Review: John Shirley, Crawlers (sf/horror novel)

Alan P. Scott - Rants - Reviews

shiny goo

I've got a great book for you, if you like full-bore horror a la Stephen King in his early days, before he got all literary on us. Plus it's by a Pacific Northwestern author, more or less. Plus (full disclosure!), an old buddy of mine who's now an editor at Del Rey worked on the book and shows up in the acknowledgements - not that that changes my opinion.

John Shirley's Crawlers is a science-fictional horror novel, with a take on some new technology that's not always very likely, perhaps, but always on the scary edge of plausibility. It starts out something like The Stand, with a containment failure in a secret military lab deep underground, but this weapon this time isn't biological. It just uses biology... for parts. Chimeras, part animal and part device - mismatched limbs stitched together by chromed joints, bending in impossible ways, crawling like insects or lizards all over the lab, unified by a cold intelligence... and breaking out.

Shirley is at the top of his game here. His prose has great dynamic range, from the delicate frisson of unseen terror to an unflinching full-throttle onslaught of gore. I found myself thoroughly hooked after about page 5, when one guy left hiding in a corner of the lab that spawned these things sees the flayed skull of his buddy pop up over his makeshift barricade, moist brown eyes still in their orbits but now... repurposed... as targeting sensors; the skull rotates smoothly on its shiny metal stalk and >snicks< into place with a sound Shirley makes you hear.

Crawlers is a very visual, cinematic book in general, in fact. Two different people I told about it were reminded of a movie about biomechanical revenants on a derelict ship (which turns out to be Virus, a mediocre sf/horror film starring Jamie Lee Curtis, William Baldwin and Donald Sutherland), but this book bears little relation to that film - Shirley has gone in a whole new direction from that one creepy image.

It hearkens back to Invasion of the Body Snatchers too, or possibly parts of The Stepford Wives; the crawlers can imitate humans to an extent, but there's always something a little bit off about their performance. Sometimes they're off more than a little bit, and these scenes of quiet horror are the ones that really resonate with me.

One scene that stuck with me starts with a 1940s-era Plymouth all tricked out and covered in Christmas lights, in front of a house with no lights - a very human image that Shirley could easily have seen somewhere himself. Then, though, just down the street, the crawlers have strung houses with Christmas lights too - it's what people do - only their lights are hung like the webs of spiders dosed with LSD, stretching from house to house in crazy, drunken loops that ignore both property lines and traditional notions of symmetry.

There are other images just as compelling - Shirley repeatedly captures that edge of wrongness, and he also portrays accurately how willing people are to ignore and deny the wrongness right in front of them until it's too late to escape.

This is not a book for the weak of heart, or stomach. It does all the things you want a horror novel to do, and does 'em well. I know, I'm gushing, but I haven't gotten this delicious creepy feeling from a horror novel in quite awhile - I really couldn't put it down, and I've been recommending it all over the place.

Now I get to try to sleep without dreaming of these things...

* * *

Shirley, John. Crawlers. Ballantine/Del Rey trade paperback, 2003. ISBN 0-345-44652-6, US$14.95.

©2003 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.

Last updated December 10, 2003.

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