Saturday, October 4, 2008

Book Review: The Totem

Continuing to chip away at my long reading list, today I completed the next book on it: The Totem, a novel by David Morrell. I don't know how well his name is known among the reading public, but everyone knows the character from his first novel: Rambo. Yes, Morrell wrote First Blood and created the Rambo character, later picked up for movies. I bought The Totem mainly because of Morrell. He taught a one-day class on fiction at the 2006 Glorieta Christian Writers Conference in New Mexico, and I bought his book on writing fiction.

I got aways into the book and began to realize it was a horror story. I don't read horror at all, and was surprised this was a horror and not an action book. I turned to the cover, and it was right there: "A classic horror novel". Well, nothing to do but continue. After all, I bought the book, and needed to get my $4.98 plus tax worth (from the Barnes & Noble remainders table).

The book was originally published in 1979, but Morrell re-released it in 1995, adding back in material the original publisher had asked to have deleted, and updating it for the later date. It takes place in and around the town of Potters Field, set in Wyoming. A colony of hippies had settled there about 1970, and hangers-on had come into the town and were run out by the townspeople. The version I read put those event 23 years in the past, so it was obviously updated.

The novel begins with a rancher checking his fences in June. He finds some deer carcasses and then a cow carcass that was mutilated in a frightening way. He calls the old vet, who comes out and gets the carcass, takes it back to autopsy it, discovers something terrible--whatever it was that killed the cow--but dies of a heart attack. In the confusion, the carcass is incinerated. So the cause of death is a secret. After that, a boy is bit by a raccoon, and within sixteen hours has become a lunatic animal, crawling on all fours, snarling, biting, licking. He attacks his mother, biting her, and runs away.

At this point rabies obviously comes to mind, but not exactly, for rabies takes more time to develop. A younger vet is called in; and the medical examiner. The police chief, Nathan Slaughter is also involved. In fact, Slaughter is the main character, although he isn't introduced until the seventh chapter (I'll have to discuss that with some writing pros). Slaughter left police work in Detroit to live an easier life on a simple ranch outside Potters Field, but was pressed into service as the town's police chief five years earlier.

In the early going, Morrell does a good job of painting the scene so that the reader knows more than the characters. The reader knows long before any of the characters that this isn't rabies, which doesn't act as fast as whatever is going around. The early encounters with the whatever-this-disease-is are explained slowly. As the book progresses, less and less time is spent on each new encounter. This technique enhances the idea of a virus spreading rapidly, exponentially. The attacks come both in the town and out in the valley, and in those ranches that touch the mountains. The character who found the mutilated cow disappears; five state policemen use dogs to pick up the sent from where his abandoned truck. The arrive at a lake up in the mountains after dark, and are attacked by something and killed. Actually, in the scene Morrell does not really explain what happens to them, but implies it's something pretty bad.

A reporter, Dunlap, had arrived in town just before the attacks start. He is doing a story on the old hippy colony and what became of it. He is an alcoholic, has fallen from a higher reputation, and is relegated to this. Another character returns to town. He was the teenager who joined the hippy colony which resulted in his father killing one of them and spending time in prison. The son has come back to claim his share of the ranch, also with notions of a possible reconciliation to his dad. Of course, his dad takes on a solitary vendetta against whatever is coming down out of the mountains, killing stock and spreading this virus.

Slaughter, the police chief, while checking a scene where the town wino died, is attacked by a "cat", but shoots it and blasts its head to bits. The boy who bit his mom is trapped in an old mansion (the town's main tourist attraction), and appears to be killed by a sedative--as a dog had been earlier--only to come to life on the autopsy table. Slaughter at this point on the Saturday night realizes something pretty bad is going on. The next morning he called the mayor, suggested drastic measures, only to be turned down and eventually turned out as police chief. Since the disease, probably a virus, did that to the boy (and to his mom), the thought is planted: could this be related to humans, perhaps the hippy colony gone amok?

I don't want to give too much of the plot away, in case someone reading so far decides to buy the book, so I'll stop here. The book is well written, as you would expect from a man who was able to have his first book published and turned into a movie. Morrell now has many novels to his credit. I found two things that bothered me about the book.

1. Too many times a past perfect tense is used when a simple past tense would seem appropriate. I did not mark this in the book, and flipping pages just now I can't find any examples. I mean such things as "He was wondering what was causing the sickness" rather than, "He wondered what caused the sickness." These came in batches, continuous few paragraphs. I'm sure Morrell had a purpose for this, but I couldn't detect it.
2. The denouement was not as complete as I would have liked. We didn't actually find out what caused the virus. It turned out to be related to the hippy colony, but how did it happen? We never found out what happened to the rancher who disappeared, and must presume he, his wife, and son perished. A few other loose ends are not tied up as neatly as I would have liked.

It's a good read, however, and I recommend the book. It has a few cuss words, and Jesus' name is taken in vain some, especially in one scene. But the book has no gratuitous violence and sex, which help to recommend it.

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