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Carrion Comfort

by Dan Simmons. Headline. Reviewed by David Carroll

First Appeared in Burnt Toast#7, 1991

We all die, Pawn. But what Herr Barent fails to realise is that the world doesn't have to survive us.
Willi Borden

What do you put in a book to make it a thousand pages long? In The Lord of the Rings good old JRR put in plots and sub-plots, a conflict of world-spanning proportions, and the adventures of the few small hobbits on which the world would have to depend. And it's (to put it mildly) a great book. I'm currently reading Anne Rice's The Witching Hour, and it's millenium is filled with the minutest detail of event and character. It's essentially plot-less, but is an examination of the consequences of a legacy passed from mother to daughter through the centuries. It is also (from the half I've read) a great book.

The two approaches are fairly exclusive; certainly TLotRs has characterisation, and The Witching Hour has events, but a combination in the same depth of detail would seem impossible. Stephen King's brilliant It made a good attempt, but characterisation tipped the scales (hardly surprising, really, considering the author). Now there is Dan Simmons' Carrion Comfort, and by Jove, I think he's done it.

Dan Simmons is relatively new to the scene, but to say he's making waves is a bit of an understatement. His first novel, Song of Kali won several awards, including the World Fantasy Award. His second novel, Hyperion, won a Hugo for best Science Fiction novel of the year, and according to reviews I've read puts Simmons up with the Grand Masters of sf, and the sequel has just appeared. Carrion Comfort is different again, a horror/thriller moving from Nazi Germany to Hollywood, from a Southern American township to the slums of Philadelphia, and finally to an island, play-ground of past Presidents, home of atrocity.

It concerns a group of 'mind vampires' [1], humans who can influence others to the extent they can completely subvert their wills, making them perform horrific acts of violence. Three of these creatures get together each year to compare notes and gain points for these kills, but the latest meeting goes wrong, one of the contestants is killed, another disappears, and the slaughter accompanying this 'falling out' pushes the third member and three innocents into a conflict that ever escalates till no less then the world is at stake.

All the characters are real. The three heroes all play there parts as innocents caught up in events beyond them to perfection. Natalie Preston, young student and photographer, Bobby Joe Gentry, county Sheriff and historian, Saul Laski, Psychologist and escapee from the German Death Camps. And as for the villains... Well, if you were giving an award for the most effective you'd have a tough choice between the manipulative Oberst, Willi Borden, the ever-increasingly insane Melanie, the fanatical Reverend Sutter, C. Arnold Barent, one of the richest, and most ruthless, men in the world, and finally Tony Harod, a character best described by Willi himself as a worthless piece of dogshit.

But despite all these carefully constructed characters, and many, many minor ones (the best probably being Maria Chen, Tony's secretary) Simmons keeps things happening. The pace is furious and never lets up, right to the last sentence. One of the books major strengths is it's unpredictability, both in structure and style. Events are built up to over hundreds of pages, only to take you by surprise, and in short order, sometimes in a single paragraph, the direction of the novel changes, leaving you reeling.

It's a book based very much on the real world -- very Illuminanti (as Kyla put it). The CIA are (one of the) bad guys, and conspiracies between the worlds of business, Evangelism and politics over-throw or elect Presidents. Both Reagan's attempted assassination and John Lennon's actual killing are accounted for, and the fictional characters mix with people from the likes of George Lucas to Jim and Tammy Baker. And it's also a book all about chess, both actually and metaphorically, encompassing all the relevant themes of manipulation and free will that accompany such a theme. And, yes, one of the minor characters is a young girl called Alicia, who discovers the world is a very bad place.

That's about all I can say about it, without completely degenerating into a mire of superlatives. It's a very long book, but the thousand pages are used well and if during the first half the end seems impossible far off, it accelerates towards you in the second.

Most of all Simmons is a story-teller, and has proved it both in the fields of hard science fiction and horror. Despite the relatively few number of books he's written he's not someone to watch out for, he's someone who is already here.


[1] But it's not a vampire book, a trap I fell into before realising I didn't mind.

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