What genre do you think of when you hear the word epic? I bet it's fantasy, where armies clash and monsters roar, nations strive and magicks swirl, and where novel page counts regularly stretch into four digits. Yup, fantasy more than fits the bill, but one genre I've never heard described as epic is horror. See, horror tends toward the intimate, toward private fears and personal struggles. In horror, antagonists don't march across a battlefield; they squelch in the bottom of your basement. But Dan Simmons sought to give horror the epic treatment with his massive 1989 novel Carrion Comfort.
Saul Laski never really left the Chelmno concentration camp. Though he survived the privations the Nazi's visited upon his people, years of fighting for Israel's independence and practicing psychiatry in New York didn't dispel the memory of them. His mental trauma stems not only from the gas chambers and burial pits, the countless beatings received and executions witnessed. No, Saul experienced something else in the camp, something he calls a mind rape. A man known only to him as the Oberst entered the camp, wrenched his mind from his control and forced him to ... No, no, Saul doesn't want to think about it, not even now. But when a series of bizarre murders surface in Charleston, he'll have to fully confront the past. What could cause people from radically different backgrounds and with no evident personal connections to turn on each other in indiscriminate slaughter? Some mass hysteria? Or did they become pawns in another's battle, psychically controlled soldiers with their wills usurped? As Saul investigates, he discovers something as terrifying as the Third Reich itself -- a covey of psychic warlords toying with people in positions of power for their own enjoyment.
Right out of the gate, let's deal with the negatives: Carrion Comfort is a grim book. It isn't just the World War 2 descriptions of Saul scavenging through pits of dead bodies for his Nazi captors or witnessing scores of Jews shot at point-blank range. The present-day stuff stays almost equally bleak. The psychic marauders -- Simmons calls them "mind vampires" -- not only orchestrate senseless murders for the heck of it, one subjugates and rapes almost every attractive female he comes across. Unpleasant reading, to put it mildly, and a particular section dealing with a home invasion almost made me put the book down. But Simmons excels at penning scenes of suspense. The various encounters Saul and his eventual group of supporters have with the cabal truly thrill, a rarity even among pulpy beach reads. Do they make reading through the preceding miseries worth it? I'm a horror fan, yet I can't provide an unequivocal affirmative. Add an ambiguous ending to all the suffering, and Carrion provides precious little comfort.
(Picture: CC 2009 by SpoiltCat)