Retrospective: The Blue Rose Trilogy (3): The Throat

throatIf you’ve never read The Throat but intend to, then stop reading now. This analysis will ruin any chance for a rewarding experience of all its surprises. For that matter, read Koko and Mystery beforehand, and “swallow” those novels as the title of this one urges.

The Throat is not only the best Blue Rose novel; it’s one of my favorite novels of all time. I say this with the deflective irony such a statement needs. It’s the most self-indulgent of the trilogy (at a whopping 689 pages), unconstrained by the discipline and tight writing of its predecessors, while shamelessly recycling their contents: Milwaukee is again transformed in an alternate setting; the protagonist was molested as a child like Koko’s villain, and hit by a car like Mystery’s hero. The specter of Vietnam is back. Tom Pasmore is back, now an adult and every bit as resourceful as Lamont von Heilitz. By this point Straub was risking beating a dead horse. But the redundancies work when taken to the next level. Everything that went before serves as a mere foreshadowing of the grand homicidal opera that is Blue Rose. He’s back after 41 years, and his story is a juggernaut.

It’s also impossible to figure out. In Koko it was hard to guess the killer’s identity, and in Mystery it was easier, but in The Throat there is no way in hell you would ever conclude that Mike Hogan is Fee Bandolier. On top of that is another Blue Rose killer, a copycat revealed in an outrageous twist that ends up eating the narrative’s tail. Some consider all of this a cheat for not giving the reader half a chance; but I don’t think so. It’s a testimony to Straub’s talents that he can make a mystery so deeply rewarding even when the clues are too hard, and when you enjoy going back afterwards and ruminating on them.

As for the title, it makes no sense. It’s the most meaningless title of any novel I’ve read. “The Throat” doesn’t refer to anyone’s physical anatomy. The Blue Rose killer slashed his victims’ throats, but also stabbed them in the heart. Straub has said that this novel “swallows” the previous two, Koko and Mystery, in a metafictional way — and I paid lip-service to that in the spoiler warning at the top — but that’s a very abstruse metaphor. I defy anyone who has read The Throat to say honestly that he or she grasps the title without having it explained by the author. I love it anyway. It’s one of my favorite book titles. It’s sounds great — I want to say it out loud when I look at the cover. At the very least, the novel’s theme of inhuman violence and deep scars suggests a guttural tone or atmosphere.

The Throat is a triumph because its problematic elements are either invisible or work strangely for it. It’s hard to say whether it’s more like Koko or Mystery. It channels Koko with the plot of a serial killer who is difficult (if at all possible) to figure out, and for themes of child abuse and the Vietnam War. It’s like Mystery for centering on the viewpoint of a great protagonist, in this case the very best Peter Straub has written. I could spend hours inside Tim Underhill’s head. He’s better than even Tom Pasmore, though it’s a close call; their team-up in this novel is such a treat that I could wish for a spin-off series modeled on the detective duo Jago & Litefoot.

I’m going to review the plot, briefly as possible and thoroughly as necessary. We need these facts at the ready.

The Plot

The story is set in 1991, and begins with Tim Underhill getting a phone call from his old high school friend John Ransom, who tells him that his wife April is in a coma. She was beaten and left for dead in the St. Alwyn Hotel with a “Blue Rose” calling card, just like the second Blue Rose victim of 1950. Five days before April, an unidentified man was killed in an alley outside the hotel, also with a “Blue Rose” calling card, like the first victim of 1950. Ransom knows that Tim wrote a fictionalized account of the Blue Rose murders in a novel called The Divided Man, in which Tim followed the official line that the police detective in charge of the Blue Rose investigation, William Damrosch (called Hal Esterhaz in Tim’s novel), was the Blue Rose killer. But even though Damrosch’s suicide note implied his guilt, Tim never really trusted it, and he later learned that it was Glendenning Upshaw who framed Damrosch and engineered his suicide. (Upshaw was responsible for the attack on the fake Blue Rose victim, Doctor Laing, which is the story of Mystery.) Tim and Ransom begin working on solving the original and present Blue Rose murders. Tim spots a man following Ransom on their way to visit April in the hospital. The next day, April is murdered in her hospital bed. A serial killer named Walter Dragonette, who calls himself the the “Meat Man”, is arrested by the police. He claims to be the Blue Rose killer, but it becomes obvious that he’s not. The next week, the first Blue Rose victim is identified at the morgue as Grant Hoffman, a student at the college where Ransom teaches. The Blue Rose killer seems to have a vendetta against John Ransom.

On the other hand, Tim learns that April had been working on a history project about one of the Millhaven bridges, and he spots the man who was following Ransom parked outside an old taproom near the bridge. He and Ransom break into the taproom, and find a torture chair in the cellar, along with fragments of a note that says, “Jane Wright, Alle-to-n, 1977”. They think this cellar could be a torture playground for the Blue Rose killer, and that Jane Wright was one of his victims. Tim wonders if April was killed because her history project led her too close to the Blue Rose killer’s hideout. On this reasoning, the killer would have nothing particular against John Ransom, and the murder of Grant Hoffman is mysterious.

A little over halfway through the novel, Tim and Ransom learn that the day manager of the St. Alwyn Hotel, Bob Bandolier, was the original Blue Rose killer: a Nazi of the private life who beat his wife, and who killed victims inside or near the hotel in order to “pay back” the St. Alwyn for firing him. They also learn that Bob had a son named Fee, who was sent away to live with relatives in Tangent Ohio, about a year after the murders, when he was seven or eight years old. Fee went straight into the military after high school in 1961, but his relatives say that he must have changed his name, because no one could track him down after that. After nights of detective work with Tom Pasmore, Tim realizes that Fee must have returned to Millhaven in 1979 and acquired his father’s old house, vacated since Bob died in 1972. Reason being, the Bandolier house has been owned by a fake company since ’79, and the front man for this company, William Writzmann, is the man who was following John Ransom to the hospital, and who was parked outside the abandoned taproom where Tim and Ransom later found the torture cellar. It turns out this fake company owns the taproom too. Tim concludes that Fee Bandolier is the new Blue Rose killer, following in his father’s footsteps, and that Writzmann works for him somehow. Soon after that, Tim realizes that Fee must be a Millhaven homicide detective, when he learns that one of the listed officers of Fee’s fake company is a bogus name referring to the head of the Millhaven homicide unit back in the ’70s, a name that only a cop would know. Soon after this realization, William Writzmann is found dead near a tavern close to the St. Alwyn, with a “Blue Rose” calling card, just like the third Blue Rose victim of 1950. Tim deduces that Fee killed his own thug because Tim and Ransom were getting too close to him.

Tim and Ransom begin to suspect that Paul Fontaine, the detective in charge of the Blue Rose case, is Fee, since he keeps insisting that Tim stop meddling in the Blue Rose affair and go back home to New York. Tom Pasmore agrees with Tim that Fontaine is probably Fee. He also deduces that Fee Bandolier is Franklin Bachelor, a figure we have seen in flashbacks at many points in the novel. Bachelor was a Green Beret feared by every soldier on earth, and a full-blown psychopath who engaged in rites of murder and cannibalism. John Ransom was a captain in Vietnam at the same time, and in 1964 he was sent to retrieve Bachelor out of the field and bring him in to his superiors for questioning. Bachelor evaded Ransom and tricked him into capturing his subordinate instead. Later, during the 1968 Tet Offensive, Bachelor went full rogue and betrayed his country by waging a personal war on Captain Ransom, tipping off the Vietcong who attacked Ransom’s camp and killed everyone except Ransom, who barely escaped. Tim likes Pasmore’s theory that Fee Bandolier is Franklin Bachelor. The initials F.B. are promising, and the Vietnam connection is off the scales: Bachelor was a psychopath like Blue Rose and was Ransom’s enemy — a clear motive for killing people like Hoffman and April who are connected to Ransom. Tim already learned that Fee changed his name after he graduated from high school in Tangent Ohio and enlisted in the army, and so he flies out to Tangent to visit a retired colonel and ask him if a Franklin Bachelor is listed in the 1961 records. They find Bachelor listed, and the colonel says he even remembers what he looked like. Tim shows him a photograph of a group of Millhaven police detectives, and the colonel positively identifies Paul Fontaine as Bachelor.

Now fully convinced that Detective Paul Fontaine is Fee Bandolier (the son of the original Blue Rose killer), who changed his name to Franklin Bachelor (the psychopathic Green Beret), who has every reason to hate John Ransom, Tim returns to Millhaven, and he and Ransom plan to bring down Fontaine. They find him late at night at the Bandolier home, and confront him. John’s father-in-law (April’s father) is with them, and he shoots Fontaine, killing him. Tim tells the police that Fontaine was the Blue Rose killer, but the police cover everything up to preserve their reputation.

Tim returns to New York but is contacted two weeks later by Tom Pasmore, who tells him they made a grievous error. Paul Fontaine could not have been the Blue Rose killer. One of Fee’s victims, the “Jane Wright of Alle-to-n in 1977” found in the taproom owned by Fee’s fake company, turns out to be Jane Wright of Allerton Ohio, murdered in 1977; Paul Fontaine was a detective in another state at that time. Tim flies back to Millhaven, and he and Pasmore set a trap for the real killer. He turns out to be Detective Sergeant Michael Hogan, Fontaine’s superior, and widely admired by Millhaven’s citizens. They lure Hogan into an old theater, where Tim kills him. Later that morning, Tim contacts news reporters to be sure there is no police cover-up this time. Finally, he goes to John Ransom, and tells him they were wrong about Fontaine; Fee Bandolier was Mike Hogan. Then comes the outrageous twist: Tim accuses Ransom of killing his wife. Hogan murdered only the third Blue Rose victim (Writzmann, his own thug); the first two victims (Grant Hoffman and April Ransom) were killed by none other than John Ransom himself. That twist demands thorough explanation.

The Clues: Fee Bandolier = Michael Hogan

On one level, the new Blue Rose killer is easy to figure out. He’s Fee Bandolier, son of Bob Bandolier the original Blue Rose. Tim and Ransom learn the existence of Fee at the same time they learn Bob was the psycho killer of 1950, about 60% of the way through the novel (p 413). When Tim brings this information to Pasmore, it doesn’t take long for them to deduce that Fee is also a psychopath (p 446), especially after Pasmore calls his Aunt Judy in Ohio, and she describes Fee as having been a disturbed and abused child. The mystery is who the hell Fee Bandolier is, since he vanished from the human record after graduating from high school in 1961 and enlisting in the army.

Tim and Ransom (and then Pasmore) become convinced that he is Detective Paul Fontaine, and they receive what appears to be unshakable confirmation of this. They confront Fontaine, he is killed in the ensuing shootout, and that appears to wrap up the mystery of Blue Rose. Two weeks later, Tim and Pasmore realize that Fontaine could not have been the killer, and by shrewdly manipulating the police they find out it’s really Detective Sergeant Michael Hogan. I don’t know of any reader who figured this out. There are few clues it could be Hogan, and most of them aren’t clues to speak of.

(1) The first (and only real) clue are Hogan’s resemblances to Clark Gable, in bold:

I sensed immediately that I was in the presence of a real detective, someone even Tom Pasmore would respect. Michael Hogan possessed a powerful personal authority. Hogan had the uncomplicated masculinity of old movie stars like Clark Gable or William Holden, both of whom he resembled in a generalized, real-world fashion. (p 161)

That powerful and unaffected natural authority that distinguished Michael Hogan radiated out from him like an aura and caused most of the people in the room to glance at him. I suppose great actors also have this capacity, to automatically draw attention to themselves. And Hogan had the blessing of looking something like an actor without at all looking theatrical — his kind of utterly male handsomeness, cast in the very lines of reliability, steadiness, honesty, and a tough intelligence, was of the sort that other men found reassuring, not threatening. As I watched Hogan it occurred to me that he actually was the kind of person that an older generation of leading men had impersonated on screen, and I was grateful that he was in charge of April’s case. (p 256)

When Tim is later asking the neighbors about Bob Bandolier, one of them says,

“That Bandolier, he was handsome as Clark Gable, but no good! Beat his wife black and blue!” (p 318)

Obviously Mike Hogan, a man in his late 40s, cannot be Bob Bandolier, who if alive would be in his late 60s or early 70s, but is in any case long dead. But the next day Tim learns that Bob had a son Fee (from Theresa Sunchana, on p 413), and so we might wonder if Mike Hogan is Fee, if we remember the Clark Gable association by that point. I did remember it on my first reading of The Throat, but I dismissed it as a Straubian red herring.

