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Carrion comfort is a novel by American author Dan Simmons; it is set in 1980 and tells the tale of mind vampires. Dan Simmons is a novelist who I have come to love over the last few years, from his hyperion sci-fi to Drood an essay about Charles Dickens and his brilliant The Terror a book set during Franklins doomed journey to find the North-West passage.
So it was with excitement that I picked up Dan Simmons first attempt at a book called Carrion comfort which runs to a whopping 767 pages and tells the story of mind vampires. The book begins with the concentration camps in 1942 and the fate of a young Jew called Saul, he is saved from the concentration camps by his father's quick actions but then has to watch his fellow Jews being sent into the deadly showers. One day is selected by a young German officer called Willi, who takes him and others to a secluded part of forest to be living pieces in a game of chess. However, Willi and his opponent can control humans by getting into their brains and over-riding their emotions. Saul somehow escapes the game in which every piece taken is killed; he is shot and placed in a pit with other dead bodies. Saul escapes and manages to get to America after the war to become a respected psychologist but with a desire to find the handsome young German and kill him for entering his mind so forcefully.
Fast forward to 1980, we encounter Melanie who is a lady in her 70's who also has the ability she is living in Charleston, US in relative anonymity. She has trained a series of servants to look after her and is a childhood friend of Willi and another mind vampire Nina. So when Nina instigates an attack on Melanie which leads to the death of Nina, Melanie's doorkeeper her presence alerts the local police force. The multiple deaths and disappearance of Melanie brings the local sheriff Billy Joe Gantry into the story, he is overweight, intelligent and resourceful and baffled by the strangeness of the case. He is soon joined by the daughter of the killer watchman and they attempt to try and get to the truth of the story. Saul Laski now a respectful New York professor is asked to provide information over the sessions he had recently had with Nina and joins forces with Billy Jo and Natalie after telling them the truth over the presence of people who can control others.
From this point we have chapters which are either centred on Saul, Natalie, Billy Jo or Melanie they tell the story of Melanie's escape from Charleston her brutal habits and the attempts by the three others to follow her progress across the US. That's the basics of the story but it only touches on the brilliance of the prose and the way the novel keeps the reader engrossed even through the material is often horrific and often explicit. Through the pages we encounter the terrors of the concentration camps, the ghastliness of the camp officers; we also live through the murder of Nina and the sequences of events which lead to her death. Melanie is the counter point to the other three; she has no redeemable features and is as corrupt as any vampire from classic literature.
The first half of the book is dominated by Billy Joe and his intelligence, resourceful and is cleverly placed as the moral opposite of Melanie. He and Natalie soon get together with Saul a more distant third of the trio, on the side of the vampires are Melanie, the malignant Willie and a sex obsessed Hollywood producer Tony Herod. Tony is the playboy fun part of the novel in a sort of way but his actions usually involved rape and sexual domination of any attractive woman he meets, his behaviour on a plane is one of the more forceful chapters in the novel.
This book was and is and will always be one of my favourites, the writing is simply breathtaking it carries the reader along despite telling complex unpleasant tales and makes us want to be with the heroes as they battle the evil vampires. The stories are so complex and varied than this reader had to read it twice to check he wasn't missing things, along with the three German mind vampires and Tony there is also a whole clique of US government officials all with varying degrees of ability. They are led by the mysterious other in the book, a nebulous character called C. Arnold Barent who we rarely meet but is a central character only by the actions of his underlings.
So the book comes to a conclusion, we have gun fights, another chess game with accompanying images and a final battle between good and evil. As this is Dan Simmons not everything ends well but it ends with the reader breathless and wishing he would return to the topic.
My book of 2012, though the book was written in 1980 well before vampires became teenage angst and sexual frustrations this is a true gothic masterpiece.
Dan Simmons also wrote my book of 2011 in The Terror and was a contender with Drood in 2010. If you haven't read any of his novel's I'd suggest getting on the band wagon and read maybe the best author around at the moment.
We live in a violent world. Every month, week, day there are news stories of carnage and aggression, of people blowing things up, shooting strangers... all for no good reason. How can so many have such random urges towards mayhem, with no care for their own selves in the outcome? It's almost as if some sadistic hand was pushing them beyond their own self-control...
