Bantam, 1991, 419 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-29027-4
A drum filled with toxic chemicals falls from a truck into a body of water. It breaks open, releasing nasty industrial waste into the wilderness. Then a horrible mutation takes place and people start to die!
The above is the initial story trigger for EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS, a delightful 2002 comedy that apes the hackneyed conventions of 1950s giant-insect B-movies. As it happens, it’s also the premise behind The Bridge, a gore-filled horror novel by John Skipp and Craig Spector. Whereas EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS is a comedy, well, there’s not much to laugh about in The Bridge —even as ludicrous as it is.
The problems start early on in this quasi-earnest tale of environmental catastrophe. It’s hard not to giggle as a random accumulation of toxic waste somehow creates a brand-new monster. You thought that type of easy plotting went out with comic books and B-movie from the fifties, but no, Skipp and Spector seem determined to play this silly concept in a relatively straightforward manner. (Or rather as straightforward as they want, which may not be very much given the whole novel’s overblown quality.)
Suffice to say that in a few dozen pages, our eeevil toxic dumpers are severely punished and that a toxic overmind is attacking a small town in Northeastern America. Even at this point, the level of nastiness exhibited by the authors is impressive: Characters are killed before we can even get to know them. (I’ve heard “splatterpunk” used to describe this book, but even if I can recognize a heck of a lot of splatter in The Bridge, I’m not familiar enough with the sub-genre to be comfortable in designating the novel as such.)
But no problem; there are always more characters to feed in the good old gore-chipper. Too many of them, in fact; while Skipp & Spector need ever-expanding battalions of monster-fodder in order to tell their story, it quickly becomes apparent that none of them is going to be important enough to remember. In fact, it’s worth noting that The Bridge doesn’t have a plot as much as it has a list of victims. There is scarcely any further narrative arc than the characters discovering that the toxic blob is out to get them. No serious efforts are conducting at fighting back; there is only escape, and not a very effective escape at that.
The cumulative effect of this realisation is a steady loss of interest in a novel that is already too scattered to be gripping. While The Bridge constantly teases us with interesting elements and the promise of hard-core horror, it never achieves critical mass.
Another part of the problem is that Skipp and Spector try to have it both ways: First, as a serious commentary on the environment (including, I kid you not, an eighteen-pages appendix on how to be an environmentalist), but also as a novel of supernatural horror. One defuses the other in much the same way that Peter Straub’s Floating Dragon trivialized its man-made threat by putting it alongside a supernatural monster. Who even cares about pollution when zombies want to eat your brain?
On the other hand, there’s a steadily mounting glee at seeing Skipp and Spector overturn almost every tradition in their quest to kill as many characters in the messiest ways possible. The last few pages will have even the most jaded readers go “eew” as the novel moves far, far away from the watered down simulacrum that passes as “horror” nowadays.
But even though a good ending can redeem a lot of things, The Bridge‘s conclusion seems to stop for lack of people to kill, not out of story to tell. Heck, the real story of The Bridge begins after the last page, and the authors quit before it truly gets interesting.
In the end, The Bridge is a half-interesting, half-frustrating novel of hard-core horror. Readers with strong stomachs might enjoy aspects of it even as the sum of all parts fails short of satisfaction. While it’s considerably nastier than “mainstream horror”, it’s equally less successful in narrative qualities. On the other hand, it’s an effective cautionary tale against the evils of toxic waste dumping… Oh, who am I kidding!? Let’s go watch EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS again.