(2) The second clue is a non-clue, or a clue after the fact, because Straub doesn’t provide enough description. To the reader this looks like unshakable proof that Paul Fontaine is Blue Rose. By the time Tim has guessed that Fee Bandolier changed his name to Franklin Bachelor when joining the military, he asks Colonel Hubbel to identify Bachelor in a photo of some Millhaven police officers. We read that Hubbel

planted the tip of his right index finger on top of Paul Fontaine’s face. “There he is, right there, that’s the boy. Yep. Franklin Bachelor. Or whatever his real name was.” (p 518)

What we don’t see is that Hubbel is not really pointing at Paul Fontaine, even though that’s how Tim interprets it. Hubbel’s finger is more on top of Fontaine’s face, and actually pointing to the face of Mike Hogan who is standing behind Fontaine. Tom Pasmore figures it out at the end (pp 657-658), after he and Tim have trapped and killed Hogan. He takes out the photo Tim had showed Hubbel, and then points. To his disgust, Tim sees that

the tip of Tom’s finger aimed directly at the next man in the picture, Michael Hogan. He wasn’t pointing at Fontaine, he was obliterating him. “I think — I think I’m an idiot,” I said. “Maybe a moron. Whichever one is dumber.” (p 658)

Tim had seen the colonel pointing at Fontaine because he had been expecting him to identify Fontaine. But there was nothing in the text to give us a shot at figuring that out. That’s why Hubbel’s identification of Fontaine looked like the unshakable proof that Fontaine was Blue Rose.

(3) There might even be a third clue that Paul Fontaine is a bum steer, though it’s outside the structure of the narrative. Straub could be using Fontaine as the functional equivalent of William Damrosch. Both men were in charge of Blue Rose killings before dying tragically (Damrosch in 1950, Fontaine in 1991), and since Damrosch was wrongly thought to be the killer, perhaps we should conclude — as devotees of Straubian metafiction — that Fontaine is too. I only thought of this “clue” on my seventh reading of The Throat.

Blue Rose in Vietnam: Fee Bandolier = Franklin Bachelor

Long before he became Mike Hogan, Fee Bandolier was Franklin Bachelor, during his military service in Vietnam. He was Major Bachelor, or just “The Major” — a Green Beret who became a legend among grunts, respected and then widely feared. He got results but crossed way too many lines. Finally his CIA superiors sent someone to retrieve him out of the field and bring him in for questioning; that person was Captain John Ransom.

In order to avoid Ransom, Bachelor had his subordinate impersonate him while he escaped into the hills, and Ransom never ended up confronting Bachelor or even seeing him. When he got to Bachelor’s camp, he found that the Bru tribesmen had been slaughtered and cannibalized. It’s a terrifying account, gleaned through the journal of Colonel Runnel which is read by Tim:

Bachelor knew that Captain Ransom was on his way to take him back to the United States for questioning. At that point he murdered his own followers. In cold blood, he dispatched those who could not keep up on a high-speed escape through rough terrain. Women. Children. The old and the weak, all were executed or mortally wounded, along with any able-bodied men who opposed Bachelor’s scheme. Then Bachelor and his remaining men boiled the flesh off some of the bodies and made a last meal of their dead. I believe it is even possible that Bachelor’s people voluntarily accepted death, cooperated in their own destruction. He held them under his sway. They believed he possessed magical powers. If Bachelor ate their flesh, they would live in him. (p 349)

Bachelor went rogue after this and began a personal vendetta against John Ransom, who in Bachelor’s mind had forced him to abandon his best camp and kill most of his Bru. Years later, around the time of the Tet Offensive (1968), Bachelor betrayed his country, duping the Vietcong into thinking the base commanded by Ransom at Lang Vo would be the next thorn in their side after Khe Sanh. The Vietcong reacted by descending on Lang Vo and devastating the place, though Ransom escaped.

This being a Peter Straub novel, we might guess that Colonel Runnel’s account isn’t quite the real story, and sure enough, at the end of The Throat we learn that it was actually John Ransom who slaughtered and ate Bachelor’s Bru followers. Bachelor did perform cannibalistic rites, but he didn’t victimize his own followers; he just left them behind if they were too weak to follow. Ransom wanted to be like the legendary Bachelor and tap into mystical awareness through the most intimate forms of violence. That’s what we learn in the Ransom Twist.

The Ransom Twist

It comes in The Throat’s final pages. The Blue Rose victims Grant Hoffman and April Ransom were not killed by the new Blue Rose killer Mike Hogan (= Fee Bandolier = Franklin Bachelor), but by someone else copying the old killings: John Ransom himself. He murdered his wife for the oldest reasons: for her money, for her affair with a young artist, and for making his life a marital prison. “You’re worse than Hogan,” says Tim. “He couldn’t help killing, but you murdered two people for the sake of your own comfort.” (p 673)

Subsequent readings of The Throat show how obvious-yet-not it is that John Ranson killed his wife. The clues are small and subtle but there, pretty much whenever Ransom is on screen. What he says and the way he reacts to things are the reactions of a guilty man. But they’re equally the behaviors of an irascible man with a short temper coping with the loss of his wife. That’s what makes him hard to catch onto.

And it’s a brilliant twist, no question. It’s entirely believable that John Ransom would kill his wife, given his hollow character and his history of esoteric violence in Vietnam. The problem is the relationship between John Ransom and Mike Hogan (= Fee Bandolier = Franklin Bachelor). It asks abusively much of us to believe in the coincidence of John Ransom exploiting the Blue Rose murders of the past while having no idea (at the time) who Blue Rose was (Bob Bandolier) or that his son (Fee Bandolier) even existed, while that son turns out to be the very Franklin Bachelor whom Ransom is trying to blame as a new Blue Rose killer. The true reason Ransom invited Tim out to Millhaven was to sell him the idea that Franklin Bachelor was the Blue Rose Killer. First he floated the idea to Tim that he thought Blue Rose might be an old soldier, and later told Tim melodramatic tales about his Vietnam assignment to bring Bachelor back to his superiors.

But Ransom had no idea that Bachelor was actually living in Millhaven, just as he had no idea that he was ever from Millhaven in the first place. His plan depended on the fiction that Bachelor would (supposedly) come in from somewhere out of town after seeing Ransom’s picture in the paper with April from her public awards ceremony, and then exact revenge on him for Vietnam. According to Ransom (and the journal of Colonel Runnel), Bachelor harbored a fury against Ransom for forcing him to abandon his best camp and kill most of his own followers. But Tim guesses that it was Ransom, not Bachelor, who murdered and ate Bachelor’s Bru followers in Vietnam — including Bachelor’s Bru wife and child — which turns out to be true; but, as Ransom retorts to Tim’s accusation, this simply gives Bachelor all the more reason to want revenge on Ransom: to kill his wife April as just payback.

Except that’s not what happened. Hogan (Bachelor) didn’t kill April out of his fury with Ransom. He had his thug William Writzmann beat April to shut her up. She had been making inquiries for a special history project about the Green Woman Taproom, which was where Hogan killed his victims and kept detailed diaries of their torments. If April’s relationship to John Ransom wasn’t enough to move Hogan to kill her, then her getting close to his torture playground would have surely done so. It’s preposterous that a serial killer like Hogan would have had her merely beaten as a warning, and risk her continuing her investigation. Ransom, for his part, had no idea who beat up April when he found her bloodied in the car. All he knew was that this was his opportunity to kill April as he’d been planning for some time, and blame it on the old Blue Rose killer. So that’s what he did.

All of this collapses under too many pressure points: Hogan and Ransom, arch-enemies in Vietnam, are now living together in the same city. Each has multiple reasons to kill April, and plan to assault her around the same time. Hogan however, incredibly, does not kill her, only has her worked over. Ransom finishes Hogan’s work, killing his already bludgeoned wife, utterly clueless as to who beat her or why. He exploits the Blue Rose murders of the past, not knowing that Bob Bandolier was the killer, or that Bob had a son Fee who is a new Blue Rose killer; also not knowing that Fee Bandolier is Franklin Bachelor, whom Ransom did know (though never actually saw) in Vietnam, and whom Ransom is trying to blame as a Blue Rose killer — which, surprise, Bachelor already is!

Straub either got lost up his own ass, or he’s a metafictional genius; I’m not sure which. The funny thing is, the Ransom twist works for me. John Ransom is a violent asshole who would kill for selfish and petty reasons. It’s a good payoff to his character. If Blue Rose ends up diminished by it, it’s at least masked by the fact that Hogan got only 17 pages of screen time anyway. We’ve been with Ransom all the way through.

The Meat Man

I said that The Throat is an indulgent novel, and the most egregious indulgence is the side plot of “The Meat Man”, Walter Dragonette, who is clearly intended as a combination of Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy. He’s a red herring that entertains on shock value, and a sure tipping point for readers eager to accuse Straub of laziness or just plain ridiculousness.

This fifty-page section could pass for boilerplate slasher. On the morning April Ransom is murdered in her hospital bed, two boys (Akeem, 9, and Kwanza, 7) living across from Dragonette’s home skip across the man’s lawn and peer into his living room, hoping to get a look at the huge television set which they frequently hear at high volume blasting out the sounds of films like The Evil Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, “where folks got hunted down and cut up, man, right there in your face” (p 146). They find, to their surprise, no TV, and to their horror, the corpse of an African American lying in a sea of bloody newspapers, with a broken hacksaw blade sticking out. The kids hadn’t been hearing movies at all. They race back across the street screaming for their parents who call the police, and by the time Walter Dragonette has returned from his morning trip to the hardware store (to buy a new hacksaw), practically the entire Millhaven police force is waiting for him. For years this guy has been inviting people home, slaughtering them in his living room, fucking their corpses, and then sawing them into pieces.

Inside the home the cops find a meat factory, and the inventory goes on for two pages (pp 152-153). In a refrigerator: four heads (two black males, one white male, one white female), two severed penises, a human heart on a white china plate, a human liver wrapped in Clingfilm, along with normal food like bread, mustard, and lettuce. In a long freezer: six more heads (three male, three female), two pairs of male human legs without feet, a freezer bag of entrails labeled STUDY, two pounds of ground round, and the hand of a preteen girl minus three fingers. In two 60-gallon drums of water and pickled preservatives: headless torsos. Around the house: human skulls meticulously cleaned, electric drills and saws, baking soda, and carving knives.

These graphic horrors fill a certain void in The Throat, where the Blue Rose killer is kept off screen and the narrative relies on deeper and more psychological terrors. It’s a contrivance untypical of Straub — seriously, this disorganized killer has been making his home a slaughterhouse for over eighteen months, and he just happens to get caught on the morning April Ransom comes out of her coma and is killed by Blue Rose! — but I can’t deny the detour is immensely entertaining. Appreciation of this depends on how individual readers react to the switch in tone, but I believe The Throat’s scope is wide enough to accommodate it.

Metafictional Masturbation

And yet The Throat’s most significant indulgence lies in its first-person point of view. “I” narratives lend themselves to excess anyway, and it’s clear from page 1 that Straub will be pushing the envelope. Tim Underhill, author of The Divided Man, explains to us that he actually co-authored Koko and Mystery with Peter Straub. This allows Straub the masturbatory fantasy that he wrote some of his best work with his best literary creation.

