Book Review: Carrion Comfort

Spoilers abound.

My copy of the book.

It feels apropos that I should finish my first Dan Simmons novel, the 1989 monster epic, Carrion Comfort, on the first day of October. This is one of my “white whale” books, as it were. In 2009, I was browsing Barnes & Noble with the express intention of picking a book at random to try to find a new gem to enjoy. I grabbed at the 20th anniversary edition of Carrion Comfort and immediately, of course, noticed the Stephen King blurb on the cover, Carrion Comfort is one of the three greatest horror novels of the twentieth century. Simple as that.” The anniversary edition also included an introduction by Dan Simmons explaining the difficult process of bringing the book to fruition and publication (seriously, it’s amazing to me authors like him, King and others could write these sprawling epics before computers, and in point of fact, they often wrote whole drafts longhand). Even though this paperback edition clocks in at a whopping 767 pages, the book is actually longer than that at 1,534 pages. However, the paperback is bigger than your traditional mass market paperback and the typeface is exceedingly small for my old, poor eyes. In other words, I’m saying this is the longest it has taken me to read a book — just shy of two weeks — since earlier this year when it took me 12 days to read Neal Stephenson’s newest book, Termination Shock at 708 pages.

That is probably the reason Carrion Comfort became something of a white whale for me; I started it when I first bought it in 2009, perhaps reached somewhere around 30-ish pages and never returned to it. Not because I didn’t enjoy it or was turned off by it but just because that sort of thing happens with me: I start a book, start a movie, start a TV series, and return to it when I’m ready. Well, at nearly 19-years-old, I suppose I wasn’t quite ready for Simmons’ epic. Fast-forward to 32-years-old, and I was hellbent on reading it. I’m glad I did because it is one of the most engrossing, horrific books I have ever read.

Simmons lays out in his introduction his fascination with mind vampires. Mind vampires exist in the real world; they are essentially his term for sociopaths and psychopaths, or at least, people so charismatic, they are able to bend others to their will and desire, often to nefarious ends. In addition, Simmons is interminably interested in violence. Why do human beings engage in violence, at small, interpersonal scales and at large, nation-wide, even global, scales? Obviously, the 20th century is replete with examples of both the intimate and the grandiose. Well, when you’re talking an about extraordinary race of human beings who have evolved to have this Ability, as it’s referred to, and put in a 20th century context, the place you must start with, as Simmons does, are the Nazis and the horrors of the Holocaust primarily seen through his protagonist and Holocaust survivor, Dr. Saul Laski, and his tormentor, an officer of the SS he refers to as Oberst (Supreme or Colonel), Willi Borden, who in 1980 America, is a sleazy Hollywood producer. The Ability is essentially a form of “mindrape” where the vampire, like Willi, hops into your brain, takes over your conscious functioning, and can direct you to do what he pleases. With enough conditioning, it can be even seamless to where such persons become servants to the vampires. Initially, though, the true person is still there and seemingly cognizant of the mindrape and the loss of control. That fact alone is horrifying. I’ve always been deathly afraid of the idea of possession — it is why The Exorcist remains the scariest film and book to me — and the idea of being turned into a zombie slave to do the bidding of a powerful vampire, especially a Nazi vampire at that, is horrific. Add in the real-life horrors of the Holocaust that Simmons goes into great detail with, and the opening few hundred pages of his book are unforgettable. They are seared onto my brain as if the echoes of a mind vampire were at work. (Does this mean Simmons is a mind vampire?)

We meet more mind vampires, however. Melanie Fuller and Nina Drayton who, along with Willi, are the original trio and have an annual reunion and play a Game of scoring points with their “kills.” For example, Nina Drayton Used (as they call it) Mark David Chapman to assassinate John Lennon. But, as Willi later explains, like sharks trying to protect their feeding zone, they turn on each other. Nina seemingly tries to kill both Willi and Melanie, although she doesn’t succeed, and then Melanie is able to kill Nina. But in the course of it, various innocent bystanders, such as Natalie Preston’s photographer father, are killed. That leads Natalie to being our primary heroine of the story — which one has to reflect on how remarkable it is, even though it was the 1980s, that one of two main leads in a horror novel by a male author was not just a woman, but a black woman at that — as she seeks revenge and justice for her father’s inexplicable slaying. That brings both Saul and Natalie together to get answers (and for Natalie to learn about the mind vampires), but also Sheriff Bobby Joe Gentry, Sheriff of Charleston, South Carolina, who was investigating the inexplicable murders in the melee between Nina and Melanie. Gentry is one of my favorite book characters in a long time because he was so darn heroic, fun and and dare I say, chivalrous. Simmons wrote him as outwardly the podunk, too-big-for-his-britches southern Sheriff, but in actuality, he was fiercely focused, aware and intelligent to what was going on. The only blunder I think Simmons made with the character was to have him and Natalie eventually fall in love. That was a smidge too ham-fisted for me.

