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Despair - I'll feast on thee
Carrion Comfort - Dan Simmons
Member Name: calypte
Carrion Comfort - Dan Simmons
Date: 08/09/11, updated on 08/09/11 (72 review reads)
Advantages: dark, unsettling story
Disadvantages: overly long and quite bleak
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
Summary: Dark vision doesn't quite live up to its own beginning