streets, buildings,
etc. except for your prescribed destination or particular worldview.
All objects have “nanotags” that through implants in the human
sensory system give vital information about the object—mainly
economic and ownership data designed for sale or purchase. Through
their technology “they have made it appear that the essence of
things is money—that a thing only really exists if it can be
bought or sold” (Tor PB, ISBN 0765342855, c.2002, p.223).
As antithesis to this materialism, there's a religious-like
belief in the Supreme Meme. It states that after you die, you
eventually cycle back through time and live your life over again,
exactly as it was the last time through. This takes away the
threat of an Afterlife entered only by moral judgment, but,
more importantly, it focuses on the abstract and emotional aspects
of your singular existence by asking, “how would you have to
feel, to want it all again?” (p.259).
There are a number of fascinating questions that shine
like info dumps, but act more like mental lightening bugs for
later thought. Concepts like kami, which acknowledges
every place has a spirit that can be accessed beyond its physical
boundaries; that sentience and toolmaking are overrated for
a species' survival, because being “well fitted to a given
environment is one that doesn't need tools to survive in it” (p.179);
the Chicxulub, the last pan-galactic civilization that hunted
down and wiped out every sentient species then went extinct
themselves millions of years ago.
Although filled with fine characters aptly sketched,
the plot demands more attention than it deserves. I went off
road by not committing large tracts of uninterrupted reading
time to this novel, thereby losing interest and my place in
Dead at page 348 out of 471, but looking forward to
reading Lady of Mazes, Schroeder's 2005 send-up. Depending,
I might even try this novel again.
KEEP by F. PAUL WILSON, c.1981.
night I had a BBQ meatball sandwich for dinner. It was quite
tasty, but there was too much thyme mixed in the meat. Every
bite I'd think, “wow, this could be really exceptional
except for the presence of that one, underlying flavor.”
That's this novel. The Keep is fairly well-known—and
not because of the Michael
Mann film version, that's for sure —but
not in that first tier of, say, The Exorcist. It's
more B-level, like The
Other. It boasts a very serviceable plot twisting through
the atmospherics of WWII Germans occupying a creepy castle isolated
in the Transylvanian Alps that keeps ahead of its vampire clichés
by battling the human, Nazi evil against a powerful, supernatural
one. These military characters are as deep as they need to be
for their center stage performances, as the real conflict lies
beneath the abominable weltanschauungs and bloody posturings.
An old crippled Jewish professor is forced to the keep
to unravel the reasons why—so hauntingly put in a dispatch to headquarters
by the commandant—“something is murdering my men” (Berkley PB,
ISBN 0425053245, c.1981, p.4). With him is his young, beautiful,
and duty-bound daughter, Magda. Turns out the “something” is
posing as Viscount Radu Molasar, a boyar of Vlad the Impaler
from the 15th century. The careless and greedy German einsatzkommandos have
unwittingly let him rise from his undead sleep. He strikes a
bargain with Professor Cuza, promising to take out all the Schutzstaffel, even
Hitler himself, if the old Jew will help him leave the keep.
He proves he's a bad-ass demon by slaughtering a man a night
in horrible, heinous ways. Everyone's fear factor pretty much
goes off the charts.
Enter the tall, handsome stranger. He calls himself
Glenn. He's got, gee, a hidden agenda and a whole lot of sex
appeal for Magda. His entrance signals the clichés to
storm the plot. This historical Horror novel turns toward a
Fairy Tale, then ends in one of the sappiest Romances imaginable.
It also destroys the subtle irony of an interesting hidden
yet lurking intimation: The suppossedly-wise Jewish intellectual
is willing to sacrifice himself and even his daughter to initiate
mass murder on the Ayrans in an ethnic cleansing of his own
devising. There's even another plot twist in there that's noteworthy,
but so sticky in gush, it also loses any poinancy or impact.
Of course you're gonna root to end the scourge of the Swastika.
That's not the point. By settling for mundane predictability
in the third act, author Wilson debilitates the creative quirkiness
and goose-bumped brilliance he's sustained throughout acts one
It's like seeing a beautiful woman smile at you with
a big glob of thyme stuck between her teeth.
OF BONES by
LIZ WILLIAMS, c.2002.
don't know why this read kept fading and
fading, until there was nothing left of interest by page
127 out of 323. I've read two of her other works—The
Ghost Sister & The
Poison Master—of which this novel lies in-between
chronologically. Now, Ms. Williams' writing can be over-dramatic
and hammy at times—she's
the daughter of a stage magician and gothic novelist, so what'd
you expect?—but the premise appears highly serviceable and
creative. She sets this one down in the India of 2030 AD, burying
it into the convoluted metaphysics of Hinduism and the corrupted
Caste system, using a poor and crippled female protagonist
who is also a visionary and social revolutionist. And that's
before the aliens show up and start filling her head with instructions.
Jumping off from A.C. Clarke's pet premise of First
Contact, the inter-stellar civilization of the irRas is finally
seeing some results from its seeding of Earth with genetic
strands millions of years ago. They are the dedicated overseers
of all budding, intelligent life in the universe, so, when
Jaya Nihalani's mind suddenly taps into their communications,
the irRas know it's time for humanity to join its vast galactic
But, down on Earth, Jaya's peers are outraged then fearful.