Still, I loved our normal human trio taking on The Trio of mind vampires. After all, Saul has been on a quest for 40-some years after surviving the Holocaust to find the Oberst and kill him. That would be a new proposition for him, at least at that point in the story, because he has never killed anyone and almost fancies himself a moral pacifist. He cares deeply about not becoming the evil in which they are trying to fight in order to win against it. In other words, if a slew of innocents die along the way to catch the mind vampires, are they any better than the mind vampires? Such are the moral questions Saul raises throughout the novel, often to the consternation of Natalie who doesn’t have time or patience for it.

Unbeknownst to our underdog trio — and I really mean underdog; most of the time, I’m thinking, how can they possibly go up against entities who can control your mind at will? It doesn’t matter how many guns, ammo, and C-4 you bring to the dance, if they can do that — there more mind vampires, and at least in terms of positions of power, more powerful ones. They are called the Island Club, headed by billionaire with the ear of ex-presidents and current presidents, or rather, with their minds, C. Arnold Barent, along with Charles Colben, director of the FBI; Nieman Trask, a senator from Maine; Joseph Kepler, another member of the FBI; and Reverend Jimmy Wayne Sutter, an influential televangelist. The Island Club uses Barent’s secured Dolamnn Island to first do a surface-level party with the aforementioned ex-presidents and other important dignitaries, and then after they leave, the mind vampires host a game on the island where they pick surrogates to battle it out. Worth noting that later when one of the surrogates rapes and kills another one, it is pointed out that rape is “permitted” but it doesn’t give you any added points. That is one more example of the horrific nature of the book Simmons conceived here.

What makes the Island Club particularly awful is that they are purposefully rendered reminiscent of the Nazis in how Barent makes the entire horrific, brutal, violent, inhuman process of Using and discarding humans (often those in American culture seen as the lower class), like the Holocaust, such a sterile, bureaucratic affair. The banality of evil, if you will. Related to that concept, Simmons in his introduction and in his book through characters, such as FBI agent Haines (a man who murders an Israeli man who was helping Saul and his entire family), who aren’t even being Used by Barent but do his bidding anyway, talk about how even without mind vampires, there is something corrosive in the human psyche that leads men to do horrible things. Because there were scores of so-called “normal people” who went along with, willfully ignored, or otherwise participated in the Holocaust, or in the case of the book, is like a Haines who acts horrifically without being Used.

Simmons was on point with the Jimmy Sutter character; he is eerily prescient of televangelists who are all about making money, preaching hate, and turning out to be what they seemingly preach against: Homosexual (Sutter has a homosexual affair with Willi). Sutter was Ted Haggard before Haggard was Haggard.

In addition to them, we meet another mind vampire roleplaying as a bigshot Hollywood producer in Tony Harod. I don’t think I’ve viscerally hated a character more in a book since … Annie Wilks in Misery? And Annie Wilks would seem like a sweet woman compared to what Harod does. And he only uses his Ability on women, not men. And again, speaking of prescient, Tony Harod is Henry Weinstein before Weinstein was Weinstein. I couldn’t not make that comparison, owing to the fact that Harod uses his position in Hollywood and his Ability to coerce, rape, and sexually Use scores of women. In one of the more awful moments in the book, he rapes a stewardess on a flight because he didn’t like her attitude.

A testament to Simmons’ book is that he crafted more than one character I genuinely hated. Harod is first, but right on his heels is Melanie. She’s such an evil, disgusting woman. She kills, Uses, and continues to evade her comeuppance throughout the book, including at the end, and I was just waiting for the satisfying moment when Natalie put a bullet between her eyes. I swear I’m a moral pacifist like Saul, but well, like Saul, when you’re up against these … subhumans, they have to be neutralized, to use a euphemism.

