Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Totem

The Totem is one of those horror novels considered to be iconic. I read it way, way back in the 1980s, and most of the details had fled my mind, so I thought it was time to give it a re-read. It is considered by its author David Morrell, to be his one out and out horror novel, and appears in Horror: The 100 Best Books. The version I read is a relatively new one. Apparently, when the book was published back in the 70s, the publisher convinced Morrell to cut it severely, making it, in the author’s words, “twice as fast, half as long.” The revision was done for the late Donald Grant’s company in the early 90s.

Nathaniel Slaughter is the police chief of a small town called Potter’s Field (we’re getting into Pilgrim’s Progress territory here) in the American West. Slaughter had been a big city cop who fled to what he hoped would be a quieter, saner existence. This has worked out pretty well, but now animals and people are turning up missing, and there have been strange attacks by an unknown animal. Before it’s over, Chief Slaughter will probably wish he’d stayed in Detroit.

This is more-or-less a werewolf novel, although the transformation is accomplished by a rabies-like virus rather than some supernatural means. Slaughter is a likeable character, and the reader finds himself rooting for him, especially against the stereotypically sleazy mayor. Morrell, as always, has a gift for words.

But I can’t help feeling his long-ago editor may have gotten it right. This is a very deliberately paced novel, and it suffers in many places with the reader moving ahead of the protagonists in figuring out what’s going on. It’s a long road to the climax, and when you finally get there, you feel it is over too soon, considering how long it took to get there. There is a point where all the secrets have been revealed, and you’re ready for the big finish, but the book still meanders along a little bit first.

It’s still not a bad book, Morrell is too talented for that. I just don’t think this version deserves a place on a list of the 100 best books in horror. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to re-read the original version one day to compare the two.

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