It also lets those novels off the hook to a certain extent where they blundered. For example, in my retrospective of Koko I mentioned the problem of how Tim could have written The Divided Man, in which the fifth Blue Rose victim is a fundamentalist butcher who molests little boys. In the real world (of Koko) Manny Dengler’s father was a butcher preacher who molested him as a child, but Tim doesn’t become aware of this until the end of the novel. And the novel is set in 1982-1983. How could he have written that victim in The Divided Man years earlier, in the early ’70s? The Throat answers that question: The fifth Blue Rose killing represents the butcher from Illinois, Heinz Stenmitz, who molested Tim when he was a child. Manny Dengler is a real character (he appears in one of The Throat’s flashbacks, pp 63-66), but in Koko he is as much a fictitious vessel for Tim’s experiences. Mystery’s Tom Pasmore is also real; he plays a major role in The Throat. But he wasn’t hit by a car as described in Mystery; that, we now learn, was Tim’s accident (p 40) projected onto Pasmore.

The Throat, in other words, becomes the “real story” to which Koko and Mystery serve as reflective preludes. Like The Divided Man, they are Timothy Underhill’s sounding boards as he navigates his personal traumas. This seems to be what Straub means by the The Throat “swallowing” those novels. Here’s a chart I made to show how everything looks from within the assumed reality of The Throat.

 

. The Divided Man (1972) Koko (1988) Mystery (1990) The Throat (1993)
Author(s) of the Novel
Tim Underhill Tim Underhill & Peter Straub Tim Underhill & Peter Straub (N/A: The Throat is the assumed reality)
Killer(s) of the Novel
Blue Rose Killer (Hal Esterhaz) Koko (Manny Dengler) Glendenning Upshaw Blue Rose Killer (Bob Bandolier in 1950); New Blue Rose Killer (Fee Bandolier, aka Mike Hogan in 1991); Copycat Blue Rose Killer (John Ransom in 1991)
Period of the Novel
1950 1982-83 1962 1991
Role of the Blue Rose murders Main plot None (a character reads The Divided Man) Side plot (the doctor is a fake Blue Rose victim) Main plot (there is a new Blue Rose Killer)
Setting of Blue Rose Murders (1950)
Monroe, Illinois Mill Walk, Caribbean Millhaven, Illinois
1st Murder Piano Player Prostitute Prostitute
2nd Murder Prostitute Piano Player Piano Player
3rd Murder Doctor Doctor (survived) Hustler
4th Murder Hustler Butcher Doctor (survived)
5th Murder Butcher Butcher
Police Detective in Charge
Hal Esterhaz William Damrosch William Damrosch
Blue Rose Calling Card Piece of paper next to victim Chalk on wall Magic marker on wall
Setting of New Blue Rose Murders (1991)
Millhaven, Illinois
1st Murder Grant Hoffman
2nd Murder April Ransom
3rd Murder William Writzmann
Police Detective in Charge
Paul Fontaine
Blue Rose Calling Card Magic marker on wall

 

Loving Fee Bandolier: The Trauma of Tim Underhill

In The Throat Tim Underhill finally remembers his childhood trauma. You’d think he would have done so long before, having projected it onto the characters in his novels, but his mind has kept it suppressed. He suffers panic attacks, hardly knowing why, sometimes almost passing out. He uses the gnostic gospels (to the amusing derision of John Ransom, who is a professor of religion) to aid his self-discovery:

All that saved me from another spell was the sudden memory of what I’d read in the gnostic gospel while I waited for John to come back from the hospital: If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you; if you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you. [Gospel of Thomas 70] I was trying to bring it forth — but what in the world was it? (p 140)

He gets his answer toward the end (pp 604-605) when hit by a hideous flashback, and relives his seven-year old self giving the butcher Heinz Stenmitz a blowjob. He vomits in the street, and in sudden intuition realizes this is also what happened to Fee Bandolier — which is why Stenmitz was Bob Bandolier’s final Blue Rose victim.

According to Tom Pasmore, Tim has been obsessing Fee Bandolier all his life; he practically invented Fee in his novels years before he knew of his existence. On some level, says Pasmore, Tim loves Fee, whose sadistic home environment and Blue-Rose genes had set him on a path of rage and violence over the compassionate pacifism that Tim eventually chose. This comes to a head when he and Pasmore are about to trap Fee (Mike Hogan) and Pasmore says they will have to kill him rather than turn him in. It’s a moving passage (pp 635-637) and The Throat’s best:

“Are you thinking about disarming him and taking him to Armory Place [the police station]? Do you think he’ll confess? Or that we’d ever walk out of Armory Place? You know what would happen.”

I said nothing.

“Tim, I don’t even believe in the death penalty. But right now, the only alternative is to get out of here and go back home. I’ve spent about fifteen years working to get innocent men off death row — saving lives. That’s what I believe in. But this isn’t like anything else I know — it’s as if we discovered that Ted Bundy was a detective with so many fallbacks and paper trails that he could never be brought to justice in any normal way. Do you want to know how I really see this?”

“Of course I want to know,” I said.

“We’re going to set him free.”

As a euphemism for execution, the phrase was ludicrous. “Thanks for sharing that,” I said.

“Who is he now? Is that worth saving? That person is a being who has to kill over and over again to satisfy a rage so deep that nothing could ever touch it. But who is he, really?”

“Fee Bandolier,” I said.

“Right. Somewhere, in some part of himself he can’t reach, he is a small boy named Fielding Bandolier. That boy passed through hell. You’ve been obsessed with Fee Bandolier before you even knew he existed. You almost made him up out of your own history. Do you know why?”

“Because I identify with him,” I said.

“Because you love him,” Tom said. “You love the child he was, and that child is still present enough to make himself visible to you, and he makes himself visible to your imagination because you love him.”

I remembered the child who came forward out of the swirling dark, on his open palm the word that cannot be read or spoken. He was the child of the night, William Damrosch, Fee Bandolier, and myself, all of whom had passed through the filthy hands of Heinz Stenmitz.

I tear up every time I read this part, and not just out of grief for Fee Bandolier, but because Tim and Tom are both so right. If pacifism must yield to pragmatic mercy, it’s only because Fee is too dangerous and protected by the law to let live. “Setting him free” sounds like a right-wing platitude, but in this case it’s not.

The Mighty Throat

So why is The Throat one of my favorite novels, along with mighty classics like Lord of the Rings and Shogun? I’ve had a hard time explaining it. Tolkien and Clavell require no defense; Peter Straub is more an acquired taste. I’ve urged the Blue Rose trilogy on many people who give up on it, usually halfway through Koko. The style is too cerebral for them. They find Straub a chore.

Frankly, I’ve had more fun reading Straub than most authors. That may run counter to accepted truths of him being “colder to the touch” than Stephen King, but I don’t find Straub to be “cold” at all. Starting with Koko in particular, Straub embarked on a string of work so focused and immersive that it seems to have given him discernment over existential mysteries, let alone the ability to write suspenseful ones. His characters seethe with fury and pain, and reach for love and hope, and he treats them with a unique mix of empathy and clinical curiosity. I never grow tired of his work. Few authors have his intuitive grasp of aesthetics and discipline, and even when he goes against the grain of that discipline — as he has done in The Throat like no other novel — he has fail-safes that leave the work stunningly intact.

I could say that I love The Throat for all these reasons, which is true, but none of that is quite the answer. The Throat occupies me every time I read it, to the exclusion of everything else that requires my attention. I want to stay with Tim Underhill, just as he wants to linger at Tom Pasmore’s, in those comfortable chairs leafing through the Blue Rose files late into the night: Despite my exhaustion, I wanted to stay another half hour; I thought it was a privilege. (p 305) A privilege, yes, to read story like this. And like Pasmore, I don’t want the Blue Rose mystery to be over. Tim and Tom feel like family, and I could follow them 700 pages more.

Rating: 5+ stars out of 5

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Retrospective: The Blue Rose Trilogy (2): Mystery

(As with Koko so with Mystery. This review will ruin your experience of the novel if you read it beforehand. It’s full of spoilers and very significant ones at that. Avert thine eyes accordingly.)

Whenever I’m asked to name a modern novel — written within the last 30 years or so — that qualifies as lasting literature, three come to mind: Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, Toni Morrison’s Paradise, and Peter Straub’s Mystery. And if I could chose only one for the honor, it would have to be the last. Mystery is the sort of novel you imagine Cliff Notes for. It’s pristine writing of unerring expression and appreciates in value on each reread. This was my third, and I was savoring the prose more than ever. It’s the Glenlivet of the Blue Rose trilogy (I’d call Koko the snake wine, and The Throat Bacardi 151), a classic that thoroughly deserves retrospection.

The settings are inspired and critical to Mystery‘s success. The main theater is the Caribbean island of Mill Walk, where poor natives live under white elites who care for them like Donald Trump does hurricane victims. The other setting is Eagle Lake, a lakeside residence in Wisconsin where the Mill Walk elite fly to spend their summers. This allows Straub to cast “Milwaukee” in an alternate reality that is both exotic and surreal, which turns out to be perfect for a boy’s coming of age story. Tom Pasmore’s world is criminally real, but filtered through a lens that mutes the ugliness.

As for Pasmore himself, he’s one of the author’s best characters. The story starts with him at 10 years old, running down the streets of a rough neighborhood, getting bullied and then hit by a car, and almost killed. Straub had a near-death car hit like this as a child, and the autobiographical prints show. In recovery Pasmore becomes obsessed with reading (any book he can lay hands on), death, and solving murder mysteries. He soon turns 17; the fast-forwarding stops; and the mystery of Mystery is launched as he becomes mentored by an elderly detective. Together they work on solving two seemingly unrelated murders. One was the sister of a finance minister in present-day 1962. The other was a family friend, Jeanine Thielman, back in 1925. The killer of both is none other than Tom Pasmore’s grandfather: Glendenning Upshaw, the rich tycoon who runs Mill Walk with the police in his back pocket. He is Mystery’s villain, staying mostly off-stage like Koko’s Manny Dengler, though not nearly as obscure.

The Clues

In Koko the killer’s identity is hard to figure out, and the reader plays detective along with the Vietnam vets. In Mystery we’re immersed in a young detective’s process, and sometimes we’re ahead of him. It’s not hard, for us, to peg Upshaw as the villain when Tom is shot at through his lodge window at Eagle Lake. Upshaw is raging at him over the phone for digging up the past, suddenly calms down and advises Tom to look out the window, at which point a bullet comes smashing through the glass and barely missing him.

The reader will surely recall Upshaw’s decision to send Tom up to Eagle Lake in the first place, back in part five. Tom and his mother were having lunch at his grandfather’s home, and Tom proceeded to royally piss him off by offering the opinion that the finance minister killed his own sister, and the Mill Walk police covered the whole thing up. Upshaw became agitated and belittled Tom, dismissing his theories as stupid and paranoid. Then he suddenly calmed down, and offered Tom help with his future:

Upshaw sampled the soup and looked at Tom again. He was no longer angry. “In a way I’m almost happy you have spoken as you have this morning. It means I’ve come to the right decision (bold mine). I think your horizons need widening.”

“My father said something about your being willing to set me up in business after I get out of college. That’s very generous. I don’t quite know what to say, except thanks. So thank you.”

His grandfather waved this away. “You’re applying to Tulane?”

Tom nodded.

“Stick with engineering. It’s a foundation. It’ll give you everything you need. If you want to study poetry and the collected works of V.I. Lenin, you can do it in your spare time.”

“I don’t know if I’d be a good engineer,” Tom said.

“Well, just what do you think you’d be good at? Biting the hand that feeds you? Insulting your family? I don’t think Tulane offers degrees in those subjects yet.” He simmered for a while. Tom and Gloria occupied themselves with their soup.

