Thursday, April 02, 2009

Books: Gorgantis is ready for his close up, Mr. Whale.

Shambling Towards Hiroshima, Jim Morrow's new novella, opens on Sym Thorley, once great horror film star turned has-been horror con signature factory, contemplating suicide. After slogging through his umpteenth presentation about his golden age in the post-Univeral monster era and his last significant as the giant monster Gorgantis, Thorley is seriously considering tossing himself out his hotel window. Before he goes, however, he begins to write down a memoir of his role in Operation Knickerbocker, a super secret World War II Era project to defeat Japan with a small heard of mountain-sized fire breathing mutant iguanas and his complicity in the dawn of the Atomic Age.

As the war in the Pacific drew to a close, American military leadership began to ponder the blood and treasure cost of invading the home islands of the Japanese empire. The Army had one solution: the A-bomb. The Navy had another: unleash giant, pissed-off, fire-breathing iguanas to stomp Japan into submission. However, the deployment of either of these devices would mean ushering humanity into a new and terrible era. Either we kick off a race to obtain ever larger stockpiles of ever more powerful nuclear weapons or we relinquish our status the dominant species on the planet. Far better, the American high command decides, to simply frighten Japan with a harmless demonstration of the destructive capacity of these weapons, secure their surrender, and never actually let either of the genies out of their bottles.

Problem is that we only had two bombs and the lizards, while ready to go, had only two settings: sedated into a near coma state or uncontrollably savage and destructive. Military researchers hit one the idea of breeding a few man-sized versions of the great beasties and letting them cut loose on a giant scale model of a Japanese city. Unfortunately, shrinking these monsters down had the unintentional consequence of making them gentle as kittens.

So now the Navy had a tiny model city, an approaching curtain time, and no scary monster. What to do?

Call Hollywood, of course.

Pulling in director James Whale (yep, that James Whale), also ran monster actor Thorley, and a handful of real life monster movie magic makers that fans of early horror flicks will recognize, the Navy decides that it will simulate the simulated attack, having a man in a convincing rubber suit trash their model city. The prep for this unique performance, all clashing Dream Factory egos and occasionally Kafka-esque military security details, makes up the bulk of the this slim novel. As an added treat, fans get to follow Marrow's name checking. (Sure, James Whale is a bit obvious, but Morrow also manages to work in nearly forgotten era figures, like William "One Shot" Beaudine.)

Part Hollywood satire, part love letter to 1950s horror flicks, part meditation on the suicidal stupidity of Cold War nuclear brinksmanship, what's most surprising about Shambling Towards Hiroshima is how light and nimble the slim book is. Dexterously gliding over some of the greatest horrors of the 20th Century and the nightmares they inspired, the ultimate theme of Shambling might be how the horror genre's job – if one allows mass cult art a social function – is to trivialize the nightmarish aspects of the real world, turning them into easily consumed treats. Fully aware of this weird trick, Shambling take the madness of the nuclear era and turns it into humorously goofy shaggy dog story.

No comments: