Well, after enjoying Gary Brandner’s “Death Walkers” a few weeks ago, I decided to look online for any other books by him and ended up buying a second-hand copy of his 1986 novel “Carrion” (mostly thanks to the wonderfully melodramatic title and gruesome cover art). And, since I haven’t read a 1980s horror novel in a while, I thought that I’d take a look at it.
So, let’s take a look at “Carrion”. I should warn you that this review may contain some SPOILERS.
I read the 1987 Arrow (UK) paperback edition of “Carrion”, but eventually decided against including a scan of the cover art, since I worried that – in the unlikely event that any non-horror fans are reading this – it would be considered “too gruesome”. For reference, it’s a dramatic “realistic” close-up painting of a bloodied zombie standing behind a broken window and screaming (which also makes very effective use of a green/red colour scheme too). Seriously, I love the fact that horror novels actually looked like horror novels during the 1980s 🙂 .
The novel begins in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles, with a man called McAllister Fain who makes a living doing phony tarot readings. After a profitable day’s work, his girlfriend Jillian Pappas visits him and points out that she’s seen his recent “master of the occult” advert in one of the local tabloids. They have dinner and talk for a while. It is an ordinary evening like any other.
Meanwhile, a rich old man called Eliot Kruger is mourning his younger wife Leanne. Being interested in cryogenics, Eliot had bought a cryonic chamber for himself, but now Leanne lies preserved inside it after dying from a blood clot. One of the servants brings him a local paper and points out Fain’s advert. Racked with grief and with nothing to lose, Eliot summons Fain and offers him tens of thousands of dollars if he can attempt to bring Leanne back from the dead.
Despite misgivings from both Jillian and Kruger’s son, Fain accepts the offer – reasoning that he can just put on a good show for the old man and still get the money anyway. But, since it has to look convincing, he decides to do a bit of research and eventually finds a Voodoo priest called Le Docteur who, to Fain’s surprise, senses some supernatural power in him. Le Docteur tells Fain that – because of this – he is obliged to teach him how to raise the dead, but warns him against actually doing it.
The next day, Fain wakes up with little memory of what Le Docteur taught him. His apartment is filled with strange candles and powders. So, he decides to use them as props for his “performance” later that day. And he makes a really good show of it, using every magic trick in his repertoire to make it look dramatic. Then, some kind of instinct takes over and he recites an ancient incantation. Leanne returns to life. News of this “miracle” begins to spread and Fain finds that he has become famous…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, like with Brandner’s “Death Walkers”, it’s also a rather innovative take on the zombie genre 🙂 And, although this novel is slightly more of a slow burn than you’d expect from a 1980s horror novel, it is a fairly compelling tale of the macabre 🙂
So, I should probably start by talking about the novel’s horror elements. Despite the gruesome cover art, there is relatively little gory horror here. Instead, this novel relies more on a mixture of occult horror, psychological horror, social horror, sexual horror, fame-based horror, death/decay-based horror, character-based horror etc… in order to slowly build up an ominous sense of inevitable doom and dread.
Unlike the traditional horror movie zombies, the undead here are a lot creepier than you’d expect. Instead of mindless shambling monsters, the returned dead are initially just ordinary people who slowly become more evil and more afraid of light as their bodies gradually decay and their desire for revenge against their resurrector grows stronger. This is handled really well here, with the zombies’ gradual decline affecting loved ones who were initially overjoyed to see them return and also mirroring changes in Fain’s personality too.
As I said earlier, this novel is a bit of a slow burn, and this is mostly because it allows this element of the story to be used in the most effective way possible 🙂 Not only are the occasional scenes of horror in the early-mid parts of the novel made even more dramatic in contrast to the scenes of ordinary life, but the slower progression of the story also allows the horror of the story’s slowly-changing undead to sink in a lot more deeply than it would do in a faster-paced novel.
Like with Brandner’s “Death Walkers”, this novel also has a humourous and satirical edge to it too. Although some of this humour probably seems a bit cheesy or dated these days, one of the most compelling parts of the novel is watching Fain become more and more famous. This not only allows for a lot of satire of both the media and of fame (in a way vaguely reminiscent of something like Chuck Palahniuk’s 1999 novel “Survivor“), but it also shows the corrosive effect that it has on Fain as he becomes richer and more egotistical. Likewise, the scenes involving a scandal about Fain’s powers are not only even more chilling in this controversy-obsessed age, but also sometimes mirror traditional zombie movies (where angry mobs of outraged people try to get Fain) too.
In terms of the characters, they’re mostly fairly well-written. Fain gets the bulk of the novel’s characterisation and is an amusingly rogueish anti-hero who slowly becomes more of a tragic figure as the novel progresses. He comes across as a fairly realistic and complicated character, which really helps to keep the novel compelling. Likewise, several of the background characters also seem like fairly realistic people with motivations and personalities too. However, a few of the background characters will probably seem at least mildly dated and/or stereotypical by modern standards.
In terms of the writing, this novel is reasonably good. For the most part, this novel’s third-person narration is written in a relatively informal and “matter of fact” style which is very readable and keeps things moving at a reasonable pace too (which also helps to counteract the relatively slow plot progression). Brandner also has a fairly distinctive writing style, which also helps to give the story humour and personality too. In short, if you’ve read other 1980s horror novels, then you’ll probably enjoy the writing in this novel 🙂
As for length and pacing, this novel is really good. At an efficient 265 pages in length, this novel never feels bloated. Likewise, this novel also gradually builds up suspense and drama in such a way that the later parts of the story feel about ten times more dramatic than they would do in a faster-paced novel (even if at least one plot twist seems to almost come out of nowhere). Not only that, although the story progresses more slowly than you might expect, both the reasonably “matter of fact” writing style and numerous carefully-placed moments of drama, humour or horror help to keep the “slow” early-middle parts of the story compelling, whilst also ensuring that they move at a decent pace too.
In terms of how this thirty-four year old novel has aged, it both has and hasn’t aged well. On the one hand, the novel’s horror elements are still creepy, the story is still compelling and the novel’s themes/satire are also fairly timeless too. On the other hand, the general “atmosphere” of the novel often feels more like the 1960s/70s than the 1980s and several parts of this novel would probably also be considered “politically incorrect” these days too.
All in all, this was a fairly enjoyable retro horror novel 🙂 Yes, the story is more of a slow burn than you might expect, but I really enjoyed the characters, the setting, the chillingly inventive version of the zombie genre and the fact that this novel doesn’t take itself 100% seriously. And, although I slightly preferred Brandner’s “Death Walkers” to this novel, it’s still really cool to see another interestingly different zombie novel by this author 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would probably get a four.