Chip reached toward his pocket for another stone, but his action was halted by the shock of what he saw. Two pair of gleaming eyes turned upward to glare at him from the two heads mounted side by side on the single body. He was held motionless, watching the deformed animal run toward the tree.
The animal sprang, its powerful hind legs carrying it high against the sturdy trunk. Chip leaned back against the tree and drew his knees close to his chest. Inches below the limb that held him safely above its reach, two vise-like sets of dirty, yellow teeth snapped in raging fury; twin barks chimed in a savage duet; the moonlight glistened off the thick saliva stringing from each mouth.
The same pungent odor Chip had smelled on the path rose to foul the air around him. He gasped for air, but it was more than just the putrid stench that caused him to hold his breath for relief – it was the undeniable smell of death.
Hello again. Been quite some time, hasn’t it? I’ve had this book finished for a few months now, and being super-busy is part of the delay on the review, but that’s not the only reason.
You may recall in my Killer article that I had mentioned having trouble finding the words for it, despite really enjoying the novel. I ended the review by writing, “I suppose I’ll see how things go with the next book. It’s lined up already, and will be my first personal choice, rather than recommended by someone. The cover art and description both make me think I’ll not have the same problem I did this time…”
Well, I had the same problem this time around.
Except for that “really enjoying the novel” part.
Jim Cambers, his wife Denise, his 14-year-old son Chip, 8-year-old twins Cammie and Chet, Chip’s horse Shy, and their German shepherds Saltan and Sharma, move from Louisville, Kentucky, to Briston, Indiana, when Jim gets a job as school principal. The family soon discovers that there are a lot of unusual animals in the area: larger-than-normal insects, often with extra sets of wings or legs; snakes with two heads and two tails; terribly mutated raccoons; and vicious, feral, two-headed dogs. However, it’s not just the local wildlife that have been affected…which could be a problem considering Denise is pregnant, and refuses to use the “special” toothpaste and vitamins an old friend of Jim’s insists they use…
So, this time around we’ve got Deadly Nature by V. M. Thompson. I found almost nothing on this person. She only wrote four novels; this one was followed by Project God. Previously she’d written Deadly Breed (!) and Dangerous Nature (!!) under the name “T. J. Kirby.” What little I could find on these indicate this book is an outlier, with the others focused more on medical experimentation and the mutants that result, whereas the mutants in this book are there for a different reason. That reason being “made-up experimental chemicals and drugs created by the eeeeeeeeeeeevil government that can do pretty much whatever the writer wants them to do at any given time.” That really isn’t a spoiler, by the way, because the first chapter happens during a dumping of said chemicals and drugs.
Since that cat is out of the bag, I guess we’ll quickly do the science stuff, such as it is. I had a conversation with our resident mad scientist about mutations and what-not about halfway through. However, there really isn’t much that’s scientifically-oriented here, since everything comes down to “made-up experimental chemicals and drugs created by the eeeeeeeeeeeevil government that can do pretty much whatever the writer wants them to do at any given time.”
The main issue with the big bugs is the standard one: too big to move or breathe in reality. Ignoring that, the mutations mostly seem useless, but apparently if they’re not actively interfering with survival, they could be passed down through the generations. I would have thought double the wings would be detrimental to butterflies, but I guess not. I had thought the raccoon and its babies having different mutations was more realistic, but if I understood correctly that would have indicated the mother being affected by mutagens during pregnancy. I wouldn’t think they could affect them all so quickly, except “made-up experimental chemicals and drugs created by the eeeeeeeeeeeevil government that can do pretty much whatever the writer wants them to do at any given time.” The only one that comes off as beneficial would be the dogs with two heads, as…heh heh…it’s harder to avoid two sets of snapping jaws than it is one.
As far as the humans…well, the only time such mutations come up are when people give birth. Turns out no one really has children in the area anymore…well, ones that live long past birth, anyway. We do get a rather nasty example towards the end of what exactly is happening to them. Otherwise, people are being affected mentally, mostly by having violent mood swings and a marked tendency towards anger and violence. There is a scene at an auction where people appear to be susceptible to suggestion, as well. So, no two-headed or four-armed people, I’m afraid.