After a moment, his grandfather said, “Have you ever seen Eagle Lake?”

Tom looked up in surprise.

“I’ve been thinking of showing our old lodge a bit of life. How do you think you’d like to spend a month or so at the lake?”

“I’d love to. It would be great.”

“A carefree summer before your hard work begins.”

And then Tom understood — Eagle Lake was a reward for having agreed to major in engineering.

Except it wasn’t. It was his “reward” for making too much noise about the death of Marita Hasselgard, and accusing important people of involvement. On the face of it, Upshaw’s I’ve come to the right decision referred to sending Tom to college. But it really referred to the afterthought — or what seemed like one — about sending him up to the Wisconsin resort. Frankly I was suspicious about Upshaw even at this point, and not just because he’s nasty and unpleasant. (Victor Spitalny was nasty, but he wasn’t Koko’s killer; Upshaw could have been a false lead too.) There’s something subterranean about him that made me guess he was at least complicit in the killings. I didn’t think he would try having his own grandson killed to silence him.

Blue Rose

Only when Tom is on the plane back to Mill Walk, and he is discussing the Blue Rose murders of 1950 with Lamont von Heilitz, does he begin allowing himself the truth of his grandfather. The Blue Rose mystery will be the subject of The Throat, but the killings are tangentially relevant here, because one of the Blue Rose victims was a false flag — a victim of Glendenning Upshaw. Doctor Buzz Laing was stabbed and left for dead (though he survived the attack) with the calling card “Blue Rose”. Upshaw had arranged to have him killed and make it look like it was the Blue Rose killer. Von Heilitz doesn’t spell this out; he speaks in vague innuendos and mentions to Tom that his grandfather had arranged a different detective to be assigned to the Blue Rose case — as though this is some kind of hint.

Why did Upshaw want the doctor killed? Later towards the end, Tom calls Buzz Laing, and learns why he was fired from the hospital owned by his grandfather. Laing had called out a colleague for ignoring sexual abuse symptoms in one of his patients:

“One time I brought home the file of one of the patients Boney kept for himself, and I thought I saw some of the classic indications of real trouble, if you see what I mean. Vaginal warts, vaginal bleeding, and a couple of other things that at the time should at least have called for further investigation and were probably an indicator for psychiatric counseling. Do you see what I’m talking about? This was in the woman’s childhood. Really it could only mean one thing. I can’t be more specific, Tom. Anyhow, I said something about it to Boney, and he hit the ceiling. I was out on my ear, and that’s why I don’t have any patients at Shady Mount.”

The patient Laing is describing is Tom’s mother, Gloria Pasmore, though Tom doesn’t realize this yet. He later has a flash of intuition and recalls Laing’s comments as he and Detective Natchez are discussing Upshaw’s non-affairs with young women. Upshaw made a point to be seen in public with women like like Carmen Bishop and Barbara Deane so as to appear a “normal” man with appetites for younger women in their twenties. His true appetites were for prepubescent girls. He abused his daughter Gloria from a very early age, before she was even five, and hers was the patient file Laing saw by accident. Tom suddenly understands why his mother has always been such a mess — her anxieties and depressions and screams in the middle of the night.

Thus the root of the mystery: Jeanine Thielman had discovered that Upshaw was a pedophile and threatened to expose him. Upshaw killed her, up close and personal, unlike most of the dirty work he dumps on hit men, corrupt cops, and self-serving doctors. The Blue Rose case helps Tom solve the mystery in a roundabout way: Buzz Laing, the fake Blue Rose victim, had stumbled on Upshaw’s worst secret.

The Pasmore Pedigree

When Sherlock Holmes is your father and Jeffrey Epstein times ten is your grandfather — that pedigree. It took balls for Straub to use a character like Lamont von Heilitz. He is implied to have inspired “The Shadow” of the ’30s radio show and so of course he’s a caricature; but he works. Had Straub used this figure in the gritty realistic framework of The Throat, the results would have laughable. In the more dreamy atmosphere of Mystery he fits hand in glove. In that sense von Heilitz is like Shadowland’s magician Coleman Collins, an archetype whose credibility depends more on the author’s writing style than the actual narrative.

It’s fitting that Mystery’s pivotal scene is the only one in the novel where Tom’s father and grandfather are both on screen. Tom and von Heilitz sneak onto the Upshaw grounds, and spy on Upshaw through a window as he opens their letters — the anonymous notes they mailed in order to “rattle his cage”. The notes say “I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE”, “YOU HAVE TO BE STOPPED”, which mimic the implied accusations sent by Jeanine Thielman to Upshaw back in 1925, when she learned he was raping his four-year old daughter. As far as Upshaw knows, those notes had been destroyed, but Tom found them hidden at Eagle Lake. Upshaw’s reaction carries mountains of suspense through sheer body language:

Upshaw took up the red envelope. He looked at the handwriting and examined the postmark. Then he slit the envelope open and pulled out the sheet of yellow paper. He unfolded it and read.

Tom held his breath.

His grandfather was motionless for a second; and then, though he did not move, gesture, or change in any way, his body seemed to alter its dimensions, as if beneath the black suit it had suddenly deflated and expanded like a bullfrog’s air sac. He seemed to have drawn all the air in the room into himself. His arms and his back were as rigid as posts.

“And there we are,” von Heilitz said.

Tom’s grandfather whirled sideways in his chair and looked through the window and out across the terrace. Tom’s heart slid up into his throat and stayed there until Upshaw slowly revolved back to the note. He stared at it for another second. Then he pushed the yellow paper to the corner of his desk and picked up the envelope to look at the handwriting and the postmark. He turned his head to make sure the door was closed, and then looked back out the window. He pulled all the rest of the letters toward him and shuffled through them, setting before him on the desk a grey envelope and two white envelopes, set down the others, and held each of the three up to examine the printed address and the postmark. One by one, he slit them open and read the notes. He leaned back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling for a moment before reading the notes again. He pushed his chair away from the desk, and then stood and moved to the window and looked both right and left with an unconscious furtiveness Tom had never before seen in him.

“He really did kill her,” Tom said.

Few authors can write scenes like this. Upshaw is presumably deducing that von Heilitz is behind these perfidious notes, and sure enough he sends the police to kill him. Von Heilitz’s death is predictable, but only in the way that tragedy always is. Someone has to pay for banging the bee nest. The tragedy is made worse, however, by Tom’s last words to his father. He resented von Heilitz for showing him the truth about his grandfather, and said things he didn’t mean — accusations of abandonment, letting his mother marry an ineffectual man to raise him, and using Tom as a tool to solve his pet crimes. His discovery of his father’s corpse inside the ransacked house is a well earned tear-jerker.

Eagle Lake = Shadowland

It struck me on my reread that Eagle Lake is a replay of Shadowland. A teenager named Tom (Flanagan, Pasmore) goes on a summer retreat at a spectacular place (Shadowland, Eagle Lake) on the arrangement of an elder mentor whose agenda is to kill him (Coleman Collins, Glendenning Upshaw). He has an affair with a girl (Rose Armstrong, Sarah Spence) to the jealousy of the boy she has been with for some time (Del Nightingale, Buddy Redwing). The first Tom suffers trial by crucifixion; the second Tom a trial by fire. The attempt on their lives fail, but someone else is killed (Del Nightingale, Barbara Deane). Shadowland and Eagle Lake become the punishing education grounds where Toms Flanagan and Pasmore learn how the professions they crave can kill them.

The major difference is Shadowland’s high stakes; it’s a complete tragedy. Del is killed (shapechanged by his Uncle Cole into a glass bird), while Tom Flanagan, though able to leave the fairyland (after being crucified), grows up to become a penniless stage trickster. His heartthrob Rose disappears into a water-world, to escape the feeling that she walks on knives. There’s tragedy in Mystery too, as we’ve just seen, when von Heilitz is killed, but Tom Pasmore transcends it and ends up doing well for himself (as we learn in The Throat). If he doesn’t exactly “get his girl”, the final pages at least hint at a friendship with Sarah Spence that will last. Also, Tom Flanagan suffers on a staggering level. His crucifixion is the most unspeakable torture of a teenager I’ve been subjected to in a novel. While Tom Pasmore is almost burned alive (the final attempt on his life by his grandfather), his torments are nothing compared to those of Flanagan. These differences make Shadowland a much darker story than Mystery, and arguably stronger; I’ve said before that it’s the best novel of Straub’s early horror period. But it’s still a close call. They are both extraordinary coming of age stories.

Every time I read Mystery, I wish the Eagle Lake section would last forever. It’s the longest of the eight parts, and the heart the novel, where Tom Pasmore’s vacation becomes ours — his swims in the lake, his clandestine affairs with Sarah Spence, his stand-offs against Redwing bullies, his conversations with people like Kate Redwing and Barbara Deane, and his inquisitive research that almost gets him killed three times. His investigation of Jeanine Thielman’s murder leads to unexpected twists, and we learn about past events in the ’20s through some colorful characters.

Intertextual context

Apart from one blunder, Straub keeps his metafiction under control, with none of the confusions and unlikelihoods of Koko. The single exception is the presence of Tim Underhill’s novel The Divided Man. It’s a fictionalized meditation on the Blue Rose killings, which happened in 1950, so that part is fine; but according to Koko and The Throat, Underhill didn’t write the novel until the early ’70s, after his Vietnam service. The Divided Man is an anachronism in a 1962 setting. (It would also mean that Underhill wrote the novel in the late 50s as a teenager, which is rather unlikely.)

It’s hard to overstate how inspired Mystery is. Between its alluring settings and precious character, Straub is able to infuse a coming of age story with his particular style of mystery where the past holds the present in a vise. And he’s actually done even better, as we’ll see in the next retrospective.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Retrospective: The Blue Rose Trilogy (1): Koko

koko(I never flag spoilers because it would be redundant: all of my reviews are full of them. In the case of The Blue Rose Trilogy, however, I need to be explicit. This series of reviews will absolutely ruin your experience of the novels if you read them beforehand. They are full of spoilers and very significant ones at that. You’ve been duly warned.)

This year is the 30th anniversary of the first Blue Rose novel, and I’ll be writing retrospectives for the trilogy: Koko (1988), Mystery (1990), and The Throat (1993). You won’t like these mysteries if you have little patience with slow plotting, digressions, and false leads, but you’ll love them if you’re rewarded by that sort of grinding realism on top of lengthy character examination.

Nor will this be your thing if you’re put off by the redundant techniques of metafiction. The Blue Rose novels are less concerned with the internal consistency of their narratives than with recreating the narratives in new settings and circumstances. We get a grim vision of Milwaukee in Koko, a fever-dream portrait of a Caribbean isle (Mill Walk) in Mystery, and the brutal canvass of an Illinois city (Millhaven) in The Throat. All three places stand for Milwaukee, alternate theaters where protagonists solve mysteries in the present by solving others in the past. The same evils abound. Heartless people. Bleak childhoods. The ugly violence people are capable of, for reasons barely comprehensible. Deep scars, and the question of healing. I cringe to think how much of the Blue Rose trilogy is based on events from the real Milwaukee where Straub grew up as a kid.

The story of Koko starts with the reunion of four Vietnam vets in the early ’80s. They believe a member of their old platoon (Tim Underhill) is killing people across Southeast Asia; the former lieutenant (Harry Beevers) is quite sure about this, since Underhill has been living in places like Singapore and Bangkok; the other three (Michael Poole, Conor Linklater, and Tina Pumo) can’t quite make the leap to convict Underhill, as they have fond memories of him. When they find him in Bangkok, they realize he’s innocent and become convinced the killer is Victor Spitalny, who went missing back in 1969 when he deserted the army. But while Spitalny was a sadist, he was also an ineffectual twit, and hard to imagine as an efficient serial killer driven by grand purpose. Finally the truth hits them. The killer is Manny Dengler, who was supposedly killed in 1969 when on R&R with Spitalny (indeed presumed to be killed by Spitalny), and a man they deeply admired. Koko is a mystery and psychological thriller about what creates a killer by ruining his soul.

