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CARRION COMFORT is a huge book; it's almost 900 pages in paperback. And for under $10, the paperback version offers a massive amount of reading material for the money. Unfortunately, while well written, the story itself is not very good.
CARRION COMFORT is based on a much shorter story (a novella) that was published years before the novel. Most of the novella is incorporated in the beginning of the novel, and if you've already read the novella, the parts where it's been cut and spliced in show. The novella, despite being a long story, still had a leanness about it, and a relentless, almost breathless pace, that the novel lacks. It hurts to see that champion shorter work cannibalized for the novel.
In a nutshell, as the saying goes, CARRION COMFORT is about a small group of people who have an Ability, where they can possess someone mentally and Use them to do their bidding. They also use their Ability to Feed; somehow prolonging their lives by mentally drawing sustenance from people. The Ability's origin is not explained; it is simply there. Likewise, the aspect of Feeding on people is unclear; what exactly is done and what is gained from people to extend the lives of those with the Ability.
The novella introduced three people with the Ability: Nina Drayton, Mellanie Fuller, and Willie Borden. Nina and Mellanie had been born in the deep south before the Civil War and knew each other then. The two of them had met Willie much later, in Germany in the 1930s. They formed a small group who amused themselves and each other learning to feed on and use people; clumsily at first, then with increasing skill. The story starts in earnest in (when the novella was written) contemporary America of 1980.
Melanie has tired of everything associated with the Ability, including Feeding, and wishes to stop doing it; she makes it clear to the other two members. That does not sit well with them, and Nina decides to take matters into her own hands. First she kills Willie (or so it seems) by using one of his cats' paws to put a bomb on the plane he takes to fly back home. Mellanie then eventually kills Nina (or so it seems) in a fight to the death. All of that was in the novella, and it made for a clear and lean story.
The novel then moves from here in many different directions, telling the story from many different points of view. Melanie attempts to start a new life in another city after killing Nina, and she uses many people to cover her tracks, killing them frequently just to get rid of them, like making a driver who stopped to give her a ride commit suicide by driving on the expressway with his eyes closed. However, her plans are forced into overdrive when she gets a telephone call from beyond the grave from Nina. Now she flees again, this time trying to find a safe place where she can figure out how Nina could be alive.
In doing so she takes permanent control of dozens of people, from bums and the homeless to doctors and nurses. She kills children to get their parents, murders the elderly to get their savings as working capital, and uses a homicidal young man to slay people who threaten her in her new neighborhood. However, she also becomes the target of yet another adversary; well armed, shadowy, and ubiquitous, and with seemingly inexhaustible resources to commit to killing her.
Meanwhile, while Melanie is looking for Nina, others are looking for Willie. Who might they be? Saul, an elderly Jewish psychiatrist, who just happened to be a concentration camp prisoner in the camp where Willie (then an SS officer) was stationed during World War II. Saul gets help from the Israeli embassy and private investigators to find out where Willie is.
Then others with the Ability are introduced. They are part of an elite power structure with their own rules, and they meet every year at an island one of them owns. There they play games where they Use kidnapped people; one of the games is like hide-and-seek with death as the penalty for being caught, and another is chess with human players who die gruesomely when they are captured.
Things get more and more complicated, as there are power struggles between those with the Ability; while they kill ordinary people, they try to kill each other. In turn, Saul and his people are pursued by agents from those with the Ability, while agents of the U.S. Government pursue both parties. There are also people fighting over Willie's estate, and there are people investigating Nina's death. When Willie later appears, additional subplots are created, like his inclusion as a new member in the island group and its games. Willie, however, has plans of killing off all the group's members who do not agree to his vision of the future; those with the Ability should play with the worlds' armies and nuclear stockpiles to see who will win the Earth.
All of this, and much, much more, occurs against a constant backdrop of multiple murder, possession, rape, kidnapping, sodomy, espionage, drugs, paranoia, revenge, betrayal, duplicity, blackmail, extortion, fraud, grand theft, and, as they say, anything else you can shake a stick at.
Unfortunately, having all of this does not make a fine novel. Too much of everything, including too many characters with too many points of view, make the story unnecessarily complicated, and make for very shallow character development. That's extremely surprising, considering you spend a lot of time inside the mind of one of these people, Melanie, with the Ability. Despite that, all these people are from the same mold. To a person they are amoral, paranoid, contemptuous of humanity, and absolutely without a single redeeming feature. As if their low view of humanity wasn't enough, Melanie is also a racist, who views African-Americans as little more than animals, while Willie still sympathizes with the Führer's view of Jews.
Finally, the story's end is weak. There is neither a clear resolution of Nina's fate, whether she's really alive or not, nor the fate of the remaining people with the Ability. Melanie escapes to another part of the world to bide her time, but it's not clear if she'll live out her days tranquilly, or if she'll throw the world into the fire in one last, gigantic Feeding.
While CARRION COMFORT is a massive read, and you'll undoubtedly find parts of it interesting and entertaining, it's a long tale where the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
This review copyright 2001 E.C.McMullen Jr.