NR: Two by David Morrell

Though previously I’d only thought of him as ‘the guy who gave us Rambo’, in 1998 I read Testament by David Morrell after seeing it recommended by Ramsey Campbell and was pleasantly surprised, but apart from the odd short story I’ve read nothing more by Morrell until now, twenty four years later, when I finally got round to checking out two more of his novels.

The second book in ‘the Abelard Sanction series’, 1985’s The Fraternity of the Stone is more or less what I expected from ‘the guy who gave us Rambo’, a fast paced, action propelled thriller. After a history lesson that bears fruit later, we get into things with the mass murder of monks at an isolated Carthusian monastery. The only survivor is Drew MacLane, a former professional assassin, who has to rediscover the skills of his past if he is to escape and track down those responsible. Along the way he is helped by a Catholic priest, Father Stanislaw, and the mysterious Fraternity.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It’s fast paced and full of details about the intelligence community, the training of assassins and related matter that add verisimilitude. The character of Drew was fleshed out in flashback, with credible motivation provided for his choices in life, and making him a sympathetic character regardless of his past career. Ultimately he is somebody who allowed himself to be used for evil ends but for the best of reasons, and then tried to walk away when his conscience could no longer allow him to participate in killing. The end game, in which the bad guy and his organisation are brought down was a terrific set piece, as were the series of events leading up to this, all of it crying out to be made into a big budget thriller. And there’s a thought provoking subtext about the nature of faith and what actions can be justified in the name of religion, with Drew’s final confrontation bringing opposed views into open conflict. In the negative column, while I found personal motivations acceptable, the rationale of the two organisations in opposition seemed rather more hypothetical. For the ‘bad’ guys, the logic of killing A to discredit B seemed tenuous, though I appreciate that bad guys are, by their very nature, slightly unhinged and not always thinking straight. Similarly there was a ‘nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition’ quality to the ‘good’ guys which I found hard to swallow, but to elaborate on these points would be in the nature of plot spoiler. Overall I enjoyed reading the book, but at the same time I can’t say that I felt I would have missed much if I hadn’t tried it.

Creepers won the 2006 Bram Stoker Award for ‘Superior Achievement’ in the novel category. Like Fraternity it’s a book that gets off to a flying start and doesn’t slow down till the last page is turned. Creepers are urban explorers, people who break into old, abandoned buildings to discover their secrets. Professor Conklin leads one such group, consisting of ex-students Vinnie, married couple Rick and Cora. His latest target is the Paragon Hotel in New Jersey’s Asbury Park. Built by reclusive millionaire Morgan Carlisle, the hotel closed to business in the 1960s and was closed up with steel shutters. Carlisle lived alone in the penthouse until 1992 when he walked out onto the beach and shot himself. For this outing the gang are joined by Balenger, a journalist who is to write a story about ‘creepers’. They enter via underground tunnels, finding evidence of the hotel’s macabre past in various rooms, and with that the stage is set for thrills and spills, which is what we get in triplicate. Fire and flood, explosives, rat hordes, mutant cats, thugs with night vision goggles, hidden treasure, hidden girls, hidden booby traps, oh and a serial killer, are all on the menu, and if there was a kitchen sink crammed in there somewhere it was probably coated in deadly acid. To make things even more interesting, neither Conklin or protagonist Balenger are being truthful about their reasons for wanting in to the Paragon.

This is exactly the sort of shiver show Richard Laymon produced in his heyday, though better written and without all the sex stuff being so in your face. The nature of the Paragon, both past and present, is evoked with skill, the folly of a mad millionaire now fallen into decay and disrepair, riddled with secret tunnels, so that the owner could spy on his guests, the perfect hunting ground for a crazed killer. Adding flesh to these bare bones, we learn about all the tragedies that took place in the building, so that at times you think the Professor and his crew might just as easily have been ‘ghost adventurers’. The creepers’ obsession with the past comes over well, enabling the reader to easily understand what drives these people to put their lives in peril. The characters are well drawn too, the banter between them totally convincing, with Balenger noting the power dynamics of the group, how all three of the men have feelings for Cora. Balenger is an observer who acts as the eyes of the reader, our viewpoint character. He is a driven man, with terrible things in both his past and present. The three thugs are convincing in their amorality, but the real madman of the hour is serial killer Ronnie, with Morrell making an effort to give him solid motives for acting as he does and grounding his psychology in the past. The story is engrossing as the group penetrate the hotel, and even more so when the action kicks off, with plenty of unexpected twists and turns to the plot, and all of the characters in the frame for an early grave, nobody spared. It was great fun, and I’ll keep an eye out for the 2007 sequel Scavenger, which sounds like more of the same.

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