As for the book’s title, Koko is the killer’s calling card and moniker. When Dengler kills his victims, he leaves playing cards in their mouths with his signature “Koko” scrawled on them, after cutting out their eyes and off their ears. Dengler has reinvented himself out of his childhood hero Babar the King. In that famous children’s book, the Song of the Elephants ends with “Ko ko ko”. To Dengler the elephant represents mercy in times of peace and wrath in times of war, a duality which feeds his child complex and homicidal urges.

Only astute readers will figure out that Koko is Dengler. You really have to be paying attention, because the narrative effectively establishes that Dengler is long dead and was deeply admired by his platoon. It also makes clear that Spitalny was a sadist who hated everyone; he’s the only logical candidate for Koko once Underhill is ruled out.

The Clues

One clue comes in a novel written by Underhill, about a soldier misidentified because someone switched his dog-tag with another soldier. Dengler was inspired by the novel, and so when he killed Spitalny he put his own ID on him, then mutilated Spitalny’s body beyond recognition. This clue ties in with Dengler’s reverence for Underhill and why he impersonates Underhill when he lures journalists to kill them.

Another clue comes in chapter 22, when Koko has just killed Tina Pumo, and is getting ready to attack his girlfriend Maggie Lah:

When Pumo had opened the door and looked into Koko’s face, he had known, he had seen, he had understood. Angels walked him backwards up the stairs, angels backed him into his great glowing cave. Tears spilled from Koko’s eyes, for it was true that God did all things simultaneously (bold mine) and Koko’s heart overflowed for Pumo, who understood, who took flight, even as his soul took flight and sailed off, sailed home. The eyes, the ears, the Elephant Card in the mouth.

That kind of passage is easy to skim over as the mental derangements of a psychopath. The last part — the removing of Pumo’s eyes and ears, and stuffing the calling card in his mouth — grabs the reader more than the demented nonsense that proceeds. But the phrase “God did all things simultaneously” calls to mind the Vietnam flashback back in chapter 14, where Pumo remembers the death trap he and his platoon found themselves in for hours, as pressure mines exploded all around, ripping apart soldiers from crotch to chest. Pumo recalls a lot of craziness during that afternoon horror, including this bit from Dengler:

Pumo became aware that Dengler was beside him and grinning. “Don’t you think God does all things simultaneously?” (bold mine), Dengler asked him. “What?” Pumo asked. “What I like about that idea is that in a funny way it means that the universe actually created itself, which means that it goes on creating itself, get me? So destruction is part of this creation that goes on all the time. And on top of that is the real kicker, Pumo — destruction is the part of creation that we think is beautiful.” “Get fucked,” Pumo said. Now he understood what Dengler was doing: talking nonsense to wake him up and make him capable of acting.

The reader also assumes that it’s just nonsense Dengler was spouting. Most of the soldiers were saying or doing crazy shit in the flashback slaughter, and nothing in Dengler’s commentary suggests him to be the present-day serial killer — until chapters later, when you’re inside Koko’s head and he reflects upon God’s “simultaneous” actions. If you’ve paid and are still paying close attention. I’m a careful reader, but this is another clue I missed when I first read the novel.

A Tale of Two Families

The mystery of the killer’s identity is suspenseful, but there are deeper mysteries that make Koko more a psychological thriller. One is the war crime that haunts the vets. What exactly happened at Ia Thuc village, which called forth angry journalism and the court martial of Lieutenant Harry Beevers? Beevers, Spitalny, and Dengler went inside a cave, and when they came out, thirty Vietnamese children hiding inside were dead — all killed on Beevers’ orders. He remains proud of his deed, and even more proud for having been exonerated in the court martial, for in his words, “There are no children in war.” Spitalny and Dengler were scarred in different ways by the atrocity.

Which leads to the root mystery. What happened to Koko when he was a child that molded him into a serial killer triggered by the Vietnam horrors? The visits to the homes of Spitalny’s and Dengler’s parents are Koko’s best chapters (32 and 33). Both kids had terrible parents, terrible upbringings, but differently so. Spitalny’s mother is a doormat and his father a trash talker who projects his flaws onto his son. If I were Victor’s father I wouldn’t miss him either, but George Spitalny is no better. Straub is able to convey how pathetic George is in paragraphs like the following, where having no idea how to host guests in his home, he begins oogling Maggie Lah:

Poole watched George Spitalny leaning forward in his reclining chair, eating up Maggie Lah with his eyes. He had forgotten his wife and the two men. He felt great — he had a beer in one hand, and a girl who looked like Sex Incarnate was sitting on his living room couch. He was an awful man. He had burned Victor’s effects because of wounded narcissism. Poole felt an unexpected stab of pity for Victor Spitalny, growing up under the thumb of this vain, arrogant, inadequate man.

Yet for all the awfulness that runs in the Spitalny genes and environment, neither seems a likely breeding ground for a psychopath. Victor, like his father, was hollow and insecure, and not very smart; sadistic, but in a petty way; and certainly not disciplined. He’s the prime suspect for Koko because they can’t fathom anyone else… until they visit Dengler’s mother.

The visit with Helga Dengler involves one of the most creepy and disturbing verbal exchanges I’ve read in a work of fiction. She’s a cheerless fundie who loves citing the Bible, and drops these vague off-kilter comments to obscure information. Only later does a horrified Poole make sense of them:

  • Everyone lied about us. No they didn’t. After Poole, Underhill, and Maggie Lah leave Helga’s home, they learn more about her husband’s trial and conviction from the Milwaukee library. Manny had been found by a social worker imprisoned in the meat locker of Karl’s butcher shop (“The Blood of the Lamb Butcher Shop”), bruised and half-conscious, clutching his favorite book Babar the King. Karl Dengler not only abused his son, but molested him since the age of six, and was justly sentenced to prison, where he died two years later. On top of that, Karl wasn’t just Manny’s foster father. He was his biological father who raped a Hispanic woman, whom he then probably killed since he considered her an inferior race.
  • We kept that boy busy. An understatement. They raised Manny like a slave.
  • He had to be put in chains. No matter what anyone said. Helga was being literal. Karl Dengler chained Manny up in the butcher shop as a disciplinary measure.
  • Imagination has to be stopped. You have to put an end to it. Helga didn’t like Manny’s children’s books like Babar the King. For her, only Scripture was appropriate for the young mind.

Thus it begins to dawn on everyone that Manny Dengler, abused horribly as a child, is Koko, and that it was he who killed Victor Spitalny while on R&R back in ’69, not the other way around. Inspired by one of Underhill’s novels, he concealed Spitalny’s death by putting his military dog-tag on him. Dengler then mutilated Spitalny’s body so thoroughly that only the dog-tag could be used to (mis)identity the corpse as Dengler’s.

When Helga goes on about how Manny was lazy and in sore need of discipline, Poole wants to shake her and ask: Couldn’t you see what a gift he was to you? He and the other vets have such precious memories of Dengler (unlike the universally despised Spitalny) that it forces the cliche of whether serial killers are born or made. Koko implies the latter — that Dengler was molded into Koko by abusive parents — and is silent on the former. According to scientists, if you have the high-risk form of a gene that predisposes you to violence and were abused early in life, then your chances of a criminal life are relatively high, whereas if you have the high-risk gene but weren’t abused, there isn’t much risk. A genetic tendency towards violence plus an abusive childhood is the killer combination; serial killers are born and made. Manny Dengler was probably hostage to bad genes as much as to the hellish environments of his home and then later Vietnam.

Murder Vacation Services

The most graphically upsetting part of Koko comes not in the serial killings nor Vietnam flashbacks, but at the novel’s midpoint (chapter 20), where Conor, after searching for Tim Underhill in countless nightclubs across Bangkok, is taken to an underground bar where he witnesses a staged murder. Except that it’s not staged: the woman is beaten and killed under the calm gazes of men in business suits who savor the brutality while sipping booze. Conor runs out appalled.

Apparently this is based on a real-world business in Thailand that offers (or used to offer) “murder vacation” services. The customer pays a hefty price to torture and kill someone, or to watch it happen for a slightly lower price. Straub isn’t the only one who has been inspired by it; Eli Roth based his Hostel films on the premise. It could be an urban legend, but it wouldn’t surprise me if secret organizations like this exist in the world.

The chapter is a side plot that doesn’t result in getting any closer to Underhill or the real Koko, but it’s one hell of a tension builder, and an example of Straub’s ability to engage the reader with red herrings. The scene gave me a nightmare in which I was Conor, didn’t get out of the bar in time, and became the next stage victim. Seriously.

Straub’s best novel?

He thinks so, and I see his point. You can taste the sweat and tears that went into Koko. Every sentence feels constructed with anorexic care; the pacing is incredibly disciplined for a thriller; and the dialogue so realistic it’s like sitting in on real-life conversations. Straub was always good at this stuff, but he had seriously upped his game by this point in his career. The genre itself marked a maturing, since Koko was his breakaway from horror — out of Stephen King’s shadow and into a style of mystery completely on his own terms. He should be extremely proud of Koko. But the fact is that he did better in Mystery and The Throat. The plotting is even richer in those books, and they feature as leads Tom Pasmore and Tim Underhill, who are the best characters Straub has written. Koko is seen mostly through the eyes of Michael Poole — a solid character to be sure, but nothing like Pasmore or Underhill.

There are small but significant problems with Koko that prevent me from awarding it 5-stars. First are the chronological inconsistencies. Straub can’t seem to decide whether or not the Koko killings happened in 1981 or 1982. In chapter 1 we learn that the first killings happened soon after the Iranian hostages were released, in January-February ’81. Then in chapter 16, we are told the dates for those killings are January-February ’82. And when Poole, Linklater, and Beevers are in Singapore looking for Underhill in January the following year, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” has just been released (see chapter 15). That happened in January ’83, which supports the ’82 dates for the early Koko killings, rather than the ’81 dates.

Second is the problem of how Tim Underhill could have written his novel The Divided Man, in which the fifth Blue Rose victim is a fundamentalist butcher who molests little boys. In the real world Manny Dengler’s father was a butcher preacher who molested him as a child, but Underhill doesn’t become aware of this until he, Poole, and Maggie visit Helga Dengler in Milwaukee. How could he have written that victim in The Divided Man years before in the early ’70s? That question is later answered in The Throat, where we learn that the fifth Blue Rose killing represents a butcher from Illinois (Heinz Stenmitz) who molested Tim Underhill when he was a child, and which Tim has repressed memory of. But that leaves us with the impossible coincidence of two characters (Manny Dengler and Tim Underhill) who were in the same Vietnam unit, and had both been molested by different butchers (Karl Dengler and Heinz Stenmitz) who each ran his own meat shop — and on a street with the same name (Muffin Street) in different states! Straub’s metafiction techniques get away from him at times.

Third is the unlikely coincidence that Michael Poole and Maggie Lah, independently of one another, happen to be obsessed with the children’s book Babar the King, which was Manny Dengler’s favorite book as a child and inspired him to think of himself as “Koko”. At one point Maggie even recalls the Song of the Elephants:

Patali di rapato
Cromda cromda ripalo
Pata pata
Ko ko ko

Maggie doesn’t know at this point that the serial killer calls himself Koko, but it asks a lot of the reader that she would be ruminating over the one children’s book that “explains” the serial killer. Michael Poole, for his part, is also obsessed with Babar the King because his deceased son loved it, though he has forgotten about the “Ko ko ko” line.

Fourth and last, the novel could have used some editing. There are places where description goes on more than it needs to, for example when Poole is wandering the streets in Singapore, or Harry is scouting out New York City for a place to trap Koko. The slow paced technique usually works for Straub and sets him above the hacks who crank out cheap page-turners. Still, it can be overdone. In Mystery and The Throat Straub gets away with all his indulgences; in Koko I lost patience in a few places.