First of all, she's a nobody in the socio-political-economic
scheme of things. Secondly, she's a member of the spurned Untouchable
caste which is systematically being eliminated by the covert
release of an agonizing and lethal disease. With this Selenge
retrovirus mangling her body, she doesn't look that great on
TV, does she? And now Jaya has become quite possibly the most
influential person on the planet, with completely unknowable
yet very, very powerful friends.
Sound like a winner?
Shall we give up on Ms. Williams?
You tell me. I'm clueless on this one.
JUSTINE ROBSON, c.2003.
now—midway through the year 2009—I
want a read I can crawl into
and pull the covers over my head. I have the flashlight and
the desire, but this is not the right book. Not to say this
is not an important read; her second and previous novel—Mappa
Mundi of 2001—convinced
me of Ms. Robson's literary sophistication. I definitely plan
on returning when I feel equal to her intellectual challenge.
Because this is Space Opera at its most desirous: where ideas
become objects as characters replace ideas without losing personable
facets. Since Science Fiction invariably occurs in the future
using that universal trigger, “I wonder”, good Space Opera
should metamorphose its driving ideas from the present while
putting up appearances that the engineer is the plot.
At first impression, the brilliance—and difficulty—with Natural
History is comprehending a world where
sentience can exist in practically anything*. Our introductory
character—Voyager Lonestar Isol—is a spaceship. She (ships
are female, right?) has been Forged by the Unevolved—regular
flesh-‘n'-blood humans—for the purpose of interstellar travel,
but like others Forged who can be rockcrushers, dumptrucks,
terraformers, battleships, even organic beasts, Isol is rebellious
against the functions she's been designed for.
Then there's the Degraded.
There's a whole buncha Roddenberry-style, big ideas
here. Whether Ms. Robson turns them into “The Cage”** I'll
hafta wait to discover.
Dead at page 39 out of 325.
*I don't mean talking soup cans a la PKD.
**“The Cage” is the original, discarded
pilot episode of TOS Star
Trek sans Capt. Kirk, and is later fed back to us as “Menagerie,
Parts I & II”, bookended with all our favorite characters.
Thematically, it is about leading a self-determined life of
challenge as opposed to one of foisted-upon ease directed by
others' purposes. I am not demeaning Ms. Robson by comparing
her to the often-burlesque TOS Star Trek,
but referencing to the nascent profundity of what I wished
from the TV series on a more regular basis.
HISTORIAN by ELIZABETH KOSTOVA, c.2005.
after 570 pages, we get the introduction worth waiting for:
am Dracula,” he said. The words came out cold and clear
. . . “Come, you are tired and hungry after your journey. I
have set out a supper for you.” His gesture was
graceful, even courtly, with a flash of jewels
on his big white fingers.
—Little Brown, ISBN 0316011770, c.2005,
If you are looking to satisfy a pining interest within
the current crop of rage-on an' ramped-up trendy badboy/girl
celebratory blood-cravers, look elsewhere. This is the unconstructed
Dracula--a legend lost
into himself. After battling on to the final 642nd page, one
wonders if Dracula is not better served by leaving him alone.
This is not a condemnation of the book, but a reflection on
the focusing character of this fiction. The irony of the title—The
that it applies equally to the hardy interests of the hero,
heroine, and villain, and thereby attempts
a non-discriminatory objectification of the discipline it denotes.
But Dracula speaks of history as being malleable, not immutable. “I
vowed to make history, not to be its victim” (p.584). He has
amassed a personal library to prove his version of past, human
affairs. It is a compelling argument, as there are a myriad of
examples that “the
nature of man is evil, sublimely so” (p.586).
Destroying Dracula, then, becomes almost secondary to
the discrediting of his personal assembly of History.
The novel is fascinated with this quest, emphasized
by the flesh-an'-dead Dracula's very anti-climatic departure.
The effects, discoveries, and interpersonal relationships revealed
through historical sleuthing are more important than any realtime,
vampire malfeasances. In less-focused writers, this would make
a slumberfest of a read, but Ms. Kostova's forays down the
antediluvian highway of facts, dates, and actions are as captivating
as her characters, especially the engaging and resilient triangle
of mother, father, daughter.
Vlad the Impaler wants to be the ultimate spinmaster,
usurping the likes of German Nazi Joseph Goebbles, or American
anti-semite Willis Carto, but his motivation is not power but
pride. His pursuer believes in a more charitable approach
to the past, yet Dracula's library gives him “a horrible pleasure” (p.589),
indicating there is the slight biased whiff of the zealot here,
as if the perceived innocents must be saved from such vile
decimations and butcherous temptation, but not by balance so
much as by elimination.
However, modern sensibilities tell us that there are
no absolutes anymore. In that sense, the history of civilization
can be seen as a dilution of any polarized values represented
by black and white into infinite shades of gray. If, as Alex
Haley reportedly contributed, “History is written by the winners”,
then it is time to swap books and see what the losers
are doing with the same set of historical facts.
As for the Count, his continual resurrections and re-inventions
strongly dramatize the fixation with his point of view. But his
realm is that of the imaginary, isn't it? Or, is it like Plato
said in his Ion,
that “poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.”
06/02/2009 by Larry Crawford