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August 2006
 
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Creepers, by David Morrell,
CDS Books, 2005, $24.95.

SOME TIME ago (in 2002) I reviewed a couple of the late Richard Laymon's books including Night in the Lonesome October (CD Publications, 2001). I mentioned that what intrigued me about Laymon's work was how he would set up a rather plausible scenario (in this case, a young man who took to walking the streets at night because of a broken heart) and then slowly let the story get darker and weirder.

I'm pretty sure almost everybody has walked a city's streets at night—I mean late at night, during those no-man's-land hours between two and four. It's an interesting time to be out. The most familiar neighborhoods take on a whole different, almost otherwordly air. Now, we don't necessarily go on to do what Laymon's character does, which is prowl through empty houses—or perhaps just a house where the residents are asleep. Not to hurt them, or to steal anything. Just to be there.

But we might have thought about it.

(And let me add the obvious here, that doing so is against the law, and it's just as much an invasion of privacy as it is to enter a private home with more nefarious purposes in mind.)

But it's an interesting conceit and made for a powerful book.

Now something else many of you reading this might have considered—in passing, of course—is the intrigue of an abandoned public building. A hotel. A mall. An office complex. Boarded up, and often protected from intrusion by security patrols because of insurance risks.

Going through a building such as that is like being an archaeologist, although one whose field of study is definitely more contemporary than what we would normally consider with the job.

These people consider themselves urban explorers, or infiltrators. Or, to use a slang term, creepers, which probably arose from how, in criminal parlance, "breaking & entering" can also be referred to as "creeping."

So that's the jump-off point with Morrell's new novel. His band of urban explorers includes four experienced creepers and one journalist who is writing a piece on the experience. Before they enter the abandoned hotel, the leader of the creepers emphasizes their rule of thumb which is that you leave everything the way it was when you got there. You take out your trash. You don't break things. You even pee in a bottle and bring that out with you.

Creeping is a dangerous hobby. Floors can collapse.  Ditto walls and ceilings. There can be, and probably are, noxious molds and who knows what other toxic remnants. And you're breaking the law and could find yourself in jail before the end of the night.

But back to Morrell's novel. Into the building the five go. The first part of the book is a wonderful description of the experience, leavened with strong characterizations and the growing mystery of who exactly the journalist is, since he seems far more capable that your run-of-the-mill pencil pusher. But the pace builds slowly, and perfectly.

Okay, there's a two-page hint of more to come, right at the beginning of the book—you know, along the lines of "Months later, he still would not be able to tolerate being in a room with closed doors"—but that's an author's trick, one that gets used when you know the beginning of the book has to be a little slow to make the payoff work, but you want to make sure people realize they're going to get that payoff.

When things start to go wrong, they begin simply, innocently, with many explanations. But the tension builds, nobody turns out to be quite who we thought they were, and trust me, you're in for the ride of your life.

The book contains a fascinating "Author's Note" at the end, which puts the whole concept into personal perspective for the author. It's as riveting, in its own way, as the story that came before it.

A last thought here before we move on: I wish there'd never been a movie made of Morrell's book First Blood—or at least not the one that was made. I know the book will always exist, and we can simply read it if we don't care for the film, but I'm afraid that too many people will judge Morrell's work by that film, and not read the books. Or they'll love the movie, then read him and be disappointed because his work is so much more thoughtful than that film was.

You do know that, in the book, the character dies at the end of First Blood, right?

Of course, then we run into the thorny issue of Morrell writing a sequel to First Blood and ignoring that fact…all of which is food for another column, perhaps. At the moment, I just want to say that Creepers is a wonderful, spooky, intriguing read.

*     *     *

River Rats, by Caroline Stevermer,
Magic Carpet Books, 2005, $6.95.

Regular readers of this column will already have heard me wax enthusiastically about reissue programs on more than one occasion, though usually it's in reference to some spiffy special addition with all sorts of bells and whistles attached to what is really the point of a book: the story inside those pages. And yes, I do enjoy those fine examples of the bookmaker's art, for their aesthetic value as much as for the story.

But story remains what it's all about, and the packaging—exotic bindings, the plethora of illustrations, notes, introductions, and afterwords—simply isn't as important. Which is why I'm also delighted with plain, affordable mass-market reissues such as the book in hand.

With the vast wealth of books available, it's easy for little treasures to slip through the cracks. I'm familiar with Stevermer's work—both on her own and in collaboration with Patricia Wrede—but River Rats (originally published in 1992) slipped past my radar. And maybe yours, too.

It's set along the Mississippi, in a near future following some undefined global disaster that included a terrible epidemic. At some point before the story, a docked steamboat was being used as an orphanage. When it's abandoned because of the approach of a large storm, four of the charges stay behind, cast off, and start a new life on the polluted waters of the Mississippi. They're joined by a couple more kids, one of whom happens to be an expert in engines.

They call themselves the River Rats and ply a trade up and down the river: hauling freight, delivering mail, and occasionally, performing a concert of rock music that lasts until their batteries lose their charge.

And they have a rule: no passengers.

Of course they break that rule as soon as the book opens (or we wouldn't have a story), with predictably disastrous results.

Fans of Terri Windling's Bordertown series should really enjoy this book. There aren't any elves, or magic, but it has a similar sensibility: fast-paced, youthful, thoughtful, with a delightful spice of rock'n'roll. While Stevermer doesn't explain the reason the world came to be the way it is in River Rats, she has thought out the ramifications, from the hillbilly redneck family that owns one town, to the deserted city infested with a pack of Wild Boys and the secret of the passenger that the River Rats pick up.

This is a novel that really deserves its second chance on the book shelves.

*     *     *

Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.

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