Thursday, April 12, 2012

Lycanthropic Lizards, Oh My!

On the jacket of my copy of Relic, there’s a quote from the Hartford Courant that says, “Relic is as good as this type of novel gets.” Above that, another quote claims it’s a thriller, but I think it successfully incorporates several genres--yet, at its core, it’s a mystery. Of course, in this mystery, the murderer just happens to be a monster.
Readers aren’t left guessing who the murderer is. Instead, they wonder why the murderer is in the museum and what the motives are of the numerous characters in the story. Since I consider this a mystery, and I will be discussing the entire story, I would like to give a fair warning that there will be spoilers in this blog.
Okay, that’s a fair warning. So, back to the monster. Until the prologue, readers assume the creature is an environmental abomination, but the prologue suggests the monster is a hybrid, a lycanthropic lizard. Although it took me until the end to realize who the beast turned out to be, I had my suspicions, for a long while, that the creature was originally human.
What gave me my suspicion was one of the factors that qualified this novel as a mystery: elusive details. Relic is filled with scientific details, which mirror the qualities of human interrogations. At one point, a computer program even resorts to witty dialogue as the scientists try to determine DNA matches. Through the book, details are given and details are left out; readers are never given a complete picture, but a picture is painted. That picture included an unstable virus that mutated a plant that this monster fed upon. The picture also included a suspension of disbelief that this creature miraculously evolved and was a sole survivor in an isolated jungle. One plus one equals.... Realizing the suspension of disbelief was too far fetched and considering the possibility that the virus might mutate humans spun the solution in my mind--as I’m sure it did for others because mysteries are set up to keep readers thinking, trying to solve the case, and feel proud of themselves when they do.
As a hybrid, the monster held more of a punch for me. Thinking of a person morphing, becoming addicted to drugs, losing their humanity, and turning murderous--this all made the creature more horrifying to me than a jungle monster on the loose (and for the record I hated both versions of King Kong). I also found the mystery of how Whittlesey ingested the plants disturbing. There was a suggestion that he was force fed them, and that made me cringe with delight. However, I found that to be improbable. The monster was intelligent and apparently kept some parts of his human memories if he decided to come back and stay in New York; if he would have been tortured into becoming a monster, I think he would have just ripped the skulls off every Kothoga in the world before catching a ride by to the Big Apple. But this is just a guess.
The second concept in the book that sent shivers up my spine was the monsters larder. Thinking of a monster hoarding bodies of people and pets for years in tunnels just beneath my feet is quite disturbing. Also, the idea is solidified by including two victims who had taken part in the story prior to their decapitated bodies being discovered.
From what I’ve said, it should be obvious that Relic was worth reading and it did have chilling moments, but I must say; I was not enthralled by it. I imagine part of this was the characterization of the protagonist. There were many characters, but Margo was arguably the main protagonist, and her character came across as pretty blank. At times, I thought her character could be taken out, her interactions could be changed to inner dialogue, and the story would not be altered in the least. Although, she’s set up as having some complicated issues (her father’s passing and her career decision), her struggles with those are ignored. She tends to sleep walk through the whole story on a crutch. That crutch is always a male counterpart: Moriarty, Kawakita, and Frock. With Frock, I always pictured her standing behind him, holding herself up with his wheelchair--as if it were a crutch--as opposed to just pushing him. Pendergast, although arguably not the main protagonist, was the hero of the story and had a much more interesting back story that played into his character. Too bad none of the other characters shared such gifts. I enjoyed Pendergast’s character and can see how he’s being setup to be a hero in one of the other books, which is one of the main reasons I’m interested in picking them up.
I’m torn up about the epilogue. Although I did enjoy the twist, I couldn’t buy it. I know Kawakita thought he had manipulated the virus, but selling it as a drug seemed a bit silly (did Kawakita have party prescription connections the entire time?), and I can’t help but believe he would adjust his work or give it up if he started noticing significant changes in his sleeping habits. On a side note, if the government is willing to keep a small batch of Smallpox around for whatever reason, there’s no way they’d just burn all of this plant--which didn’t matter for this story, but I wondered if it will play more into the sequels.
On a final note, I loved the setting. The gothic and decrepit images I pictured were beautiful for a horror story. My only concern was--how can a building stay supported when its foundation floods every time rain hits. Most houses that flood will have collapsed foundations within a few years, which can lead to condemned properties or complete destruction. Again, I’ve heard that in Europe cities are built on top of other cities, so maybe there’s a construction style that doesn’t need to worry about severe flooding. I just don’t understand how it’s possible.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Little Ride Through the Snow

