Over the Top and Under the Skin

Originally published on 28 January 2012

Okay, it’s early early early Saturday morning, and I want to get this review off of my computer while I’m still thinking about it. Plus, I have another chapter to post in this experiment of podcasting my third draft.

Among other things I want to review books on this thing, mostly because I like to read, but also because it gives me an ‘excuse’ to read even more. Yes, I take recommendations, but I promise now to be honest with my reviews. And I’ll start by telling you how I felt about The Four Fingers of Death, by Rick Moody.

Honestly, if it hadn’t been given to me as a Reddit Secret Santa gift, I don’t know if I would have read it. I’m not the hugest fan of Rick Moody (or at least, I wasn’t) but that’s just judging by the book of short stories that I read and thought was all-around ‘meh-ish.’ Also, while I grew up watching “Creature Feature” and another similar show on Saturday afternoons, the idea of reading a ‘novelization’ of a ‘remake’ of The Crawling Hand didn’t exactly appeal to me. (On the other hand, I got a kick out of telling my friends that I was reading just that, and watching their faces run through the same list of expressions mine had gone through.) Anyway, the book definitely trashed my expectations. I think once I realized the amount of layering of different meanings and levels of entertainment that this book consists of (which you figure out during the prologue, a framing story about the “author” of this book in 2025 Arizona… but which really hit me when I saw that the character from the framing story had also ‘written’ the “Book Review Guide” at the end) I knew that I was going to be in for a ride.

You know what? I’m going to stop with the quotes for now. Just for now.

The plot review you can get from the back… Manned Mission to Mars has issues, capsule crashes on the way back, an arm starts crawling around the desert. Sounds cheesy. And indeed, in parts, it is. Mr Moody embraced the cheesiness of 60s horror films whole-heartedly. I haven’t seen the original film since around the time I was programming BASIC on my 16K COCO2 computer, so I don’t remember all of the details. But Mr Moody goes out of his way to add tropes from other movies as well… we have a hyperintelligent Chimpanzee, a Mad Scientist, a Horny Teen Couple Being Stalked By Death. It’s all here.

And on top of that, the story that he rewrote doesn’t even start until around page 320 or so. The first part of the book is all about the mission to Mars, in all of its horrifying, ennui-ridden detail. Here is real science-fiction… not lasers and aliens and space opera, but real, speculative fiction about what a planned mission to Mars might actually go through. And here’s where the real horror of this book really starts to, well, crawl under your skin. The characters on the mission are so well drawn that you can feel their good side and their repulsiveness. You can see them creeping towards their fate, slowly and inexorably. You can feel the chill of the planet and the pain of what they’re going through, especially when you (and the characters) realize that they are mostly lost. Even without the ‘remake’ part of the book, the first half functions completely well on its own.

The second part ventures into familiar Rick Moody territory… sexually unsure characters, self-doubt, and loathing among the well-drawn figures of the book. But even so, Mr Moody does a great job of layering what he usually writes on top of an absurd horror story and making that story seem just that more realistic. Yes, it’s pretty unbelievable that an arm could crawl around and start jumping and choking people, unknown Martian infection or not. But the reactions that the characters have to such a thing are real. Painfully real. Plus, Mr Moody steps out of the story occasionally to really dig into what his characters are thinking, both the good and the bad. Here is where the only criticism I have for the book comes into focus… I did think that in a few spots, he took that a little too far, and there were at least three moments where I just wanted him to get the Hell back into the story. But I’m also not sure what I would cut, either. Once I had finished the book I could see how everything played into the whole of  the book.

Rating: 4 of 5. Or maybe 9 of 10.

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