“ Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;” – Gerard Manley Hopkins
Sometime last year I committed to reading all the books on Flavorwire’s list of 50 Scariest Books of All Time. More on that in other posts. For one of our categories this year, we chose to pick one book each from the list. Here’s my pick for May:
As you can see by the book cover, it’s Stephen King approved.
I first met Dan Simmons in the novel The Terror, a historical fiction slash supernatural horror that (minus a treacly epilogue) was a fantastic story, gory and fun, obsessed with minute historical details, and expertly wove together fact and fiction. Intrigued by the author, I set my sights on his famed sci-fi series published back in the late 80′s/early 90′s, Hyperion. I was awed by the incredible worlds he had created, his breadth of imagination, and the freaking Shrike.
*A shrike is a bird known for impaling its victims on thorns or barbs for later consumption, or also that nifty fellow on the cover art.*
Next, I read The Abominable, another excessively detailed historical fiction that would send my reading interests careening into the exploits of George Mallory, Robert Falcon Scott, and Jon Krakauer.
Dan Simmons would lead me to some excellent non-fiction such as Frozen in Time, The Man Who Ate His Boots, Into the Silence and In the Kingdom of Ice. These books in turn would kick off the terrible fascination I have with books about tragedies and disasters.
It seems I owe a lot to Dan Simmons.
But on the other side of the coin, I’ve also endured mediocre reads like A Winter Haunting and the interminable slogs that were Drood and The Fifth Heart.
But on the other hand, Mr. Simmons hails from Brimfield, IL, not far from my old haunts, so I feel a certain Midwestern solidarity with him.
My ambivalence here is evident.
On to Carrion Comfort, a classic of the horror genre and winner of many awards. The novel concerns a group of mind vampires with varying abilities to control the minds and movement of others; this power has evidently corrupted the lot of them, and they are variously entrenched in numerous influential positions in politics, federal bureaus, and Hollywood. A few of them, including a sadistic former Nazi and a racist as hell southern belle, float along independently, meeting occasionally to compare points amassed from various high-profile murders and creative kills. As their brutality and nefarious plans escalate to threats of genocidal proportions, only a ragtag group of mere humans, including a Jewish psychologist and holocaust survivor, a young black woman who lost her father in the vampire’s collateral damage, and a philosophic southern sherriff, can stop them.
It’s a story where the bad guys are uniformly villainous (think: a secret society of Ramsey Boltons), and the good guys are underdogs to the extreme with only one good brain shared between them. I’m certainly willing to believe human beings with the extraordinary ability to read and control the will of others, but when a power like that is set up, I find it difficult to believe that a group of feeble puppets, as well-intentioned as they are, can prevail.
The novel is imbued with Dan Simmons’ characteristic attention to detail and his characters, while perhaps, like the game of chess so prominent in the story, are a little too defined in moral strictures (e.g. I can control other humans, therefore I am MEGA-EVIL NAZI RACIST BAD PERSON), are clearly defined. Even a month later, I still remember all of their names.
At the end of the day, I have to pronounce this novel NOT scary. Simmons does manage to work in his signature gore, which I appreciate, and there is an ingenuity to some of the sadistic maneuvers of the villains. But I don’t know if I’m turning into one of the cantankerous olds who shake their fists and yell at authors to “get off my suspension of disbelief!” because I can only stretch so far.