Thursday, June 26, 2014

Darker Than You Think

Jack Williamson
Completed 6/26/2014, Reviewed 6/26/2014
4 stars

I selected this book for the Grand Master, Masterworks, and Fantasia Challenges.  I knew nothing about this book or Jack Williamson.  I had some concern because one of the sub-genre tags is Werewolves.  Call it prejudice, but I only think of werewolves in the context of B-movies and of course the recent vampire/werewolf romance craze.  So I wasn’t expecting too much.

The book begins with a low-budget black and white horror feel.  A reporter meets a mysterious woman at an airport while waiting for a press conference at the arrival of a a professor and his research team’s plane from Asia.  The woman wears a white wolf fur.  None of the reporter’s friends have a good first impression of her.  The wife of the professor is blind and has a seeing-eye dog who doesn’t like the woman either.   When the plane arrives, the woman disappears.  The professor takes the podium and states he has a major announcement sure to shock the world.  He begins a long, drawn out story to lead up to the announcement.  And just before he can state it, he dies of an asthma and heart attack.  

I couldn’t believe the melodrama of this scene.  The foreshadowing was uncomfortably obvious.  The soapy sudden death right before the big announcement was almost laughable.  I thought I was in for 282 pages of sheer torture.  The story continues with Will Barbee, the reporter, making a possible link between April Bell, the mysterious woman and the professor’s death.  They have drinks and dinner complete with clunky dialogue.  April confesses to being a witch.  That night, Barbee has dream about turning into a wolf.  Somewhere around that point, the book grabbed me.

The basic plot is very simple and formulaic.  The characters are two-dimensional.  You see everything coming.  But I found Barbee’s nightly excursions in the transformed state mesmerizing.  It makes the scenes which take place during the day more riveting.  I found myself consuming the book despite feeling like I was in a 50’s black and white creature feature movie.

An interesting part of the story is that Williamson attempts to add some science into the werewolf/witch mythology.  I found it quite fun, although he brings up a lot of science that is now outdated.  For instance, he places the origin of Homo Sapiens in the Gobi Desert rather than in Africa.  He has his characters involved with ancient strict Freudian psychology.  And when he discusses a germ theory, all I could think about was commercials from the 70s for Listerine and Lysol.  But I enjoyed the attempt and quickly found myself willingly suspending disbelief.

One thing I like about early the early SF writers, particularly in their short stories, is their regular use of the twist at the end.  It’s one of the reasons I love Bradbury’s short stories, and of course, “The Twilight Zone.”  “Darker” has a neat little twist at the end.  It’s not a shocker, but it adds another layer of fun to the experience.  

When I began the book, I was sure I was going to give it two out of five stars.  Instead, I give it four stars, not because it’s great literature, but because it’s a fun excursion into the earlier days of SF, Fantasy, and Horror that some of us older folks enjoyed as kids on Saturday nights in front of our gigantic twelve-inch black and white television set.  

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