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Carrion Comfort

by Dan Simmons. Headline. Reviewed by Kate Orman

First Appeared in Burnt Toast#8, 1991

Dan Simmons's epic Carrion Comfort came to me highly commended. The author copped a Hugo for an earlier work; and David C. had published his own strongly positive review some time before pressing a copy into my hands.

Now I've finished the book, I have to say it wasn't one of the great literary experiences of my life. I wouldn't even say it was that good. It was lacking an essential quality of horror fiction.

It wasn't scary.

Now, I've come at Carrion Comfort from an angle which is probably foreign to many BT readers: I'm not a horror fan. I've wriggled out of reading anything by Anne Rice for years. I haven't read anything that could be technically labelled horror since The Penguin Book of Vampires six months ago, though I've seen Exorcist III and Jacob's Ladder in that time.

What do I think is scary, then? Exorcist III was scary, but not because of the garden shears or the gruesome descriptions of the victims' remains (which, with all the repetition, became funny. "You say he cut her toes off and stuck them up her nose?"). Even the shocks were predictable. But the tension in the film was incredible. And the actor who played the ghost psycho had charisma coming out of his ears. Just listening to him talk gave me the willies.

What else is scary? Curse of Fenric is scary, especially thanks to Tomek Bork and Dinsdale Landen. The Twilight Zone is scary because it sneaks up and hits you over the mind, saying, this could be you. A Little Piece and Quiet was a zillion times creepier than Carrion Comfort.

All of this may give you some idea of what I do find frightening. OK, so what were the scarifying ingredients in Carrion, and why didn't they move me?

Part of the problem was predictability. Now, Carrion has some surprising twists -- the totally unheralded death of a major character, for instance, halfway through a paragraph. But it also has some of the hallmark cliches of horror. Open with lots of blood. On to the sex scene. Now the plot can get started. And a thousand pages later, close with "Oh my God, it isn't all right after all." I first noticed these cliches in movies -- Jacob's Ladder has the first two, and everything from Scared to Death to Little Shop of Horrors has the latter.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with using tried-and-tested techniques; plenty of how-to-write books tell you to start with a bang. The only problem is that the predictability of some parts kind of undermines the unpredictability of other parts. I mean, you know Melanie is going to live, because she's writing in first person, yes?

"Carrion" is an apt part of the title. There's plenty of carrion about, sliced, diced, shot, burned, and squashed; plenty of deaths, tons of shreddies. Not one of them gave me pause (except the aforementioned major character -- I had to back up and make sure I'd read it right). Smashed larynxes, exploding heads, guts all over the floor -- who cares? I've been in butcher's shops, I've done dissections, I'm not impressed by gore. I am intrigued, though, by the fact that horror writers' characters always seem to shoot people in the head. I think this is so they can get in a good description of the brains dribbling down the walls.

Few shocks, ineffective gore. What about the villains? The "mind vampires" (Do they really feed? Who knows?) have this incredible control over other human beings, making them slaves, murderers, or empty relay stations. They have no morality at all -- nothing, not even twinges.

Why wasn't this power scary? I'm not quite sure. I know Kzanol's Power in Larry Niven's World of Ptavvs wasn't as frightening as Kzanol's sudden jump two billion years into his future -- or the thought of an alien slave, permanently trapped in frozen time and dropped into Jupiter's liquid surface. Those ideas were scary; Kzanol's Power was a plot device. That's pretty much the way I saw the mind vampires' Ability.

By this stage you are saying, "For God's sake, Kate, what did you like about the book?" Well, the heroes were bland, but some of the villains were exquisitely painted. Melanie's constant moralising and her nostalgia for the "good old days" counterpoint her racism and her astonishing, utterly carefree lack of morality. She begins the book seeming rather more sympathetic than the other vampires; as she progresses, she grows more and more powerful, amoral, and disgusting.

Tony Harod, on the other hand, starts out as a powerful, vicious puppeteer and turns into a scared little boy. When he actually falls in love you are just waiting for him to play hero and redeem himself. His act of betrayal was a minor surprise; it brought out the truth of his worthless character. I'm surprised it took him so long to die afterwards, but there was some poetic justice to be meted out.

I think the biggest problem with Carrion Comfort is repetition. Repetition of the cliches I mentioned above; repetition a al Ian Briggs of certain words and phrases ("sipped at"); repetition of gory deaths so that they lose what little impact they had.

Since the novel is obviously aimed at the horror market, it's very difficult for me to say whether you'll like it. I can say this: if you like plenty of death and mayhem and a decent pace, you've come to the right book. I have a feeling that Carrion Comfort might have worked better if it had shifted genres and been a fantasy thriller. All the ingredients are there -- and with a thriller's "real world" setting, it might have been more scary.


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