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The Blood Artists
Chuck Hogan
Avon Books, 384 pages

The Blood Artists
Chuck Hogan
Chuck Hogan began writing full-time immediately after college. He had written a short novel in his last semester for class credit for which his professor gave an "A" and the telephone number of his literary agent. In May 1994, 5 years after graduation, his novel, The Standoff, was accepted for publication. Favourite authors include Dashiell Hammett, Albert Camus and John Gardner.

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A review by Chris Donner

Chuck Hogan's The Blood Artists has a double cover -- a front piece quoting the book's first line, followed by the actual cover -- and I find this doubly appropriate. First, it brings to mind the old adage that "You can't tell a book by its cover." This is especially true for The Blood Artists, which upon first glance might look like a cheap, predictable thriller. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Instead, The Blood Artists reminds me of my first read through the hardcover version of Stephen King's The Stand. There is an epic battle within these pages, and anyone who passes the book by simply because of its rather disappointing cover would be making a mistake. Chuck Hogan manages to create a gripping story in which the fate of all humanity hangs -- believably -- in the balance.

Sure, there is blood. And gore. And spittle and phlegm and gangrene -- all the things that make viruses such delightful things to read about. There is also a vivid storyline that drives each incident forward. The individual strands -- be they of DNA or phlegm -- are woven together in such a way that the reader doesn't focus on them, but instead gazes expectantly at the tapestry taking shape. And from the first moment of the story to the last, Hogan doesn't drop a stitch.

So what is the storyline? Doctors Peter Maryk and Stephen Pearse are developing a blood substitute to safeguard Earth from the rage of diseases that threaten it. In their research, they go to Congo, where they discover an unknown disease that resembles smallpox but that mutates rapidly and is much more deadly. Within a matter of days anyone who was infected is dead, except one young girl. At Peter's insistence, the Bureau for Disease Control (BDC) destroys the entire village to eradicate the disease, but not before the humanitarian Pearse rescues the young girl and sends her off into the woods to avoid destruction.

Years later, the disease resurfaces in Plainville, Massachusetts, and it is just as deadly. Since Africa, Peter and Stephen have won a Nobel prize their synthetic blood replacement, but they have also gone their separate ways. The destruction of the village drove a wedge between them, although they both still work for the BDC. They come together again -- sort of -- in the fight to eradicate Plainville (named for the outbreak in Mass.), but they are having trouble even explaining the disease's presence in the United States.

Plainville seems to arise randomly, in relatively small communities, where anything that comes into contact with it is dead within a matter of weeks. The pattern remains frustratingly similar: the BDC becomes aware of an outbreak, the disease is quickly contained, and all possible vectors are destroyed or disinfected. Everything looks good. But then there is another occurrence, somewhere else, with no apparent connection to the previous outbreak. It's almost as if the disease is thinking, or testing itself. And this is exactly what the doctors begin to consider.

The double cover is appropriate in another, somewhat less flattering way. For while Hogan's story is mesmerizing, I frequently found his language distracting -- like a thin veil hanging between me and the story. I often wished I could have pushed this veil of language aside. However, like the false cover, it was bound directly into the story.

My criticism of his language focuses on two points: the point of view shifts and his metaphors. The story begins firmly in first person -- the point of view of Stephen Pearse. But soon it becomes necessary to leave Pearse's point of view, and the book shifts to third person. Third person lasts for most of the story, until there is a sudden shift back to Pearse's point of view toward the end. Finally, in the last few pages, there is a shift to Maryk's point of view.

Done properly, this shifting might have heightened the immediacy of the story. However, Hogan handles these shifts badly, and any benefit they had was far outweighed by the interruption they cause.

As far as the metaphors are concerned, these often act as a kind of speed bump, jarring the reader with an awkward reach toward poetic language that falls far short. What can we do with this sentence, regarding a woman's trip to the gynecologist: "But like a horse returning to the corral, Melanie's reproductive organs knew the way"? To my ear anyway, that's just bad. Then there were the moments of blandness, such as " Her emotions were a china vase shoved to the edge of a high table over a marble floor." Yeah... and?

So while Hogan has clear skill as a storyteller, I was disappointed in his skill as a wordsmith. Still, it is a paperback. You can bend that false cover back and tuck it out of the way, and there really is quite a story here. I would recommend it, despite my criticisms. After you've read it, you'll remember it for a long time -- even if you won't be quoting it word for word.

Copyright © 1999 by Chris Donner

Chris Donner is a freelance writer and magazine editor living in Manhattan and working in Connecticut. He will read almost anything once, as it makes the train ride go faster. He is currently writing a screenplay, a novel, several short stories, a collection of poems, and a letter to his mother. The letter will probably be done first.

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