None of these weaknesses diminish Koko‘s excellence, but they are enough to make me demur from Straub’s claim that it’s his best work to date. It’s also worth noting — though this really isn’t a criticism — that the Blue Rose killings play a minimal role in Koko. They are mentioned only once, in Underhill’s novel The Divided Man, where to Poole they come across as a meditation on the Koko killings. But that’s rather impossible, since Underhill wrote the novel in the early ’70s, years before Koko started his homicidal campaign. In Mystery the Blue Rose killings relate to a series of murders under investigation, and in The Throat they are the main plot; in Koko the Blue Rose idea seems to be in gestation, and Straub unsure as to how he wanted to use those killings to interpret other events. It’s hard to even think of Koko, really, as a Blue Rose novel, or at least until you read the next two novels and see how everything intertwines. We’ll look at Mystery in the next retrospective.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

The Sewer Orgy Revisited

It would appear that the sewer orgy scene from Stephen King’s It has been on everyone’s mind. For the past few weeks, my blogpost on the sewer orgy (posted in April) has been getting loads of hits. Today, for example:

Read the post here if you missed it before. And remember, the sewer orgy won’t be in the film released tomorrow. Which is a shame, because it’s the novel’s most important scene, though admittedly understandable. In the 21st century, no studio would dare take on the subject of an 11-year old gang bang.

Science Fiction Pick List

To complement my eight fantasy picks, here are my sci-fic choices. I’m a bit eclectic when it comes to sci-fic. You won’t find anything by Heinlein, Asimov, or Niven here.

dune

1. Dune, Frank Herbert. 1965. What makes Dune the best science fiction novel is its disdain for the science fiction vision. Robots, computers, and cyberwars are non-existent, and in their place are clairvoyants, messiahs, and jihads. By creating a cosmos which has rejected the machine, Herbert was able to focus on religious and social issues without interference of techno-glam, and in particular to show the tensions inherent in charismatic messiah movements. Paul Atreides/Muad’Dib is the living contradiction of an elite duke and low-life prophet, and though a savior of the oppressed, will lead a jihad that will kill sixty billion people. Herbert did for sci-fic what Tolkien did for fantasy, building a world so convincing it may as well be real. For years I’ve dreamed of planet Arrakis, where water is precious as gold and sandworms are the size of skyscrapers. And which of course is the only source of the addictive spice (the One Ring of sci-fic if there ever was one), which prolongs life, heightens awareness, and even makes interstellar travel possible. Dune is impossible to stop thinking about when I read it. It contains ideas that are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago. The sequels aren’t so impressive. Only the first book makes my list.

2. The Gap Cycle, Stephen R. Donaldson. 1990-1996. This five-volume homage to Wagner’s Ring is not only the darkest, nastiest sci-fic in existence, but probably the darkest, nastiest work of fiction period. Everyone is mean-spirited to the core; allies are as deadly as enemies, if not more so, including the galactic police director who puts a cop through rape and worse hell to achieve justice. No one has so much a decent thought. Perhaps every hundred pages, a character will say something close to nice and you sigh in appreciation. Donaldson has always been a depressing writer, but he set a new bar in the Gap Cycle. And the suspense levels are insane; the narrative crescendos enough to give you panic attacks. I was hyperventilating during the race to escape Thanatos Minor. Every corner of that planetoid remains burned in my mind’s eye, especially the self-mutilation stage in the Ease ‘n’ Sleaze bar. Crazy as it sounds, I love the central character of Angus. He’s scum, but as a cyborg bereft of free will I feel for him. The Gap Cycle is a brilliant space opera about evil authorities, and terrifying aliens, and vile people caught in between. Humanity’s hope? An abused woman who must navigate the machinations of all three. I doubt I’ll read anything like it again.

3. Cluster & Chaining the Lady, Piers Anthony. 1977, 1978. No one ever talks about the Cluster trilogy anymore, and it needs rescuing from obscurity. It’s better than many of today’s sci-fic efforts and comes from a time when writers weren’t afraid to take certain risks. The premise is that spiritual possession is the most effective way to space travel, as it allows people to send their kirlian auras (what we think of as “souls”) across vast distances, safely, instantly, and at little cost while their bodies stay behind. Their auras take possession of a host, alien or otherwise, though the takeover cannot be forced on a consciously unwilling subject. Possession is a bold idea in science fiction and allows Anthony protagonists (Flint in Cluster, Melody in Chaining the Lady) whose perspectives on other species, including their own, change according to the aliens they possess. The first two novels are the ones that make my cut. In Cluster Flint shags his way across the Milky Way, experiencing a rich variety of alien sex, and his mission ends on a murder mystery that keeps you guessing until the reveal. In Chaining the Lady the Andromeda Galaxy acquires the capability of forced possession, and Melody must go undercover on a battle ship to find out who the involuntary hosts are before their possessors take over the Milky Way. See my 40th anniversary retrospective for more details.

4. Ubik, Philip Dick. 1969. Only recently have I been turned on to Philip Dick, and Ubik is his best work, set in a future where some people have a natural ability to read minds or choose the future (psychics), and others are able to thwart those telepathic or precognitive powers (anti-psis). Security firms hire the latter to protect people’s privacy, and the plot involves one of these firms coming under attack. Its CEO is killed in a bomb explosion, and his employees store his corpse in a half-life mortuary so that his consciousness can live on. The employees then start to experience bizarre shifts in reality as the world regresses back in time to the year 1939. Maybe they are the ones who actually died in the explosion and got stored into half-life, and are now dreaming terrible events as their boss tries to reach them from the real world. Or maybe both died and are feeding off each others dreams. Adding to the tension is that one of the employees has a unique anti-psi talent that doesn’t just cause psychics to choose a different future; she can actually change the future by resetting the past. Is the time regression somehow on account of her? There doesn’t seem to be a coherent explanation that accounts for any one theory, but enough patterns to make any explanation plausible until you look real closely. Ubik is a pure mind fuck, and while it may not be Dick’s most popular novel, I think he outdid himself here.

ready_player_one_cover-image1

5. Ready Player One, Ernest Cline. 2011. This novel will give you an orgasm if you grew up in the ’80s playing D&D and primitive computer games, but even aside from this it has a wide range of appeal. For all the obscure pop-culture references, the plot isn’t confusing and the narrative moves like a bullet while leaving just the right breathing space for its characters. Their friendships in the virtual world feel real, because in some ways the OASIS is just as real. It’s where kids attend school online, where everyone plays games and retreats from the misery of reality. That reality is the setting of the 2040s, a future in which the earth’s energy resources and economy have all but collapsed, the vast majority of Americans are poor and live in “stacks”, vertical trailer parks where mobile homes are piled on top of each other. The quest for a Easter-Egg inside the galaxy of the OASIS carries the reward of a billionaire’s legacy, including complete control of that virtual reality. A corrupt corporation wants the control, to charge for access, and prevent people from using it anonymously, and in the race for the Egg they locate and kill others — not just avatars, but the people hiding behind them in the real world. The virtual recreation of the Tomb of Horrors is for me one of the most gratifying chapters I’ve read in a novel.

6. Hyperion-Endymion, Dan Simmons. 1989-1997. The four books are almost equally good while stylistically different. Hyperion is a Canterbury Tales-like recounting of six stories, told by each of the Shrike pilgrims. The Fall of Hyperion takes these strands and runs them into a single blistering narrative as the fabric of the universe is torn apart. Endymion picks up centuries later, in a regressed universe ruled by the Catholic church, and consists of a river chase through portals to different planets, reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn. The Rise of Endymion involves the defeat of the church and a woman’s sacrifice to the Inquisition. My favorite is The Fall of Hyperion — Simmons never takes his foot off the gas in that book — but they all make this cut. I could never fully understand the Shrike, the spiked humanoid that seems to be a force for good as much as evil. He impales victims on his Tree of Pain, and gives them the “Merlin sickness” (a reverse aging process by which after being touched, every morning you wake up a day younger with no memory of the lost days nor anything that had happened since being touched; to the horror and pain of family and friends who have to explain every morning what happened to you, as you regress back to a teen to a kid to a baby). It seems to be a program designed to ensure the evolution of the AIs while also keeping them in check, and it helps people as as often as it hurts them depending on its perceived goal.

dragonflight

7. Dragonflight & Dragonquest, Anne McCaffrey. 1968, 1971. The Pern series devolved into a lame franchise, but the first two books are top-notch survivalist sci-fic. The plotting is tight and the writing honest, by that meaning McCaffrey portrayed believable gender roles without kneeling at the feminist altar. She also took a big risk with the dragon-rider concept, as it’s so easy to go wrong with. The Dragonlance novels in the ’80s turned dragons into the functional equivalents of war steeds — an insult to the creatures whose pride would never allow for it. Dragons accept riders only by exacting a high price from them, which in Pern is a permanent telepathic link in which rider and dragon share all their feelings and sufferings. Those feelings extend to lust, which has become something of a bone of contention among the politically correct. Dragonriders succumb to sex with each other during the mating flights of their dragons, overcome with sexual desire for each other often against their will. Lessa’s relationship with F’lar is described in terms of rape, and that’s indeed the premise. Around these dynamics, the dragonriders work against impossible odds to solve the problem of Thread, which in Dragonflight ends in Lessa’s time-travel centuries back to bring help forward, and in Dragonquest F’nor’s even more suicidal flight to the Red Star to wipe out the source of Thread itself.

8. The Man Who Folded Himself, David Gerrold. 1973. It’s surprising how good this book is considering the skeleton narrative. It’s a novella with a single character (aside from the brief appearance of a lawyer) and has a rather staged feeling to it. But it takes on enormous themes — time travel, paradoxes, free will — as the protagonist interacts with past and future versions of himself. And it’s a love story at heart, as the man falls in love with himself in various time streams. He starts as most people would do if they suddenly acquired a time-traveling device: betting on sports events he already knows the outcome to, making himself a millionaire. But as he becomes gradually bored by wealth, he decides that he wants to have sex with his past and future selves, including mass orgies with himselves from different time streams. Eventually, as he changes events in so many time streams he creates a female version of himself, with whom he has a child. It turns out to be a very powerful narrative of a man searching for self and meaning, not to mention coming to terms with his homoerotic desires, which in 1973 was an unusual move in a novel. I was once asked the five things I would do if I could go back in time, and indeed the two at the top of my list were to make more money for myself, and to bang myself.

Retrospective: Cluster

“In Canopus I learned that to be humanoid was not to be superior; in Spica I found three sides to any question; in Polaris I appreciated circularity.” (Flint of Outworld)

No one ever talks about the Cluster trilogy anymore, and for the life of me I don’t get it. It’s better than a lot of today’s sci-fic efforts and comes from a time when writers weren’t afraid to take certain risks. Some of the ideas went over my 12-year old head and surprised me on the reread 40 years later. I suspect the name of Piers Anthony puts people off, and understandably. His Xanth series has gotten out of hand and was never that good to begin with. But the ’70s were his golden age, and the Cluster trilogy needs rescuing from obscurity. The three books are Cluster (1977), Chaining the Lady (1978), and Kirlian Quest (1978), and this retrospective honors the first for its 40th anniversary.

The premise of the series is that spiritual possession is the most effective way to space travel given the problems of every other method. Teleportation is too expensive (costing up to trillions of dollars per person), freezer ships too dangerous (1 in 3 lifeforms perish en route), and lifeships too slow (decades have passed by the time passengers disembark). Spiritual transfer allows people to send their kirlian auras (what we think of as “souls”) across vast distances — safely, instantly, and at little cost while their bodies stay behind. Their auras take possession of a host, alien or otherwise, though the takeover cannot be forced on a consciously unwilling subject. That’s a bold premise for science fiction, and it allows Anthony protagonists whose perspectives on other species, including their own, change according to the aliens they possess.