The main reason I came to this book were those mutant animals. We do get a couple of good attack scenes. While there’s a raccoon attack (which is more of a scared animal thing than a concerted attack, like in Prophecy, a possible inspiration for this work), and the dogs tangle with what is described as a very large groundhog, mostly it’s the two-headed dogs that are responsible for the mayhem. The first chapter has one attack the dumpers; later on, another kills a character that was introduced for exactly that purpose, and then threatens Chip and Shy, following them home to make another attempt on the horse. Subsequently, the family dogs start becoming violent, as well, and that culminates in a scene that made me very unhappy. The various dog attacks are some of the better parts of the book, written in a way that really accentuates the suddenness and tension of such a thing occurring.
On to the characters. The Cambers family, as our main characters, are probably the best part of the book. The twins are developed the least, but as young children they wouldn’t be as fully fleshed-out as the rest of the family as far as personality, so I suppose that doesn’t much matter. Denise is given a good sense of humor and a loving personality, so that her changes over time as she’s affected by the chemicals come across more starkly. It’s perhaps written a little too well, as at times I found myself wishing someone would make her stop being such a raging bitch.
The same happens with Jim, and I had the same reaction to him at various points. However, he is still a compelling character before his mood swings, trying his best to juggle the changes at home and at work and is a genuinely good person. Bizarrely, he is given some sort of sixth sense that he says his uncle had, although Jim’s tends to come in the form of nightmares. His uncle credited it to his Blackfoot Indian heritage, because of course he did. It probably would’ve seemed a lot more out of place if we didn’t also have the root cause of the problems in Briston to contend with later, which we’ll get to. It amounts to nothing, as by the time he finally decides he actually does have this ability and starts paying attention to it, it’s too late for it to be of any help.
Chip worried me at first, coming off as the typical angry, rebellious teen who butts heads with his father constantly. At least he’s given a reason at the start, what with being upset at moving so far from the life and friends he’s always known. Happily, he and his father are established as having had a close relationship previously, and before long they reach a rapprochement and end up giving us a well-sketched father / son relationship that carries us along with them, which is just as well since they’re the main characters, all told.
Dan Gephart, Jim’s friend from college, is working for the government, regularly bringing deliveries of new toothpastes and vitamins for everyone, on the pretext of testing new products as part of marketing research, but which are actually meant to counteract the effects of the various crap the government’s been dumping in the area for decades. With varying degrees of success, I might add. He’s the guy who eventually turns against his employers because someone he cares about is at risk. There is some sense he’s never been thrilled with the whole thing to begin with, so at least it doesn’t just suddenly become a 180-degree turnaround.
Oh, by the way, the guy who heads this big government dumping project? Also a college acquaintance of Jim and Dan! Such a small world, isn’t it? Also, his name is Bootsy Hancock. That’s the only remarkable thing about him; otherwise, he’s your typically weaselly, slimy bureaucrat.
There’s a kid named Scott who befriends Chip; his dad is a bit of a con man and turns out to be involved with the dumping because the price is right. That’s about the extent of their contributions.
The rest of the characters who come and go are not particularly memorable, but they’re just kind of on the sidelines, so they don’t really need to be.
Sounds pretty good so far, right? Well, here’s where we get to the problems. First, the quibbling: there were a few errors, whether mis-typings or just mistakes, sprinkled throughout. Not enough to really be a huge deal, but after my previous two books it stood out more.
A major detriment is that the story itself is nothing special. It goes pretty much where you expect it to, with really only one surprise at the end, and not one I liked a bit. More on that later. Chip is the one to figure out what’s going on, and does so fairly early. Then we have to wait for someone else to believe him…and when people finally do, the government starts killing them off. It’s like clockwork. The tension drains out of the story as this pattern is repeated, with no derivation. We also keep getting parts with Denise being angry at everyone, and then later Jim exploding at Chip. When this happens, the animal attacks fade into the background, really only coming to the fore one last time. It becomes a bit tedious, enough so that I actually stopped reading for a good while about halfway through, only coming back to it because I’d bought the book specifically to read and review, and wanted to fulfill that. I just did not find it gripping.
