Fans of Dan Simmons’ The Terror and Song of Kali may well be tempted to pick up his Carrion Comfort – it’s an interesting spin on the vampire mythos that starts out promisingly, but fails to live up to its potential.
If you’ve ever read the paper or turned on the news and wondered about those oddball crimes that seem to happen from out of the blue, with no rhyme or reason – well, it turns out there is a reason. Certain people out there have a psychic power that lets them manipulate others and bend them to their will. This can range from inducing a person to commit murder, to forcing a woman to debase herself sexually, to things far worse.
And when those with this power fight among themselves, ordinary people get caught in the crossfire. This becomes readily apparent when psychic Melanie has a falling out with two of her old comrades, Nina and Willi. For years this trio has been using their powers on ordinary people (in the book’s opening pages we learn of Nina’s role in the murder of John Lennon). But now they’ve turned against each other, resulting in a number of murders and unexplained deaths that rattle a small Southern town. Natalie, the daughter of one of the victims, teams up with local sheriff Bobby Gentry and psychiatrist Saul Laski to find out what’s going on. Laski, it turns out, has a great deal of experience with what he calls “psychic vampires”, having had a memorable encounter with one when he was a prisoner at Chelmno death camp.
Carrion Comfort starts strongly, and has an interesting premise not unlike that of Song of Kali – a reason for the unreasonable violence that so often happens in our world. Unfortunately, the story soon tries to cover too broad a canvas – in addition to all the characters mentioned above, we have a loathsome Hollywood producer and his assistant, a shadowy cabal of CIA types (none of whom are characterized well), and numerous others. The action zips from South Carolina to Philadelphia, then to Germany and Israel and back to Hollywood, with plenty of flashbacks thrown in. Add in confusing action scenes, unreliable narration, constantly shifting points of view that make it difficult to focus on particular characters, and time-staggered storytelling, and the book becomes a slog, then a chore.
Which is a shame, because I’ve read and admired (if not always enjoyed – you can’t really enjoy Song of Kali) several of Simmons’ other works. In the lengthy foreword, he makes it clear how proud he is of the novel. But it simply can’t compare to his more focused works.