Such an idea is not alien for holocaust survivor, Saul Laski: escaping a German extermination camp in his youth didn't help him escape the nightmare of his last few hours there. Hours when the army colonel, the Oberst, suddenly and terrifyingly took control of Saul's mind, marching his body to terrible acts. Saul could only watch the horror passively out of his own eyes, helpless to interfere. Now, decades later, he's still trying to find the Oberst, and to understand what happened that dark night.
His story soon collides with that of Natalie Preston, whose life has also been affected by dark, inexplicable deeds and random violence. She, too, would find the truth - even at terrible personal cost.
And it all starts with three elderly people meeting in a nice suburban house one afternoon, for tea and a catch up. Life-long... well, you might think friends, but it's soon apparent that isn't quite the word. Nor is their chat quite what you'd expect, as each lays out newspaper cuttings of grim deeds. Deeds they couldn't possible have had anything to do with. Of course.
Dan Simmons is a long-time favourite author of mine, following his brilliant Hyperion Cantos. However, that science fiction wasn't entirely typical of his work, which generally leans far more towards horror. Having previously been gripped by a trip back to his first novel, Song of Kali, I was (mostly!) undaunted by the thickness of his second offering - this, Carrion Comfort, written and set in the early 80s. Weighing in at a walloping 784 pages of fairly small print, CC promised a decades-long mystery to be unravelled, and a dark horror.
The story starts out excellently. We are given a brief glimpse of Saul's nightmare episode - the memory that haunts him half a decade and more later, driving his pivotal part of the tale. To say it's dark is an understatement: as with Song of Kali, the biggest horrors are those that aren't fantasy, and there can be few as grim as the extermination camps of WWII. Simmons really tries to convey the horror from a personal level, and as a result the opening is the most gripping and shocking part of the whole book, in my opinion.
Which isn't to say that there aren't other panic-filled 'delights' for the faint-hearted! The rest of the book is unrelentingly grim and violent, as the soon-named 'Mind Vampires' are discovered and tracked down by our unlikely protagonists. And that - I'd suggest - is the problem: the practically unremitting bleakness of the tale gets a little wearying after quite so many pages.
More, the author's grip on his story varies somewhat, in my opinion. We start with a magnificently-paced chapter-per-day, clearly highlighting the speed at which lives are turned upside down, while at the same time immersing us in detail. However, it's obvious that this can't last - and indeed, it should perhaps stop earlier. There were moments in my reading where I just felt that another confrontation, another scene of violence, was just repetitive and maybe even gratuitous.
Alas, by holding off just a bit too long, by the point where time is skipped over a little more rapidly the transition feels sudden and sloppy, losing much of the tension that was otherwise carefully built. The 'middle' of the whole piece, therefore, feels a little slack and unsure of itself, manoeuvring itself along to where Simmons obviously wanted to be with his endgame.
I'm being very critical of an actually very gripping (if not cheer-inducing!) novel, but I do think suffers from being a bit too long and a little obviously sophomoric, if you don't mind me borrowing the American expression.
I think perhaps one reason I'm being so harsh is that my absolutely favourite part of this novel has nothing to do with narrative at all: it's the author's note that accompanies the reissued 20th anniversary edition of the novel. There, Simmons tells the story of becoming an author by trade rather than hobby; of his life around the time of writing and publishing the novel in hand. I was utterly engrossed in the trials of getting this second effort out and the sacrifice and risks involved. I'm not suggesting at all that the novel suffers purely for the comparison to that real-life encounter with a sort-of 'mind vampire' - but by highlighting the issues with editors involved with the piece, it did make me overly aware that, well yes actually: a tighter hand by a good editor would have made this into a much better novel. Oops!
As it was, I unfortunately lost most of my sympathy with the main characters before the end. It's a real shame, because certainly for the first few hundred pages, I was thinking this was an absolutely fantastic and easily five-star read. Alas, my enthusiasm didn't last the pace, so even a great ending couldn't bring me back entirely - although perhaps enough to still get that fourth star from this reviewer.
