21 December 2007

Gripping, disturbing, chilling--you'll look at the strangers around you in a new way

Carrion Comfort
Dan Simmons
Grand Central Publishing, 1990

How horrifying would it be to find someone else in that most intimate of "places," your own mind, using you as a marionette, steering you to commit senseless acts of violence as an absolutely helpless pawn in their sociopathic schemes? That is the central, chillingly effective premise of the epic second novel by award-winning author Dan Simmons. Ranging from a concentration camp in Nazi-controlled Poland to the genteel Southern city of Charleston, South Carolina, to the racially charged streets of Philadelphia to a private island off the Atlantic coast, this near-900-page chiller deftly covers an equally extensive expanse of literary territory, including elements of science fiction, supernatural horror, psychological thriller, and international espionage.

If I could summarize the plot in one paragraph, it would be as follows. Our world is populated by a vanishingly small population of psychic "vampires," individuals who can enter the mind of others to control their thoughts and actions. These creatures are sociopaths, amoral monsters who casually foment violence, commit mental and physical rape, and destroy lives in order to play their "games." Three such vampires, old colleagues in sociopathology, have decided to end their decades-long game with one another by attempting mutual homicide, using (of course) innocent bystanders as their weapons. The resulting mass murder brings together our protagonists---a psychiatrist and survivor of the Chelmno death camp, a young black college student whose father was a victim of the vampires, and a Southern sheriff whose demeanor belies a keen intelligence. Over the course of 850+ pages, these characters uncover a sinister cabal of "vampires" whose games seem to be leading toward the ultimate finale---destruction of the world itself.

At almost 900 pages (have I mentioned how long the book is?), Carrion Comfort could be a daunting, even boring, read in the hands of a lesser talent, and yet Dan Simmons is able to pull it off with aplomb. His use of various side characters, subplots, multiple points of view, and unexpected twists, along with an ever-climbing bodycount of innocent puppets, keeps the readers interest through the very last page. Most chilling, perhaps, are the first-person musings of Miz Melanie Fuller, a Southern belle "vampire" whose obsessions with scripture, race, and propriety exist side-by-side with her callous disregard for the lives of all the pawns she uses and discards.

I had the opportunity to do dinner with Dan Simmons a decade ago and found him to be a charming man with a warm, open manner. It amazes me that a story so profoundly dark and chilling could come from a person so engaging. I guess that goes to show that Simmons is great at what he does. Whether writing award-winning fantasy, horror, science fiction, or thrillers, he always seems to be at the top of his game, and Carrion Comfort is no exception.

(This review was originally written on August 17, 2007.)

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