Off the Shelf

"Carrion Comfort"

By Marcus Pan

Carrion ComfortCarrion Comfort, just like Still Life With Woodpecker which was my read before this one, was another novel suggested to me by my friend, Kim. Thus far his suggested reading has been excellent.

Carrion Comfort is a long book, hitting near 900 pages in pocketbook form. It could conceivably be split into at least two separate books. There is more than one climax in Carrion Comfort, the first closing a section of the storyline in Philadelphia and the latter taking place on a small island off the American coast near Charleston; Dolmann Island.

This is a horror novel as you can see, but what you'll notice is the author is out of place; one Dan Simmons, revered as a great author of science fiction. And this novel shows those science fiction roots in it with a story that settles somewhere on the scope near the classic movie, "Scanners."

The story opens in Chelmno, 1942. A Jewish concentration camp run by, you guessed it, Nazi war mongers during the second world war. Here in Chelmno one Saul Laski finds himself taken from his wooden, hay-strewn bunk in the middle of the night and finds that, for some reason, he can't fight back.

Now we fast forward to Charleston in the year 1980. The Prologue gives you a very strong sense of wondering, leaving you in suspense and trying to figure out what the hell happened nearly forty years ago in German-occupied Europe. A series of grisly murders, called the Mansard House Murders by local police forces, sends the local sheriff, one Rob Gentry, and a local resident, Natalie Preston who's father was one of the senseless murders, off to Washington, New York and lastly Philadelphia on their way to discover what brought about this series of grisly deaths. Saul shows up with his story, a survivor of the Nazi death camps and a man with a dark story that he finally shares with these other two individuals. Now we know what happened that night in Chelmno, but by this time the story has moved along enough that you find yourself in just as much suspense as before. Saul tells his tale at precisely the right moment after enough has happened so you do not lose that suspense you've had crawling in your gut since the outset of the book.

By this time we have enough information to know what is going on. A small group of people, dubbed "mind vampires" by the trio, hold prominent positions in U.S. government, entertainment and business. I don't, however, like the term "mind vampires." It's not accurate. Other than needing the deaths of others to help them revitalize themselves, that's about as close to a classic "vampire novel" as Carrion Comfort gets. There is no neck biting, blood sharing, immortality or anything of the sort. These people have the ability, using a unique rhythm of brain waves, to control others. Literally take control of their thoughts, minds and actions, forcing them to do whatever they will with extremely strong powers of suggestion and mental domination. They control these people and make them do things they normally wouldn't. Send one into government buildings with a bomb for example. Simmons even writes a good account of the Reagan shooting without forcing us to believe that these people did it. Just enough to make you think it was possible…but never stated as fact. In this way Dan is able to wind in forty and more years of conspiracy theories into a loosely contained "mind vampire" group without making it seem absurd. This gives just enough history and seriousness to the book without giving it an unbelievable nature like what occurred in Whitley Strieber's The Night Church. Using these powers, this society is also able to control others for long periods, creating personality-deficient catspaws to serve them in whatever way they see fit. They maneuver into strong positions of world power and create subtle actions that heighten those levels of power.

Now that we know the backdrop, we can further explore the gist of the story. The aforementioned trio; Natalie Preston who's soul desire is revenge against one of the "mind vampires" Melanie Fuller for the senseless death of her father who was "Used" by Melanie while running away from the "Used" catspaw of another "mind vampire" enemy; Saul Laski who's sole desire is to kill "The Oberst," one Willhelm Von Bochert, who is the Nazi high officer who took him from his bunk forty years ago and forced him into an insane human chess game and from whom he barely escaped; and Sheriff Rob Gentry of Charleston who just wants to solve the Mansard House Murder case. The trio chases Fuller to Philadelphia where there is a huge turnout of other "mind vampire" controlled FBI agents, "vamps" themselves and other interested parties where a huge climax ends in the deaths of quite a few, including Gentry, and leaves everyone left crawling from the gutted remains of Soul Brickyard, a ghetto area of the city. Following this horrible escapade the parties crawl back to their various holes and home bases to regroup, rearm and create their new plans.

The final climax occurs on the previously mentioned Dolmann Island, the hotspot of "mind vampire" Barent, a business mogul who is listed as one of the richest men in the world. Every year on his little island he holds a party of amazing proportions lasting two weeks during the summer. Barent first has a week-long shindig that includes ex-presidents, kings, prime ministers and other high dignitaries which is a time of great revelry for the highest officials of the world. After they are off, the second week is primarily for the members of "The Island Club," a loosely connected group of "mind vampires" that number five. There is C. H. Barent himself, who has used his abilities to place himself in the strongest position of business domination he could muster complete with multi-million dollar sleek private jets and whole islands owned where he can go at any time. There is also Tony Harod, a Hollywood producer who has achieved fame through his big-budget films and movies. Then there's Sutter, a world renowned evangelist with a huge tax-free business in his pocket. Then, of course, comes "The Oberst," the Nazi William Borden (a.k.a. Willhelm Von Bochert), who's obsession for chess goes deep into his love of strategy and domination. Lastly there is Joseph Kepler, an FBI man who has elevated himself within this organization.

The Island Club holds "hunts" here, on one end of the island that is nothing but jungle. Taking control of some kidnapped no-name people, they send them at each other in the jungle each night and decide who wins by who's surrogate is left standing. But with the coming of William Borden this summer, plans change and what ends up occurring is the ending of a chess game, an absolute delight and fascinating horror to read. Borden's plans to heighten the Island Club's hunt to include not just people versus people on a small island, but countries versus countries on a playing field that involves the entire world, is mad genius at its best.

By the time this summer's Island Club meeting is over, few are standing…including the members of the Island Club themselves. The story ends with bright lights, explosions, death and destruction done in such a grand performance that the final climax of Carrion Comfort takes you to near breathlessness. A huge ending to a great story.

One of Simmons' strongest capabilities as an author is to create such characters that you can really see into them. There is no glamour-coated facades in the people you will encounter while reading Carrion Comfort. Each person is unique, allowing you to keep a strong bond with them throughout the story. And the unexpected twists and turns are wonderful. I never expected Rob Gentry to expire in the darkness of Philadelphia, for example. Dan Simmons isn't afraid to spend time fleshing out a character in the novel that's going to die, while most authors will spend only fleeting paragraphs on a character they know is doomed. This leaves you with a sense of urgency that requires you to find out for yourself and make sure that revenge is enacted for the deaths of people you almost know.

A caution, however. Carrion Comfort is a long book. One that took me a while to read simply due to its size. But if you haven't read a good, long horror novel in a while, this will be very welcome.

"Carrion Comfort" by Dan Simmons
Published by Warner Books - © 1989
ISBN# 0446359203

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