In Cluster that protagonist is Flint, a Solarian (human) recruited by his government to bring the secret of spirit transfer to the other spheres in the Milky Way. (See image left: sphere Sol is the galaxy’s human sphere, which contains “our” solar system.) The mission is to liberate the spheres from isolationism and unite them in cause against the Andromeda Galaxy. Andromeda already has the technology for spiritual transfer, and is plotting to steal the Milky Way’s energy sources. Flint’s soul is sent to various spheres, and he is chased by the soul of an Andromeda agent who is also in the disguise of native hosts. The result is an unusual space thriller featuring a reckless hero unsure of himself, as he finds himself hostage to the views, impulses, and feelings of his host bodies. He has a particularly grand time shagging his way through the Cluster.

Shag hero?

That’s sort of what Flint is. In three spheres (Spica, Polaris, and Mintaka) he engages in sex, and in the case of Spica he becomes a rapist, forcing himself on others not once or even twice, but an outrageous three times. The Spicans are fin-propelled humanoids who live on water planets, and their species consists of three genders: Impacts, Undulants, and Sibilants. Sexual intercourse is a three-way affair, impossible with two, but compulsive the moment a third appears, and so most areas on the planets are zoned so that only two genders are allowed together at any time. The presence of three makes sex literally impossible to resist for all members, as one takes the role of the sire (“father”), another the parent (“mother”), and another the catalyst. Intercourse involves the merging of the chests/torsos of all three, initiated by the catalyst who throws itself at the other two, so that the flesh of all three mesh and heave and overlap. When sex is completed, a chunk of flesh breaks off mostly from the sire, and some from the parent, producing the offspring who is nurtured by the parent. What’s interesting is that the genders don’t determine the sire, parent, and catalyst; it’s rather the position of each and the manner in which they come together. An Impact can be a sire just as easily as a parent or a catalyst, and same for Undulants and Sibilants.

Flint, in the body of an Impact, comes upon an Undulant and Sibilant, and is assaulted by urges he can barely comprehend. He instinctively assumes the role of the catalyst, launching himself at the other two, merging and sucking their flesh into his, and in the end leaves the Sibilant (the parent) with a child. That’s his first rape. He is later arrested for his crime by two Impact officials, and evades them by doing the unspeakable in that culture – having sex with two individuals of like gender. Here’s how that rape is described:

“Whereupon he invoked the most disgusting crime of which a Spican sapient is capable. He fushed [homosexually raped] them. He visualized them as a Sibilant and an Undulant, himself as the catalyst, and puffed out his body perimeter to intersect theirs. He overlapped them both, then contracted, hauling them together inside his flesh. The act was appalling. Only in the filthiest of jokes was it even conceivable. A wave of intense revulsion almost overwhelmed the mind of his host. This was despicable homosexual rape! But Flint, desperate, forced the two to intersect each other. Then he expelled them violently, firing them through the water, linked to each other. Both Impacts were unconscious, overcome by sheer shock and horror. And Flint was now twice guilty of a capital offense. His Impact brain urged immediate penance in the form of suicide. He hated himself, but he swam on.”

It’s worth noting that in the Cluster spheres homosexuality seems to be a universal taboo, and while some have claimed this reflects a homophobia on the part of Piers Anthony, it makes perfect sense regardless. The primary drive of every species is to reproduce; same-gendered sex would be reviled as abnormal by at least many intelligent lifeforms who can form concepts, at least until they evolve by more open-minded concepts.

As if that weren’t enough, Flint rapes a third time, when he discovers an Undulant named Llynana whom he suspects is possessed by a kirlian transfer like himself — and that she is the same entity who had followed him to sphere Canopus and tried to kill him. He drags her to an area where they find a Sibilant, and positions himself so that the Sibilant is forced to be the catalyst, himself the sire, and she the parent:

“The throes of mergence were upon them. Llyana was struggling. ‘This — this — I am being violated!’ she protested. ‘Who are you? What are you doing?’

” ‘I am Sissix the Sibliant,’ the catalyst replied. ‘Let the inquest show that I did not seek this union. Nevertheless I do not protest it; you are both handsome specimens.’ Actually the catalyst had little reason to protest; catalysm was as close to completely free pleasure as the world provided. The parent was responsible for the offspring, and the sire gave a healthy chunk of his flesh. The catalyst experienced the same triple orgasm but without penalty.

” ‘Your motions only enhance the interaction,’ Flint told Llyana, knowing this was like telling the victim of ongoing rape not to struggle.

” ‘This — this is mating!’ she screamed, shocked. They were all now overlapping each others’ nervous systems. Flint had never before experienced such extreme pleasure. In the human body, the joys and pains of various experiences were actually self-generated. No actual transfer of sensation occurred, merely external stimulus. But here there was the enveloping joy of literal mergence, of becoming one with one’s species. Sissix and Llyana pooled their nervous impulses with Flint’s to make a symphonic unity of amazing depth and intensity. In his first rape, when he had been the inadvertent catalyst, he had been too revolted by the concept to appreciate the pleasure; now he relished it.”

And because the literal fusion of Spican intercourse is spiritual as much as biological, Flint is able to ascertain that Llyana’s soul has indeed been supplanted by that of an alien agent, later confirmed to be from the Andromeda galaxy. But even more: his rape of Andromeda/Llyana carries a devastating consequence. Forcing a child on her, the Andromeda agent becomes hostage to the emotional bond between her host body and the child, which prohibits her chasing after Flint’s soul to another planet. To her outrage, she feels compelled to stay inside Llyana on the Spican planet and nurture this undesired child. This shows how risky possession is: the hard-wired instincts of the unconscious host can override the will of the possessor.

Flint is a bastard in his parting blow. “Enjoy your motherhood,” he tells Andromeda, who can only swear at him furiously (to which he amusingly scolds her, “Please, not in front of the child”). Rape heroes are rare these days in sci-fic and fantasy, having gone out of fashion since the pulp years. While rapists have become more common as lead characters since Game of Thrones, they are usually understood to be vile. Flint is more like Conan than Jaime Lannister, someone you thrill to, and that sort of protagonist tends to be resented today.

Sexual debt

In the sphere of Polaris things go the consensual way. Flint is learning to discipline his foreign impulses, but he is also greeted by the tender Polarian whose life he saved at the start of the novel. She saved his life too (they were attacked by a wild beast on his home planet), and in Polarian culture, mutual aid escalates debt rather than cancels it, requiring an abatement through the act of sex. That was impossible on Flint’s planet, since Tsopi had physically traveled there as a Polarian, and obviously different species can’t cross-breed. With Flint now inside a Polarian host, Tsopi makes her claim on him.

“You and I saved each other’s lives, and so we owe each other our lives. A mutual debt, very hard to repay. Now, in your thrust culture [Solarian], you would call that self-canceling. Equal and opposite forces. But in our circular culture [Polarian], it starts quite a spiral. Equal and opposite thrusts applied to two sides of a wheel and make it roll twice as fast.”

The “circular” mindset mirrors the Polarian physiology. They look like huge dinosaur droppings at first blush (see image below), with wheels on the bottom and small communication balls on top of their trunks. They roll, not walk, and their thinking is less straightforward, their attitudes as a result more open-minded. Tsopi explains how Polarians live through cycles of relationships rather than lasting ones:

“You [Solarians] are an expansive, extroverted species, but also strongly introverted, alienophobic. Your mating pattern reflects this. You seek a stranger for the purpose of procreation, then establish lifelong liaison with that stranger. To us that seems extreme. We [Polarians] prefer familiar matings, but we form no restrictive relation. Our love is intense while it endures. At the end, there is a child, and all debts have been expiated by that act of creation. The chapter is finished; we never mate again with the same partners.”

Flint, moved by this, agrees to satisfy the debt between them. Here is the sex scene:

“Tsopi laid down her provocative taste, and Flint augmented it with his own. The two trails fed off each other, building up the mood layer by layer as the two wheels spiraled inward toward the center. At last they met. Flint’s trunk and Tsopi’s tail twined together, and their two balls touched each other in an electrifying spinning kiss. Flint found that his body needed no instruction. As with Solarians and all other species both sapient and animal, nature sufficed. Yet the steps of it astonished the human fragments of his mind. For at the height of his passion, Flint lay down and released his wheel. He had not realized that this was possible; he had supposed it was an inseparable part of his anatomy. Now it rolled slowly across the floor away from him leaving him lame.

“She lay down opposite him and moved close. Flint took the exposed portion of her wheel into his vacant wheel chamber. The sensations were intensified excruciatingly, for they were direct; her secretions with his without being diluted by an intervening surface. Trunk and tail reached around to twine together, drawing the connection tight.

“Now the real action began. The rim of Flint’s torso met the rim of Tsopi’s, sealing all the way around their mutual sphere, so that none of it was exposed to the air. The two of them spun it, rapidly. More rapidly than possible in any individual situation, for the wheel controlling mechanisms of both parties were operating in tandem. The wheel spun so fast in grew warm, then hot. Both Flint and Tsopi excreted extra fluid to bathe that sphere in its sealed chamber and alleviate friction, but still the heat increased. At last something within the wheel reacted. There was an electrochemical shift, as of a fire flaring up. It was the climax, that first stirring of buried animation. There was an instant of almost unbearable rapture as the shock went through the mass, then exhaustion.

“Flint and Tsopi fell apart. The wheel rolled free of both of them, steaming. And while they struggled to regain their strength, complicated by the absence of their wheels, through which they normally ate, respired, and eliminated, the loose mass began to shake and flex as though something inside were trying to get out. It did not break open like a hatched egg; it elongated and unfolded, stage by stage, until it emerged complete, sculpted by the hand or wheel of nature: a young Polarian.”

Flint then reclaims his wheel, while Tsopi, now wheel-less, removes his communication ball. In Polarian sex the male becomes mute afterwards (until he grows another communication ball), while the female suffers confinement: the removed communication ball is inserted down below to become her new wheel, that she can barely be upright on until it grows to full size. There’s a biological symmetry to this — the seed starts with the male’s communication ball and eventually becomes a female’s new wheel, varying the gene pool, since the same couples never mate twice.

The Polarians seem to be Anthony’s secret heroes — Tsopi in Cluster and Llume (especially) in Chaining the Lady. I like the idea of circular thought culture and wish the author had developed it more. It’s noted for example how sex-debt is alien to humans like the concept of voting makes no sense to a Polarians, for whom the interests of a single individual take precedence over the will of the majority. When Flint counters how stupid that is — that government must be democratic and serve the good of the greatest number — Tsopi explains that Polarians have a natural inclination to overcoming disagreement through accommodation and mutual respect. It’s a great idea to run with, but it’s kept in the abstract.

Genre blending

After being mired on Spica for months (thanks to Flint raping her and giving her a child), the Andromeda agent is able to break free of her host and continue her mission against the Milky Way — this time as an impersonator rather than a possessor. When the Nathian government discovers an ancient site of technology on the planet of Hyades, the Milky Way governments send representatives to investigate — from Canopus, Sol, Polaris, Antares, Spica, Nath, Mirzam, and Mintaka. Flint is the Sol rep, and they are in their true forms, having been teleported rather than soul-transferred. When they arrive, the Mirzamite is found slain, and the mission turns into a murder mystery. It’s clear the killer has to be one of them since there are no life forms on Hyades. But who of the seven and why?

It’s good genre blending and keeps you guessing until the reveal. The seven members cross-examine each other, querying alibis, testing their knowledge of the species they claim to represent. Later the Antarean is found dead, and it still looks like anyone could be the killer. The Mintakan finally slips by saying “concurrence”, which is the term used by Andromedans to voice agreement — as Flint knows, having dealt with the agent before — and it dawns on him that the Mirzamite was killed right away because Mirzamites are the only species who know what Mintakans really look like (because their spheres border each other). The “Mintakan” is none other than the Andromedan agent in its true form. Challenged at last, she dishes out some serious whup-ass, taking down the Spican, Polarian, Nathian, and Flint himself before the insectoid Canopian — the only remaining survivor — is able to destroy her.

