Monday, August 13, 2007

The Totem, by David Morrell

(pb; 1979)

From the back cover:

"Potters Field, Wyoming.

"A small Western town like hundreds of others. Even the incidents that started that midsummer's night seemed routine.

"The dead hitchhiker, victim of a hit-and-run. The coroner's heart attack. The drunk, dead in the culvert, his face destroyed. Slowly the routine began to twist into unexplainable horror. And slowly, under the searchlight rays of the too full moon it walked..."


All horror novels should be this extraordinary. It's terse, bloodcurdling and lean (nary a wasted word in this work), with characters that you actually root for (or curse).

The story's predictable -- up to a point -- but most of the characters, especially Nathan Slaughter (sheriff of Potter's Field), Gordon Dunlap (a once-great reporter who's fallen on hard times, and Slaughter's friend), and Accum (an emotionally detached coroner) make the novel's semi-predictability a moot point. As does the graceful denouement, which, tone-wise, matches the interactions between the aforementioned characters.

As a horror novel, The Totem puts a new spin on certain elements, which could've been cliches -- a haunted mansion, creepy mountains, a long-gone hippie cult that met a grisly end (or did it?), a virulent madness that's threatening to literally rend the townspeople. Morrell's breakneck-paced, spot-on writing kept it fresh; I knew Morrell was an excellent action writer, but I wasn't sure about his horror stuff, prior to reading this.

Now I am -- I can't wait to read his other horror outings.

Meaningful (without being annoyingly so), effective terror work, this: highly recommended for even the pickiest of horror fans.

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