Gerald Manley Hopkins late 1880’s poem, “Carrion Comfort,” begins this way ::
Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
This definitive call of hope and perseverance forms the basis for Dan Simmons’ epic horror saga of the same name.
When I say epic, I mean it. On a host of levels. Yes, the book is long, clocking in at nearly 650 pages in my version (with some printings topping 800 pages), but it is the concepts behind the book and reach of the story that truly makes it epic.
The publisher’s book description sums it up this way ::
THE PAST… Caught behind the lines of Hitler’s Final Solution, Saul Laski is one of the multitudes destined to die in the notorious Chelmno extermination camp. Until he rises to meet his fate and finds himself face to face with an evil far older, and far greater, than the Nazi’s themselves…
THE PRESENT… Compelled by the encounter to survive at all costs, so begins a journey that for Saul will span decades and cross continents, plunging into the darkest corners of 20th century history to reveal a secret society of beings who may often exist behind the world’s most horrible and violent events. Killing from a distance, and by darkly manipulative proxy, they are people with the psychic ability to ‘use’ humans: read their minds, subjugate them to their wills, experience through their senses, feed off their emotions, force them to acts of unspeakable aggression. Each year, three of the most powerful of this hidden order meet to discuss their ongoing campaign of induced bloodshed and deliberate destruction. But this reunion, something will go terribly wrong. Saul’s quest is about to reach its elusive object, drawing hunter and hunted alike into a struggle that will plumb the depths of mankind’s attraction to violence, and determine the future of the world itself…
Ummmm yeah… It’s a large, far-reaching concept that manifests itself in a great big, sprawling horror masterwork that spans time, distance and humanity.
True, “Carrion Comfort” is big and there’s no question that some will find it a challenge, but it also crafts what only a select few genre books manage to: a compelling statement about not only man’s inhumanity to man, but also the humanity that bonds us all together across all barriers and labels. That’s an extremely tough thing to do, but “Carrion Comfort” delivers with grace.
In the book, Simmons reinvents the vampire concept, breathing new life and vigor into it and consequently building new chills in the process. This is NOT your typical vampire fare and PRAISE STOKER that it isn’t. The book explores a powerful psychic vampirism rather than the standard blood-on-the-neck variety and the psychological bent that this reinvention brings to the book is a revelation. The vampires of “Carrion Comfort” still view humanity as mere “tools” for their use, but the concept of mind rape and control moves this use beyond a physical need, easily held at bay with garlic and the cross into something far more sinister than mere hunger and more terrifying than animal instinct. Humans are still disposable, but it comes to life in a far more callous and degrading way here to great effect.
With “Carrion Comfort,” to get into the specifics of plot in a review like this beyond the tease I have included above is fruitless; a bit like attempting to stuff a full loaf of bread into a shot glass. BUT, rest assured, it’s a broad and varied journey that the book takes readers on, replete with interesting tableaus and terrifyingly imaginative setups and situations. Some of these are truly indelible images, unforgettably innovative and disturbing set-pieces of modern horror that left me shaking my head, grinning ear-to-ear.
“Carrion Comfort” is also a masterwork of style. As I mentioned in my review of another Simmons’ classic, “Summer of Night,” the author has an incredible way with tactile detail. We feel the bone-crunching, neck-snapping, warm blood of violence, the desert breezes, cold winter bluster and sweaty torrents of myriad locations, and a range of emotions from the gentle touches of budding love to the horrible invasion of the mind rape and loss of will inherent in the vampires’ attack — all with a brutal sense of immediacy. Simmons has a touch both nuanced and sinewy that is very satisfying for this aging English major.
If ANY criticism could be leveled at the work, it is that some feel it could use a good edit. Fair enough… Perhaps. I certainly wouldn’t want to lose what works so well about the book.
I’ll wrap this review with some comments from luminaries infinitely more talented than I ::
“’Carrion Comfort’ is one of the three greatest horror novels of the 20th century. Simple as that.” — Stephen King
“Epic in scale and scope but intimately disturbing, ‘Carrion Comfort’ spans the ages to rewrite history and tug at the very fabric of reality. A nightmarish chronicle of predator and prey that will shatter your world view forever. A true classic.” — Guillermo del Toro
“‘Carrion Comfort’ is one of the scariest books ever written. Whenever I get the question asked Who’s your favorite author? my answer is always Dan Simmons.” — James Rollins
Annnd… The awards ::
Bram Stoker Award, The Locus Poll Award for Best Horror Novel, The World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, and The August Derleth Award for Best Novel
“Carrion Comfort” is NOT to be missed if you are looking for a weighty read with some true chills, a real journey.
RATING ………………. 4.5 STARS