I'd also like to note that despite the term 'Mind Vampire', and various testimonials about "the greatest reinvention of the vampire myth" - this book has nothing to do with vampires! Certainly not in the conventional sense, and even with the 'mind' tag it's over-emphasizing a more minor part of the story, I feel. Ignore it! I also think you should ignore the Stephen King quote on the front cover: "Carrion Comfort is one of the three greatest horror novels of the 20th Century" - makes me wonder what the other two are, but also left me disappointed that the novel - while unsettling - wasn't out and out terrifying for me, or even creepy enough for nightmares. Which is, I would suggest, entirely the wrong way to be looking at it - cheap thrills aren't the point, and this remains a wonderfully imaginative and truly disquieting tale.
And so despite all that, and with the above caveats, still cautiously recommended - but only for those who enjoy both dark tales and very long books!
Paperback: 784 pages (revised 20th anniversary edition, Quercus 2010)
First published in 1989
I first read this several years ago not long after it was first published and came across it again recently whilst going through my book-shelves and decided to give it another go remembering how much I enjoyed it the first time.
CARRION COMFORT begins with the story of three old friends who come together each year for a very special reunion. These three friends share the same ability- the ability to manipulate others using the powers of their mind- and feed off the negative emotions that result from the consequences of their actions. Their annual reunion is a yearly occurrence and has become a chance for each of them- accompanied by the brain-washed servants or bodyguards each of them has chosen as their travelling companion- to compare results of what each of them has been up to in the year they have been apart. But this year is different; Melanie, long established by the others as still living in a bygone era, has grown bored of "the game" and wishes to withdraw; Nina appears distracted almost as if, quite rightly as it turns out, that she has an agenda of her own and German born Willie- the last of the three- is supposedly "killed" shortly after the reunion when the plane he is flying home on explodes mid-air.
Meanwhile, three others whose lives have been deeply impacted by the actions of these "mind-vampires" - Saul Laski, whose experiences with Willie von Borchert stem back to the Second World War and his time in a Jewish concentration camp; Natalie Preston, whose father inadvertently and fatally crossed the path of crazed and estranged vampire Melanie Fuller; and Sheriff Bobby Joe Gentry, dragged in while investigating a series of gruesome and puzzling murders in his hometown of Charleston- come together with the similar agenda of hunting down these monsters. What any of them fail to realise however, is that each of these six characters is but a pawn in a much larger chess game; Melanie, Nina and Willie are not the only ones with this power- there are others in the world, with much more serious and important connections, who are more than willing to stop at nothing in their bid to wipe out anyone or anything they percieve as a threat!!
I have not read anything else by Simmons so cannot comment on his proweress as an author but certainly this novel is every bit as clever and involved as I remembered it to be. The book works on many complex and complicated levels with Simmons setting up scenarios like pieces in a jigsaw only to come back to them later to reveal the bigger picture and though some may be put off by the way earlier sections of the book jump around, the varying viewpoints that tell the story somehow tie together seamlessly to provide a story which hits you hard and fast throughout.
At times with its references to Mossad, the FBI and CIA, the book reads like a cold-war spy novel; at other times the graphic violent episodes of murder read like a Stephen King paperback written during his prime; With Saul's unrelenting memories of the concentration camps, at other times still the book takes on a much more serious, realistic feel but the fact that all of these ideas work so well together is a testament as to how well this book has been written.
My only criticisms are that a segment of the book set in the ghettos of Germantown, USA and dealing with Melanie Fuller at her most senile perhaps goes on a little longer than it needs to and the final setting for the novel's climax at times feels like something taken from "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", "The Outer Limits" or "The Twilight Zone" and is a less than original idea that nonetheless works very well!!
At just under 700 pages in hardback (and not the largest of print either!!) it certainly fits the criteria of an epic (as described on the cover) and is something of a very lengthy and slow read but the end result is certainly worth it - if you're looking for a totally different and original take on the Vampire novel (no stakes, no garlic and definetly no allergies to daylight here!!) then you could do a hell of a lot worse than pick this up provided you have plenty of time on your hands to read undisturbed.
Three elderly friends, who possess supernatural powers and who feed off of emotions generated during the murders they orchestrate, meet every year to discuss their game--an ongoing competition of mass murder and vampirism.