Imagine, if you will, you’re at an amusement park. Not a high-end park like Cedar Point but a traditional one that you might find in any smaller town. Maybe there’s a little Ferris wheel, maybe there’s a log flume, and if you’re lucky, there’s a beat up roller coaster that creaks too loudly as the carts turn a corner. Chances are you will also find a haunted house or Wacky Shack there. Picture that in your mind--the cheap carts grinding on their tracks, the rubber rats that pop out, the laughing witch with the wart on her nose.
Now compare that to the best seasonal haunted house you’ve ever been, too (mine would have to be Mystery Manor in Omaha, NE). Or better yet, compare the cheap amusement park ride to any actual haunted houses you’ve visited Which did you enjoy more?
I know you’re wondering what this has to do with Malfi’s Snow? Well, I look at Snow and similar horror books as I would an amusement park ghost ride. The thrills are cheap, nothing is exceptionally scary, these rides have their moments that I appreciate, and in the end, I hop on every time I visit the amusement park. I enjoy these rides. I’m reading The Relic now, and although I’ll provide a full blog soon, I can say it’s turning out to be more like a haunted house that is devoted to only being the scariest thing imaginable for one season of the whole year, or more authentic like the supposedly haunted places I’ve been. I suppose I still have to wait and see, but the characters in The Relic seem to have depth, the facts seem to have been checked and rechecked, and the story is dense and full of layers that my mind is constantly trying to grasp.
Although I enjoyed Snow, I have to admit it didn’t have layers. The characters were even so blank I have trouble remembering their names; however, the protagonist, Todd, is trying to get home for Christmas with his son, but a snowstorm gets him stuck in Chicago. Him and a team set out with a rental car, but find a stranded man and get stuck in a town being attacked by snow creatures. Eventually, after a few deaths, the team is able to access the internet with a laptop and call for help. While they wait, Bruce, the heroic martyr of the story, blows up a gas station, killing all the possessed citizens with him. The protagonist gets shot by a pregnant woman looking for a little vengeance, but that’s all right because Todd lives and sees his son once again.
The book had some twists, turns, and some unnecessary explosions, but it was a short read, and I enjoyed my time in it. The snow monsters worked for me in some ways, but failed in others. I initially pictured them as wraiths or angel-like incarnations, but later, they’re described as being similar to snakes; I preferred my original image. I found the monsters to be a revamped version of the wendigo myth--a creature that possess a person, commits evil deeds, partakes in cannibalism, and is sometimes a giant snow creature. The main difference to me was that the monsters in Snow are tangible when exposed to fire, but wendigos, the way I’ve heard of them, are an intangible evil that corrupts a person (maybe something similar to The First in Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Still, all in all, I thought the monsters worked.
I liked the snow. There’s been mixed sentiments regarding the snow, but I love snow--partially because it’s beautiful yet freaky. I like cold weather. I love being inside, sitting next to a fire and reading a book, on a blustery day while the clouds cover the sun and sky and while I watch the snow sift to the ground or whirl in a fiendish dance. This book gave me the same feeling as such snowy days. I think specifically, I enjoyed the scenes that took place in private homes the most: the scene when Todd and Kate have breakfast, when Shawna is climbing the stairs, and even the memory Shawna has when she looks outside and sees her neighbor just standing out there, watching. Cozy and terrifying go together like sweet and spicy.
I liked Shawna. Although I loved her death scene (sticking her hand in her own vomit, climbing the staircase, the debate of waking up from the nightmare, and having the whole town race down to devour her), I was really sad to see her killed off. She worked so hard and was so memorable that I felt cheated, as though her effort was useless while Kate did very little and still lived. Plus, with one of the few tasks Kate was given, taking care of the kids, she failed horrifically.
The story ends with the revelation that this occurrence was not isolated to one town, then an epilogue elaborates on the idea of some of these creatures escaping. This concept was foreshadowed earlier when the town’s mutated children cause Todd to realize there might be monstrous kids roaming the hills for years to come--an image I thought was exceptionally creepy. In the epilogue, the man who caused the rental car to stop in the beginning of the story returns. He has his daughter, and they’re at a gas station. He buys a box of adhesive strips and claims they’re for later--I love this ending! The book leaves readers to speculate the next step for the escaped creatures, and it’s gruesome. I can only imagine their skin will eventually rot and fall apart, and they will need some bandages to keep themselves together.
So, even though Snow might not have been the best horror ride ever, it was fun. Maybe it doesn’t meet the standards of more-filling horror novels, but I didn’t regret reading it, and I never considered putting it down, which I’ve done with other horror books. From what I’ve heard, Malfi gets better from here, so I’ll look forward to diving into the next thrill ride he has in store for me--I’ve heard Floating Staircase is very good.