Carrion Comfort, Dan Simmons

Warner, 1989, 884 pages, C$6.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-35920-3

One of Carrion Comfort‘s main characters is a Hollywood movie producer of the shlocky kind. It’s not hard to imagine someone like him taking a look an an early version of this novel and berating the author: “I want more sex! I want more violence! I want more action scenes! Give me helicopters, Nazis, explosions, gay sex, conspiracies, religion, chases, nuclear submarines and destroyers! Give me more! I want more! More! More!”

Because Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort has it all; it’s the epitome of the blockbuster horror novel, the type of book designed to be so over the top that you can’t but admire its audaciousness. You’ll cheer as you cringe, and laugh while you’re disgusted.

The premise itself is endlessly rich in sadistic possibilities: Simmons postulates the existence of a group of “psychic vampires” (so to speak) that have the Ability (or Power, or Talent) to take control of other people’s minds, effectively controlling them for as long as they want. From that point, it’s ridiculously easy to imagine these Mind-vampires indulging themselves in gory violence, simply because they can. Lack of accountability has its privileges.

Expanded from the novella of the same name, Carrion Comfort tacks on 850 pages to the original story, taking it much farther than Simmons’ initial effort. What gradually emerges isn’t an expansion of three Mind-vampires’ game of remote killing, but a power struggle between highly-placed forces of evil. The French Translation of the novel is aptly titled Evil’s Checkerboard (L’échiquier du mal, actually)

In theory, it sounds impressive. In practice, it has numerous great moments but suffers too much from unequal pacing to be epic horror. At 880-odd pages, it’s inevitable that there are long stretches in the book, but the second quarter seems to serve no other purpose than to kill off a main character. The third is dedicated to preparations for the fourth quarter. (It doesn’t really help that by mid-book, we have a pretty good idea of where the book’s going to end, and with whom.)

To be fair, some of the action set-pieces are so good that they elevate the book to “should-read” status anyway. There’s a spectacular helicopter explosion. A few great confrontations between the Mind-vampires and our dedicated protagonists. A momentous final chess game. A great set-piece inside a semitransparent airplane where the ultimate villain reveals himself to be far more powerful than anyone suspected.

And to be frank, the characters are developed with a lot of skill. Despite the large cast of characters and the multiple double-crossing parties, the plot remains easy to follow and to enjoy.

Did I say “enjoy”? Truth is, Carrion Comfort isn’t for the weak-stomached among us. It’s filled with gratuitously grisly material, pushing violence and exploitative sex to levels which might be unbearable for some. But then again, why would these people read horror?

In any case, this big bad horror package is exactly what you should read if ever you start wondering what Hollywood could do with an unlimited budget and none of those pesky parental ratings problems. Granted, Carrion Comfort isn’t subtle, particularly original, or even better than competent in its execution (making it a great horror novel would require editing out maybe three hundred pages) but it’s a whole lot of fun.

Nazis, Vampires, explosions, sex, violence, religion, money, power… wrapped in carefully-chosen psychobabble to give it a sheen of respectability. I tell you; this book’s got it all. Don’t feel too guilty for enjoying it; after all, mom told you to eat properly, but that never stopped you from enjoying that occasional burger, right?

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