Well, I guess this is as good a time as any to delve into the ending, which was the proverbial last straw. There’s going to be a bit of set-up here, so bear with me. I feel a bit of a spoiler warning is warranted, in that if you haven’t seen the movies in question you’ll have a possible surprise ruined. The movies mentioned will be ones that have been out for quite a few years to hopefully help mitigate this. Reader beware.
Now, I have no issue with a story culminating in the victory of the bad guy or monster, in and of itself. However, there are ways and ways to do this. One of the most important things is that it must be consistent with the world as presented. It should be a natural progression of the story, not simply done to surprise. Also, the bad guy should “earn” the victory, if that makes sense, and not simply be handed it because of a desire to be “transgressive” or “shocking.” Imagine if Jason had managed to kill Ginny at the end of Friday the 13th, Part 2. She had earned her survival and then some, and it would have rendered her wonderful “mommy” scene completely useless. What a let-down that would’ve been!
There are a few ways this can happen. Perhaps characters escape their seeming doom, only to be undone by human error (Pet Sematary, Bio Zombie) or their own flaws (The Devil’s Nightmare, The Touch of Satan…most “deal with the devil” stories, really). Night of the Living Dead is a nice combination of both, as is The Descent.
Looked at from a certain angle, the “it was all a dream” and “it’s not over” closings can fit. The former would be in the form of “the nightmare comes true.” Of course, we all know how engaging that particular cliché is after all this time, if indeed it ever was. The pinnacle would be Nightmare City, which I’ve seen turn a group of jovial people into a howling pack of angry beasts. Completely hilarious, by the bye.
As for “it’s not over,” let’s face it: it’s almost always done to either leave the door open to a sequel, or to provide a last jump scare. How many times has this happened? Slasher movies alone have run the kicker ending into the ground and through the other side of the planet. It’s almost never a movie you want to see a sequel to that ends this way, as well. Although that may be for the best…don’t get me started on the cinematic blue balls Gamera 3: The Revenge of Irys gave me. But imagine how depressing The Empire Strikes Back would have been had a sequel never materialized. This usually requires a different approach to the concept of evil winning. Evil picks up a draw? Evil wins on points? Something like that. Michael may not kill Laurie in Halloween, but the fact that he survives what should have been fatal damage means “the bogeyman” is still out there, and may not only return, but next time succeed.
The antithesis of this is the bullshit tacked-on ending to A Nightmare on Elm Street. Nancy has earned her victory, and a fantastic one it is…until that goddamn kicker, which quite frankly is where I stop the movie nowadays because, to put it bluntly, fuck that nonsense. Yes, it turns out the victory wasn’t quite so total in the third movie, but as far as the original film is concerned, it is, and that’s what is important.
Evil may win simply because it is too powerful for the characters to overcome. However, this approach is not easy; you have to leave enough doubt that the protagonist’s inescapable fate can somehow be avoided, even if it cannot, or the tension is destroyed. It takes a very deft hand to make the inevitable exciting. Tombs of the Living Dead succeeds at this admirably. Final Destination is another example. Naturally, Lovecraft-inspired movies often go this route, since the stories themselves often did. Dagon and In the Mouth of Madness come to mind. Now, when the bad guys are The Powers That Be, usually the government or big business, we generally don’t get this. All too often, they’re in control the entire time, and their inevitable triumph and continuation of business as usual produces naught but a yawn. I suppose that’s better than it just kind of popping up, like it did in Barracuda, but not much. (There’s a movie I’m surprised our beloved Lyzzy hasn’t hit yet.) Progeny illustrates this, albeit it’s an alien conspiracy in that movie. There is never a moment where we truly believe the aliens will be defeated in just the one instance presented, much less entirely. I’m sure you can think of many others, especially from the 1970s.
As you may have guessed, Deadly Nature goes this route. It becomes clear pretty quickly that the eeeeeeeeeeeevil government is behind this. Hell, they seem pretty interested in the effects of all those chemicals and drugs on the wildlife and people in the area; as such, they’ve been doing it for decades, which rather implies that they have done so without any major hitches. Why would they suddenly be thwarted by a high school principal and his teenage son? Well, they aren’t, and as I wrote before, it becomes less than enthralling when we realize it and have to wait for the characters to catch up. Additionally, there’s never any hint of the family surviving, much less succeeding, as person after person they bring in ends up in a fatal “car accident” or some such. Unsurprisingly, that’s what happens here.
