Writing horror book reviews doesn’t get any harder than when reviewing a horror novel such as Carrion Comfort. Dan Simmons’ epic tale of ‘mind vampires’ first published to acclaim in 1989 has so much going for it, and so much going on, that’s it difficult to decide exactly where to start.
I couldn’t choose, when drafting this review, on whether to say this was a book which focussed primarily upon its characters, themes, plot devices, or several other tools employed by the professional writer when producing their precious words.
Then I realised promptly that Simmons has done all of these things with such equal prominence in the 760+ pages that grace my copy of this oft lauded as seminal work.
It’s a melting pot of imaginative yet very scary, sometimes horrific, ideas. Imagine losing control of your bodily functions and being completely aware of it going on. Then imagine being manipulated, like a puppet, at the whims of someone else; by someone who doesn’t really have any morals for example. Say, an ex-Nazi commander. Or U.S. senator, who has used such skills to propel himself and his career to dizzy heights. Or one of a group of these beings who simply play with people for fun and entertainment.
The book deals with the many categories of people, good, indifferent and bad (and evil) who make up this unique world which Simmons has crafted. From the local sheriff whose investigations into a series of messy homicides on his turf leaves him baffled and confused to downright horrified as the truth of what’s going on is revealed to him. From the order of beings who cruelly manipulate those and the world around them for their own amusement or political and fiscal gain, to others, playing more mischievous but nonetheless deadly games in the background.
What’s great about the book’s length in this is that characters are given a decent time to grow, their personalities evolve and, more importantly, ideas to mature. That’s key given how they’re so vast in scope.
We get to know so well so many of its main cast. There’s the mild-mannered sheriff Gentry, who can switch from being laid back to action bound in a flick of the wrist. Then there’s Natalie, the daughter of an early victim caught up now in the dangerous web of evil villains, and Saul, the Jewish concentration camp survivor who has seen the extremes of and worst that some of the mind vampires are capable of. Even the evil, maligned ones are given equal and just treatment in some depth, sometimes in first-person form, which manages to convey so effectively how dark their view of the world they inhabit truly is.
The danger to all, whether via the fates of individuals or more epic notions of destruction, is presented in cold and real terms at all times, and often realised to mortal effect for the novel’s large cast of supporting characters. It’s this sense of death, and the horrible way in which it can be achieved, through control of people’s minds and movements, actions and events, that makes things all the more unpleasant. And it also makes those pages, crammed so tightly with text, turn faster and faster as you keep up pace with highly readable prose. This is a vast book though, and despite my not having a serious problem with that, it could have possibly done with something of an edit to trim it back a bit.
In the foreword of my copy of Carrion Comfort Dan Simmons talks about how whilst writing the book his study was peppered all over with cards and papers linked and intertwined listing plot lines, characters, themes and threads. Having finished the book, I cannot imagine him managing to fit such a mind map relating to a most complex horror novel on the walls of the National Library of Congress, let alone a home office. But manage it he did, and it’s generally to our benefit for this is a very good book. At times it seems to be a free-for-all of everyone killing everyone, whether they’ve supreme mind-warp powers or not, but that feel of slaughter over-kill does little to dampen what is still a great book, and a very important one in the horror canon.
If you are patient, and willing to stick it out for what really is an epic horror novel, then you will be rewarded with a good few nights (or weeks) of reading. Genuinely chilling and fantastically written. Just be careful you don’t drop it on your foot, whatever you do.