Thursday, March 22, 2012

Carrion Provides Little Comfort

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)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I think this definitely counts as "damning with faint praise." I wonder, though, how this relates to the prise-winning SF and fantasy written by the same author. I have been deeply curious about Hyperion for a while--if only because of the Chaucer tie-in.

That said, if you want a more ... humane ... take on the Holocaust, you should read Jane Yolen's Briar Rose. She takes as her premise the well-documented capacity of fairy tales to help their tellers deal with trauma and cope with that which can neither be spoken nor forgotten. Thus a grandmother's slightly-odd variant of Sleeping Beauty becomes the key for her granddaughter to uncover the past she lied about, with oceans of horror and surprisingly sturdy boats of grace and hope.

It's an indescribable tale, one that I think can respectfully function as either a fairy tale or a holocaust story, blending the two to allow an engagement with an era of history too horrific to imagine directly. But it's also the reason why I can't see the point in reading Carrion Comfort. Having read Jane Yolen's attempt to both speak the experience of trauma and comfort the reader, this summary makes Simmons' book feel oddly adolescent--a jaunt in the mires of history and inhumanity for no reason other than shock value. I may be missing nuance, but it's that sort of irresponsible morbidity that I think can give horror a bad name.

Loren Eaton said...

I think this definitely counts as "damning with faint praise."

You would be correct. It's not that Carrion Comfort is a bad book, per se. I just found it distasteful -- and I'm a horror fan.

I haven't read Hyperion, although I would like to dig into Simmons' stuff more. The Terror, a novel about the 1845 Franklin Expedition through the Northwest Passage, looks particularly good.

I've liked the little bit of Yolen I've read. Might have to check it out.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

It's kinda funny--I only recently read anything by Yolen other than Briar Rose. It was something of a shock to find that this grand poetess of holocaust, survival, and hope also wrote sweet, straightforward books suitable for children. The discovery made me happy, to tell the truth, but was still odd. I feel most readers of Yolen have the opposite experience.

Loren Eaton said...

I just got done reading Yolen's Little Mouse & Elephant to my oldest. Fun stuff!