Until the epilogue, where it goes beyond the pale for me. It turns out that Chip and the twins are still alive, and have had a new, conveniently-handy mind-wiping drug forced upon them. Why, you may ask? Because Hancock and his wife cannot have children of their own. So, he’s decided to reprogram the kids, simply as a means to an end. Not only has he kept his program safe, but now he gets to have the family he always wanted. He’s given the government its victory, as well as an extra-special one to himself.
I believe my well-reasoned and erudite response upon finishing was to exclaim “FUCK YOU, BOOK!” and angrily toss it aside.
First off, it’s bad enough when we think these likable characters have been killed; we knew it was coming, but it’s still sad. The notion of the children being turned into the head of the program’s perfect little family with no repercussions whatsoever is infuriating. Oh, wait, Hancock is slightly worried Chip may not have been as completely mind-wiped as the twins and could someday remember his past. Whoopty-doo. Since we never got a sequel where Chip gets his memories back and goes on a revenge-driven rampage, this means not a whit. Did the government earn their triumph? Yes, albeit with minimal effort. Not that much effort was required, I suppose. Did Hancock? No. Ordering around your underlings, never getting your hands dirty, and winning the day because of your vastly superior resources does not entitle you to have all your dreams come true, especially at the kids’ expense. I know, it’s a horror novel. Well, there’s a difference between “horror” and “outrage.” I definitely felt the latter.
Oh, I’m sure Lyzzy will want to know about the pets. Well, they all die, too. All in the same part I earlier mentioned as making me very unhappy.
At least the government didn’t kill them.
The Bottom Line:
Well, it had to happen eventually. I’ve got a book here I really can’t recommend. Overall, it’s not a bad book, but it ranges from average to less than for the most part. The characters and mutant animals are not given a worthy story to serve them. The animal attacks pretty much stop being a factor halfway through the book, and we spend more time on the characters dealing with the government conspiracy. The main characters are enjoyable, but once it’s obvious what their fate is going to be, it’s a bit depressing waiting for it to happen. Nothing particularly interesting or unique is done with the premise; it almost feels like it’s going through the motions. Actually, it reminds me a lot of the movie Barracuda. The few animal attack scenes are highly entertaining, but for the rest of it, it’s just mediocre…except when the government is involved, where it gets heavy-handed. Sadly, much like watching Barracuda, I have to admit that it’s probably not worth the effort to read this book. As a result, I wasn’t compelled to write about it, with the exception of the ending. That section I wrote very quickly after I was done with the book; the rest of this was mostly written just this month. If I hadn’t already read it with the express purpose of providing a review to my dear Lyzzy, and had just intended to post it on my own somewhere else, I don’t think I’d have bothered with it at all.
I’m quite happy to have this done. Aside from the obvious, it lets me get to my next review…which is coming a lot sooner than you think, and involves a book that I foresee no issues writing about.
Wait a minute – are you saying the Government is EEEEVIL? I wasn’t quite sure you meant that.
SYFY had many movies for a while with the ‘starts all over again’ twist. It got very tiresome – all those arms springing out of the ground and dragging the heroes (and a darling little kid for good measure) down to the depths of hell. Yawn, not again.
As far as leaving the door open for a sequel goes, it seems to me that there have been enough films that did end with “rah, the evil is vanquished” – and then got sequels anyway – that one might as well not compromise the victory of film #1 just for a film #2 that may never happen. More generally, I like to see characters’ success or failure come basically from themselves (whether that’s in horror or in other fiction); I’m reading/watching a story about these people. A story that ends “they did the best they could, but they failed” needs to get me interested enough in the characters that I care about their fates, but not so much that I mind their failure.
I don’t mind maybe a little glimpse of red glowing eyes in the corner, just as a hint that maybe it will come back. But don’t kill all the remaining characters in the last 30 seconds. Kind of makes the rest of the movie pointless.
Drew Goddard did a Q&A and someone asked him if he was working on a sequel to Cabin In the Woods. He replied to the effect of, “Have you seen the end of the movie”? That’s one I would be interested in justifying a bona fide sequel, not prequel.