That’s not the end though. In the final chapter we get to see what Mintakans really look like, as Flint wakes up inside the body of one. He died in the Hyades showdown, but the activated technology beamed his soul to the (supposed) world of his killer — his last dying thought. The Mintakans are by far Anthony’s most memorable creation, amalgams of musical instruments; they speak with music, create it as they move, open doors with song, and exude it like Solarians exhale carbon dioxide.

“His body was astonishing. Whenever he moved, he jangled, beeped, and boomed. His several feet were little clappers, supporting a triple web of taut wires like three harps. Fitted within the inner curves of these were tiers of drum diaphragms. Strong tubular framing provided resonance for moving air with reeds. In short, he was an animate orchestra. He had some kind or sonar/radar perception, and used it to orient himself. This had to be a Mintakan host. The ancient arena had really been a transfer station whose destination was controlled by the thought of the transferee. He was thinking of Mintaka as he died — and here he was. His human body had been blasted apart, and no one at home would know what had really happened to him. He had, in his fashion, gone to heaven.”

Except that the devil has ridden his coat tails. The Andromeda agent is there right beside him, also having been killed in the Hyades battle and soul-transferred. As they argue with each other, their hatred lessens, partly in the knowledge their souls will soon die since their native bodies have, but also as they become attracted to each other in the Mintakan form:

“As he played his comment, she accompanied with a haunting tune of agreement. The sheer beauty of the impromptu startled him. When Mintakans communicated, they really did make music together. It was far superior to the human forms, both as dialogue and music. In that affinity of sound, he realized how lovely she could be when she chose.”

And with that, in the final pages, Flint and his nemesis come to an understanding. They agree the ancient secrets they discovered are too dangerous in the hands of either galaxy. Before dying, they mate — consensually this time — and produce an offspring who will become the ancestor of Melody of Mintaka, the protagonist of Chaining the Lady. What fails in trashy Harlequin romances (women who reconcile or fall in love with their rapists) works in a context of inter-species hosting, where biochemical thought patterns are radically altered.

Verdict

Take Cluster off your shelf and relive Flint’s galactic mission. It’s a great novel for its interrogation of inter-species perspective, the premise of spirit possession, and arresting portrayals of alien sex. Throw in an explosive murder mystery, and you have a mighty damn good story.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5.

Fantasy Pick List

A fantasy pick list from me is almost pointless, because aside from one obscurity it’s all the classics. So in my commentary I try to explain why these retain greatness in a genre flooded with formula and hack. I’m not biased toward any sub-genre. Represented here is mythic fantasy, portal fantasy, political fantasy, pulp fantasy, science fantasy, and coming-of-age fantasy. But none of this is popular fantasy. If you like the Shannara series, the Wheel of Time, the Sword of Truth, the Belgariad, the Kingkiller Chronicle, the tales of Drizzt, well, then this list isn’t for you.

See also my science fiction list.

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1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. 1954-1955. What needs saying? I could go on about Tolkien’s meticulous crafting of Middle Earth, his prehistorical approach to myth and disdain for allegory, his linguistic brilliance, or his ear for the pagan epics. But it’s the long defeat theme more than anything else that sets Middle-Earth apart from feel-good fantasy. As a Catholic Tolkien thought history could only be a long defeat. Christian readers have claimed that Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo are Christ-figures, but they actually show the need for Christ as Tolkien saw it — noble and courageous, but ultimately hopeless against the forces of evil. That’s why Frodo was a failure, unable to resist the Ring when it mattered most. His quest was triumphant because of a fluke, or the intervention of fate made possible by mercy shown to Gollum. Sauron may have been defeated, but The Lord of the Rings is about everyone’s defeat: the suffering and passing of Frodo, the fading of the elves, and the foreordained deterioration of men in the Fourth Age. That’s what the Grey Havens is about, and it gets me every time. Even aside from all of this, on the strength of the narrative alone, The Lord of the Rings is the best story ever told.

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2. The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Stephen R. Donaldson. 1980-1983. Of the three chronicles, the first haven’t aged well and the third are a mixed bag. The second trilogy is the masterpiece and proves that sequels can be really good when authors push themselves. For all the first trilogy’s originality with the character of Thomas Covenant, it depends on a standard contest of muscle — armies fighting armies, with clear lines between good and evil. The second shows Donaldson completely on his own terms in a cross genre of fantasy-horror. I consider the Sunbane to be the most brilliant plot device after the One Ring, and it’s depressing as hell. The Wounded Land may well be the most depressing fantasy novel ever written, as we see the Land we grew to love in the first series poisoned in hideous cycles. The One Tree is even more mind-blowing, and it was an important milestone for me in my teen years. It turns the horror of The Wounded Land inward with self-scrutiny as Linden Avery relives her traumatic childhood over the course of a sea voyage. The quest’s failure at the isle of the One Tree is pure courageous tragedy, leaving Covenant no other option in White Gold Wielder than to surrender to Lord Foul in a desperate gambit so that Linden can heal the Land. This is a rare symphony in fantasy writing.

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3. A Song of Ice and Fire (Vols 1-3), George R.R. Martin. 1996-2000. Lord Lard may have lost his mojo in the recent volumes, but the first three remain the best political fantasy you’ll ever read, and the third in particular, A Storm of Swords, moves like a juggernaut. It’s famous for the Red Wedding, but the entire novel is a roller coaster of brutal twists spread over so many plots that miraculously don’t overburden the narrative. There is Jon’s story in the north, where after patient development over the previous two volumes, everything explodes, with the Others assaulting the Fist of the First Men, the wildlings assaulting the Wall, and Jon going from renegade to lord commander while nearly losing his life on both sides to get there. Dany shows her teeth in east, and I still get chills over her gambit to “give up” Drogon who roasts the slavers of Astapor. By the final pages virtually everyone important on the continent of Westeros is left dead, half-dead, or isolated. A Storm of Swords is the rare 1000-page monster that keeps landing bombshells and killing off characters you hate to love, and it pays off the developments of A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings that are almost just as excellent.

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4. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien. 1977. The tales of the First Age are almost as good as Lord of the Rings and in some ways better. The history resonates on a level that suggests this really is how our world began. The theme is the Fall, which shows how Middle-Earth aligns with the Christian myth without containing it. The elves fall from Valinor when they keep the Silmarilli gems and refuse to help the Valar against Morgoth; this mirrors the fall of humanity from Eden. They fall a second time when they recreate paradise in Middle-Earth by the power of the Three Rings (in Rivendell, Lothlorien, and at the Grey Havens). Men also fall again, when they grow dissatisfied with their island of Numenor, and sail for the Undying Lands to make war on the Valar. In each of the four falls, there is a reach for godhood: men want immortality and elves want to be gods of their own creations. The result is all the tragic tales in The Silmarillion — cycles of hopeless war on the Enemy, destined to be replayed again and again. The battles of Beleriand are epic and I hope to see one or more of them filmed someday, especially Fingolfin’s single combat with Morgoth. His death demoralizes the elves for the rest of the age, as it does to me whenever I read it.

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5. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock. 1963. If you want nihilistic fantasy, you can’t get more devastating than Elric. But his final chapter (in a series of eight volumes) shares a premise with Lord of the Rings that often goes unnoticed. Elric’s purpose in wielding Stormbringer is somewhat like Frodo’s mission to destroy the Ring: both will defeat evil but in the process cause the passing of gifted races (the elves, the Melniboneans) who made amazing things possible on earth. Both create the basis for a new age, in which humanity has more of a fighting chance, without evil entities like Sauron and Arioch. The difference is that Elric’s world has to be destroyed first; the historical age won’t emerge gradually like it does out of Middle-Earth’s Fourth Age. After Elric defeats Chaos (or even if Chaos wins) he must wipe everything out so humanity can start over. Things are so bad that a purging is required — the equivalent of Noah’s flood — meaning that Elric’s world is fated to lose no matter what; it’s just a question of whether or not Chaos will continue dominating in the new age. There are scenes of repulsive horror in Stormbringer that left me poleaxed, like Elric’s wife changing into a huge worm from the neck down. It’s a rare fantasy that raises the stakes high and brings everything down so low without tripping over its ambitions.

6. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe. 1980-1983. Fans pour over this masterpiece like biblical exegetes do the letters of Paul. But really, I would advise not thinking about it so hard, at least not on first reading. Just take the story in. The narrative is immersive, the dialogue (which never flags) rich and organic, and Severian’s journey so phantasmagorical that you won’t want the spell broken by studying as you read. Severian ranks with anti-heroes like Covenant and Elric, a torturer exiled for the crime of showing mercy to a prisoner, and then sent to a city far north to assume the role of a public executioner. It’s a task he takes on willingly, but his ambitions are divided when he allies himself with an insurrectionist, falls in love with a young girl he accidentally resurrected (with an artifact he needs to get rid of but can’t), and wants to make peace with a woman who keeps trying to kill him. His ultimate trial is for nothing less than a new sun to save the planet. Fans keep debating if this is fantasy or science fiction. On the one hand it’s set on our planet (“Urth”) a million years in the future, with guns and spaceships; but few can access the technology, and there are also enchanted relics. The magical elements, the regressed medieval culture, and the mystical nature of Severian’s quest align with fantasy more than science fiction — it’s really “science fantasy” — and spread over four volumes, it’s the best the sub-genre has ever offered.

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7. The Seven Altars of Dusarra, Lawrence Watt-Evans. 1981. Ask fantasy readers if they’ve even heard of The Lords of Dus quartet and I guarantee you’ll get a blank stare. Even in my day it was an obscurity. The second book, The Seven Altars of Dusarra, is the one I read so many times as a teenager it was ridiculous. Garth the Overman has the personality of Conan, lives in a world like that of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser, and wields a sentient bloodthirsty sword that calls to mind Elric’s Stormbringer. Yet none of this feels like pastiche. Garth holds his own like the best of the pulp anti-heroes. He’s sent on a mission to steal whatever lies on the temple altars of seven nasty cults, and he does so with no scruples, relying on hack-and-slash, killing people, regretting it, and calling forth a citywide manhunt. I love the Dusarran pantheon, and the cults have some pretty ghastly rites. The priests of Andhur Regvos blind themselves, those of Sai practice torture and human sacrifice, those of P’hul have hideous skin diseases and enjoy spreading them, etc. On rereading this book in recent years I’d forgotten how much blood Garth spills without a second thought to get what he needs. On the other hand, I remember the strong D&D overtones. Garth’s mission is classic temple robbing, and this is the quintessential novel for old-school D&D players.

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8. The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis. 1956. I’m not a huge Narnia fan let alone enjoy kids books, but I do love The Last Battle. It might seem odd to compare it to Stormbringer (#5) but it is about the world’s destruction, and for a children’s book it certainly doesn’t soft-peddle the apocalyptic horrors. Precious Narnia is destroyed, Aslan’s cute little wayward animals are thrown into the apocalyptic incinerator, and even gentle Queen Susan gets the shaft — she is “no longer a friend of Narnia”, we are told, simply because she enjoys dating boys and having sex. If all of this seems monstrous, that’s much the point. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, apocalypses serve a hyper “justice” that redefines the word. From a dramatic point of view, The Last Battle‘s dark content is its strength, and something never seen in children’s literature on this scale. The Revelation-plotted narrative is a cracking suspense piece, as evil forces keep getting the upper hand against Narnia’s last king. The ape-ass duo (false prophet and anti-Christ) work their repulsive designs from inside a barn, which contains shifting terrors we can barely glimpse. There are no victories here, save Aslan’s at the end, which is glorious though in a very distressing way. Kids have been traumatized by this book and I’m not surprised.