So, to reiterate: We have some of the bloodiest, graphic violence described when these mind vampires are fighting it our, or against our heroic trio; we have multiple cases of abhorrent mindrape and physical rape; and if those two items weren’t enough, these mind vampires have no compunction against Using, discarding, and killing children. Melanie, who didn’t like the way two older kids behaved to her, Used their father to inject them with a poison of some sort to kill them. She then Used the youngest, a six-year-old, up until the end, even after he’d been rendered medically brain dead. In that way, many of the people Used are zombie-like. As Saul and Natalie discuss at one point, it is like after so much Use, the Use becomes a kind of cancer to the brain. Oh, and lest I forget to reiterate, we have graphic scenes from the Holocaust. Along with Harod’s objectifying of women, misogyny and abuse, something I haven’t mentioned yet (so it’s not reiterating), but will here, Melanie, Willi and others are racist, preferring blacks to be servants at best and regularly referring to them as “Negroes.” And of course, Willi is a Nazi, so he’s anti-Semitic referring all kinds of ways to Saul as his “little Jew” and his pawn.

This book is horrific and I feel I’m barely doing it justice. Add all of the aforementioned together with the fact that, again, these are mind vampires capable of controlling your brain. I love being in a situation with a book where I’m wondering how the heck the people I’m rooting for — Saul, Natalie and Gentry — are going to possibly fight back, much less win in any recognizable sense of the word. It felt almost too insurmountable, and unfortunately, for Gentry, it was. He was killed by one of Melanie’s people, Vincent. That was one of those moments I exclaimed aloud, “Gentry! No!” Which is a great moment for an author because that means you got me to care about your character before you killed them off. But still, I couldn’t believe Simmons killed him off, and relatively early on in the book! I don’t even know how long that entire sequence was where our heroes, along with the help of a Philadelphia street gang, were battling Melanie and her minions, but it lasted quite a while and was an epic within an epic, akin to a mid-season finale in a television series.

After that, Saul and Natalie retreat, as it were, to Israel to figure out a way to not only bring down Melanie, but the entire Island Club. Again, especially now without the help of a third person in Gentry, I was left wondering how they heck are they going to take these things on? They’re not only outnumbered, but surely, literally, incapable. And yet. They do have a plan, which involves basically playing on Melanie’s paranoia that Nina is still alive and is using a black servant girl to make contact with Melanie. The black girl is, of course, Natalie. Saul and Natalie also kidnap, drug and hypnotize Harod into helping get Saul to the island as a surrogate. Harod thinks it is Willi messing with him.

See, what you have to remember here, is that the mind vampires are all playing literal and figurative chess (I’m ignorant about chess), maneuvering every which way to be the supreme being. Alliances are forged, treachery is afoot, and the “kings” of the chessboard, Willi and Barent, are making moves the others haven’t even conceived of yet. In fact, we get two real-life chess games in the book. First, with Saul and other Jews in the concentration camps, who are made to be real-life chess pieces for Nazis. If a piece is overtaken, that “piece,” aka a real person, is killed. Secondly, toward the climax of the novel, Barent and Willi are playing chess with the other mind vampires and Saul, with the same life or death stakes. Willi, if he wins, will get to play the Game with actual nations rather than surrogates. I’m not a chess guy, and you wouldn’t think a chess game, for all intents and purposes, would be exciting as the first of two climaxes to an epic book, but you’d be wrong! It worked precisely because of the life and death stakes. (Another moment emerged from the chess match to demonstrate Harod’s evilness. I wasn’t fooled, but Simmons tried to make it seem like Harod and his assistant, Maria Chen, were in love and Harod promised he would get her off the island. Instead, when it came time for him to die on the chessboard, Harod sacrificed her so he could live. Gosh, I hate him.)

