Filler content with three golden oldies

This cluster of reviews got posted to the old TTA Press website on 12 June 2008:-

Black Flame pb, 408pp, £6.99
Black Flame pb, 408pp, £6.99
Harper Collins pb, 474pp, £6.99

We live in commercial times, with only the dilettantes and the most successful able to pay more than lip service to the desiderata of art for art’s sake. For the rest, profit is the inescapable bottom line, and nowhere is this more true than in the cutthroat world of Hollywood. The money men who underwrite the latest blockbusters want a good return on their investment, and so it’s doubtful if any film with a significant budget gets made without a merchandising strategy in place beforehand. Not just a film then, but a line of toys, computer games, soundtrack albums, bargain meals at McDonalds, tie ins with Coca Cola, or whoever else shows an interest, and, of course, for those strange people who want words as well as pictures, a book of the film, inevitably followed by books inspired by the film.

In the latter category, at least as regards the Horror genre, publisher Black Flame appear to have cornered the market, with several lucrative franchises under their wing and a stable of writers given the chance to earn an honest buck by putting their talent and creativity at the service of someone else’s dream, or nightmare in this case.

Central to each of the Final Destination films, box sets of which are being offered at a bargain price in shopping emporiums online and up and down the land even now as I write, is some terrible accident involving considerable loss of life. In Dead Man’s Hand a glass elevator running up and down the outside of a Las Vegas hotel tears loose and crashes to the ground, killing everyone inside. Thanks to a premonition, five people got off before this fatal event took place – two time loser Arlen Ploog, showgirl Shawna Engels, her cop boyfriend Warren Ackerman, former wild child Allie Goodwin and newly acquired husband Tom – and in the aftermath not only do they find themselves under suspicion of causing the accident, but also targeted by Death itself.

Author Steven Roman does an excellent job here, delineating the five characters, showing how their lives intertwine in the run-up to their own, personal brush with death and revealing what happens thereafter, as the terrible truth dawns, that they haven’t escaped, only delayed the inevitable. Unfortunately he’s always fighting an uphill battle, restricted by the constraints of the formula within which he must work. The basic premise of Final Destination is that people are supposed to die at their appointed time and if, through some fluke, they don’t then Death gets to kick up havoc until matters are put right, which was a novel variation on the serial killer/teens in peril subgenre first time around, but gets more tedious with each subsequent trip to the well. We know these characters are going to die, and so caring about them becomes redundant. The only interest lies in finding out how they meet their maker.

And the concept begs as many questions as it answers. If Death is allowed to rectify errors, then how come so many innocent bystanders are killed along the way? Doesn’t this also throw things out of whack? At an even more basic level, why not just kill with something like a brain aneurysm instead of all this grandstanding with vehicular homicide and burning buildings? Maybe Death is on retainer with a sfx studio. The films are simply Hollywood flim flam and the book can’t help but reflect that, despite all Roman’s good work to make it real.

On the surface A Nightmare on Elm Street would seem to offer a writer much more scope. Child killer Freddy Krueger, murdered by a mob of angry parents and transformed into a demon lurking inside his victims’ dreams is one of the archetypal figures of modern horror, with a potential that has been barely tapped, even by his creator Wes Craven.

In Protégé Tim Waggoner envisages an end to Freddy. The parents of Springwood have kept knowledge of the killer from their children, and as a consequence he no longer lives in their dreams. It is only a matter of time before knowledge of Freddy, along with his existence itself, is expunged completely. But Krueger has a plan of his own. Seventeen years ago he murdered pregnant Joanna and infected her son with his evil in the expectation that a new serial killer will revitalise his myth. Jerome Starkey is born, but thanks to a dreamcatcher supplied by his psychic aunt Rebecca he is protected from Freddy’s malign influence, though he still has to fight to control his temper. Then in his teens Jerome destroys the dreamcatcher in a fit of anger, and Freddy begins to affect him, giving strength to Jerome’s dark twin, the side of his nature that has always been repressed. Jerome must fight to keep control of his body, for the sake of those he loves.

