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The Vanishing / Bentley Little

thjpegvanish.jpgSignet / August 2007
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

In The Vanishing, Bentley Little’s eighteenth book, the prolific author offers up a tasty tale of murderous millionaires, nightmarish zoological hybrids, and his usual hints of Native American folklore. When wealthy businessmen from New York to LA suddenly go on violent rampages slaughtering their families, reporter Brian Howells is hot on the story. But when the story turns personal and the journalist’s own estranged father starts sending unsettling letters written in mysterious hieroglyphics and stained with bloody fingerprints to his mother, Brian is thrust into an escalating early Americana nightmare:

Yes, Brian thought. That was exactly what the shaky letters looked like, and he recalled the previous message, with its random vowels and consonants that seemed to be trying to break through the straightjacket of the alien language. It was as if his dad were gradually regaining his faculties, coming up from the bottom of some mental well and slowly remembering life in the real world.

Brian eventually meets up with social worker Carrie Daniels, who in a parallel story arc has discovered a network of hideously deformed children and their frightened mothers, all seemingly connected to the larger story unfolding around them. Brian and Carrie team up in the third act, a decidedly Mulder/Scully pairing that works well enough.

Little has always had a knack for creating realistic, average Joe kinds of male protagonists; in The Vanishing, it’s his heroine who stands out. Smart and resourceful, Carrie is a working-class Josephine fraught with Little’s patent insecurities, the kind of gal who has to go out and buy new underwear for a date. It’s always a breath of fresh air to see a character act intelligently in a work of horror, as too many of the genre’s terrors (implausible enough in their own right) often rely on the characters’ innate stupidity. But Little fashions Carrie as a refreshingly quick-witted and capable heroine as demonstrated in a key scene in which she makes a horrifying discovery while visiting the home of a wealthy suitor and purposefully cuts off her own 911 call to enhance the police’s impression of her imminent danger.

With hints of homage to everything from Stephen King’s Pet Semetary and the monsters-mounting-humans mating chiller Humanoids from the Deep to Sasquatch folklore and Day of the Triffids-like botanical horror, Little runs characteristically afoul of over-ambition in concept, yet he’s somehow able to keep his narrative from veering all over the map. Reading a Little novel is like watching an attention-deficit cannibal who overstuffs his cauldron with too many body parts, never really cooking anything all the way through yet crafting something edible nonetheless.

Like in his best works, the author also gives readers an authentic ambiance of historical fiction here with some California gold country folklore and a nifty Lewis & Clark tie-in that works surprisingly well. Likewise, the insertion of perennial favorite recurring character Phillip Emmons into the action, appearing here as an armchair detective version of The Night Stalker’s Carl Kolchak, is a welcome highlight and a clever, ongoing wink to longtime fans.

Somewhere in the midst of the bloody mayhem, one of the peripheral characters proclaims: “It’s like being in a goddamn science fiction movie”. And he’s right. Little’s books have always had the comfortable predictability of a cheesy Sci-Fi Channel movie – the man-in-a-rubber-monster-suit kind that’s entertaining enough even when one glimpses a boom mike in the corner of an action shot. Here, that old Chiller Theatre influence is evident from the lurid monsters to the laugh-out-loud, expletive-ridden nursery rhymes that keep them at bay. The ending, in particular, lends itself to this idea and one can almost see Casper Van Dien or Antonio Sabato, Jr. leading the band of mercenaries down the yellow brick road into Bigfoot land.

Little has elevated envelope pushing to an art form with passages of graphic sex and violence that are downright macabre in parts, revolting in others. It’s an uncomfortable blend of horror and erotica that often kicks you in the teeth. It’s often in this simultaneously titillating and nauseating mix of sex and violence that fans are either made or run screaming from the room, and The Vanishing will not disappoint in this aspect with its graphic depictions of creature-to-human connubiality and urine as facial treatments. Little should seriously consider coining the term “creature porn”. It’s almost a shame that such a solid writer seemingly sets out to appall because that shock value comes at a price, and the author’s brilliant underlying social themes (here a cautionary parable of environmental rape and the revenge of conservationism) get overshadowed in the grandeur of the titillation.

With the comforting nostalgia of a long-lost Saturday afternoon creature feature, The Vanishing will ably entertain despite its sometimes predictable matinee-like atrocities and Sci-Fi Channel silliness.

Purchase Bentley Little's The Vanishing

Posted on Sunday, September 16, 2007 at 01:30PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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