Another mark of a great book is when the author puts your favorite good guys and girls through the paces, and Simmons absolutely did that with Saul and Natalie. First, let’s remember that when we first meet Saul he is a Holocaust survivor. That alone is putting him through the paces. And he was also mindraped by Willi while at the concentration camp. When we meet Natalie, her father had already been inexplicably murdered. Thereafter though, both are mindraped multiple times again, both lose more people they loved and held dear, and finally, especially in the two big climaxes on the island and back in Charleston with Melanie, have all manner of violence done to them from being concussed, punched, bruised, beaten, bloodied and so on. And yet. Our heroes emerge from the fire (literally, both climaxes involve fire) with a victory of a kind! Between their plan and the arrogance of Willi and Barent’s power struggle through chess, all of the mind vampires are killed on the island except for Harod. And at least, we think Melanie is killed by Natalie, who takes on multiple minions of Melanie’s, before using an oxygen tank to blow the house to bits (it is funny that the C-4 never came into play on the island or in Charleston, by the way, aside from using it as a threat with Melanie). Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, Melanie had a ruse in place, escaped, and is living in France, according to the Epilogue. She has plans for a nuclear submarine. Eek.

As for Harod, the bastard, he is chilling in his Jacuzzi back in Beverly Hills after finding his way off the island, being the brash self he is despite all that happened to him — in other words, nothing can humble this guy, even being Used by Barent when he thought mind vampires weren’t capable of Using each other — , and a would-be Hollywood starlet he had raped (and filmed it to blackmail her) at the beginning of the book arrives at his house and shoots him five times in the chest, killing him. Phew, that was satisfying, especially for her to do it. That said, I wonder if she was being Used or if the character did it of her own volition out of her own form of revenge. I think Simmons purposefully left it ambiguous.

Wait, you thought I rushed through perhaps the best, most satisfying part of the entire novel? I did not. So, after the chess match, Saul is virtually alone with Willi (his servant, Reynolds is also there, as well as a drunk Harod). Willi is ready to kill him and enters his conscious mind. However, Saul had been preparing for this and through hypnosis, implanted the scenes of those who experienced the Holocaust into his subconscious, so that each of those “scenes” appeared before Willi. Thus, Willi was being confronted with the horrors he had perpetrated. I loved that. The victims of the Holocaust were powering Saul forward, literally as he took step after step toward Willi, until he was able to choke Willi to death. Yes, he did get the help of Harod, who killed Reynolds after he intervened, which led to Saul giving mercy to Harod when Natalie rescues Saul. I was annoyed with that, but the aforementioned way Harod met his end was better.

Before Saul chokes him out, even before the chess match commences, Simmons describes Willi from the point-of-view of Harod looking at him, and the description is perhaps the best line of the entire novel and tells you almost everything you need to know about this epic book, “In a second’s vivid, hallucinatory vision, Harod realized that Willi Borden, Wilhelm von Borchert, was dead, that Harod was staring at a corpse, and that it was not just a skull smiling at him like something sculpted from sharp-edged bone, but a skull that was a repository of millions of other skulls with a shark-toothed maw that breathed out the stink of the charnel house and the mass grave.”

That gives me goosebumps. Because that is violence — that is the mind vampires Simmons talks about in real life and through his fictional book — whether on an intimate level and/or a global level: Violence is generational, with millions of echoes.

I haven’t looked at other reviews of the book, as I always like to form my own thoughts first by writing this review, but I imagine this is a rather polarizing book in some sense, primarily because of its length and how grotesque it is. Honestly, I don’t even think Stephen King has written something as horrific in terms of the specific details of violence, rape and children suffering that is mentioned in the book. Maybe Clive Barker has, but I haven’t read his books! In that way, I don’t think a faithful adaptation of this book is even possible.

The best genre books, in my opinion, are the ones brimming with interesting ideas, and I especially appreciate when an author mixes in some alternate histories (like Lennon’s assassination, and the use of the Holocaust). But also, it’s such a genre book in terms of its horrifying scenes and that is a compliment. They are as well written and interesting as Simmons’ exposition about violence and morality. Simmons has something like 27-ish other books, maybe more since he wrote his introduction I imagine, and now, I’m ready to get into his mind some more.

But if any of this sounds like your wheelhouse, and it is mine because like Simmons, I’m also deeply fascinated by human violence (intimate and grandiose), with a specific interest in 20th century violence as well, then I highly recommend Carrion Comfort. Let me just say, there is nothing comforting about it. Even when Saul and Natalie “win” — and they don’t really since Melanie escaped — it doesn’t feel like a win or a victory, more like a survival. Which I guess at times is the best we can hope for.

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