This is a decent if unspectacular novel, albeit the plot does little more than reprise that of one of the later films in the Elm Street canon (I can’t recall which one – they all blur after a point). Central to the story is a battle for the very soul of a young man, though in practical terms the end result is pretty much the same as in every other Krueger vehicle, a high body count and slayings as sadistic as they are inventive. Waggoner writes well, with good characterisation, taking a leaf out of Stephen King’s book with the beautifully realised school bully Pat and his henchmen, whose actions unwittingly tip their victim over the edge, while Jerome’s inner struggle, exacerbated by his relationship with his step mum, has sufficient depth to convince. The scenes set in the dream dimension are suitably lurid and macabre, while the death scenes are described with enough detail to shock but stop just short of being gratuitous. The end note is disturbingly poignant, with the realisation that evil cannot be beaten. There’s nothing here that is original, but it’s a well executed and entertaining slice of horror hokum.

Of course not all books are inspired by films. Sometimes even Hollywood puts the horse before the cart, which brings us to Frankenstein, one of the icons of the silver screen and a story told many times.

Mary Shelley’s classic has been updated in a trilogy released under the general heading Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein, implicit in which is the suggestion that the bestselling author does the conceptual work and story arch, while other hands are drafted in to help out with the actual writing chores.

Briefly, the monster has spent the last two hundred years in hiding, taking the name Deucalion and learning how to use quantum physics to transport himself instantly anywhere on the globe. His mission in life is to be avenged on his creator, but he cannot raise his hand against Frankenstein and so must enlist the help of others. Frankenstein also has weathered the passage of years, using his science to hold at bay the ravages of time. In the modern world he is known as Victor Helios, fantastically wealthy owner of the Biovision Corporation, based in New Orleans. Within its laboratories Frankenstein is breeding a New Race, super powerful immortals who will eventually replace mankind. Already key individuals in the city’s power structure have been duplicated.

City of Night has very obviously the second volume in a trilogy feel about it, with the sense that all the important events are in either the past or future, and all we are doing is marking time while the forces are marshalled for the inevitable showdown. Deucalion allies himself with two police detectives, Carson O’Connor and Michael Maddison, who are aware of what is happening and have become targets for Frankenstein’s professional killers. Elsewhere Shelley’s theme of hubris is reprised, the folly of man playing at God, with numerous signs that Frankenstein’s empire is overstretched and close to collapse, his creatures becoming deformed or losing their grip on sanity, regarding all of which the creator remains either blissfully ignorant or indifferent, such is his self-delusion. The curtain falls on a stage set for all out war.

Ed Gorman is credited with co-authorship of the book, and it is tempting to wonder who did what in the circumstances. My guess would be that conceptually most of this is Koontz, but Gorman did the bulk of the writing. Certainly from a prose point of view City of Night is much faster paced and more overtly thrillerish than past experience has led me to expect from Koontz, with short chapters and constant scene switching, and packed with invention, interesting characters and an engaging wit.

The New Race are portrayed as quasi-tragic figures, super powered and nearly immortal, but suffering emotional agony to a near suicidal pitch because they are denied free will, including the right to die, and have no reproductive capacity. Much of the novel’s appeal lies in the response of these near geniuses, idiot savants in all but name, to the situations that confront them, and the way in which their intelligence breaks down, presenting the reader with a rich vein of black humour. This quality is seen most clearly in the contrast between the knowing light hearted banter of O’Connor and Maddison and that of their evil nemeses, the New Race killer twins Benny and Cindi, the latter talking with a straight face about voodoo and her desire for children much to the former’s disapproval. And then there’s Erika, Frankenstein’s latest attempt to create for himself the perfect bride who, thanks to a lack of learned experience, simply can’t deal with matters of etiquette or get a handle on the fact that her husband actually enjoys hurting her.

If I have a complaint about the book, it’s to do with the abrupt ending. I was happily motoring along and with another twenty odd pages to go expected some of these plot strands to be neatly tied off, only to discover that these twenty pages were a sample chapter from Koontz’s current novel and City of Night finished with everything up in the air. This is not the sort of surprise ending I like. The resolution seems obvious though. I anticipate a scenario along similar lines to George R. R. Martin’s Wild Cards template, a super hero slug fest in which Deucalion takes on the hideous and multi-formed progeny of his creator. Between them though, Koontz and Gorman have done enough to ensure that I’ll check back to find out if I was right or not.

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