Great novel, played-out premise

As with Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend from earlier in this blog, some story ideas, some tropes, are simply worn out. They’re over-played, over-used, abused, and predictable. As with Legend’s pathogenic undead, Preston and Child’s Relic unleashes a South American terror that will later haunt many films, TV shows, stories, graphic novels, and novels. It’s the disturbed burial site, the ancient curse, the forbidden wisdom of forgotten people all rising up to smack decadent, smug, Western science in the kisser.

I saw the film based off of this novel several years ago. At the time, it reminded me of an episode of the X-Files entitled Teso dos Bichos, a notoriously weak story with a notoriously cheesy moment that is meant to pass for horror. Since then, I’ve seen this storyline trotted out time and again, an inversion of the shamanic benevolence exhibited in the opening moments of The Serpent and the Rainbow. But upon reading Relic, I appreciate more the initial idea than its shallow clones.

As with a lot of horror stories, going at least as far back to 1932’s The Mummy, the anthropologist plays a key role in loosing and binding any unspeakable horror, and it’s no different in Relic. In this case, the actions of a desperate scientist lure an ancient, South American monster to New York City. That the monster will force a fortress-like museum to go into lock-down mode and become a death-trap, that the monster will force a group of well-dressed intellectuals, politicians, and businessmen into the city’s sewers—all just anti-bourgie icing on the cake when we learn what the monster is and how it’s created. (Here’s a hint: The underlying theme seems to be, “Razing mountains in the rainforest might not be such a bad idea.”)

But looking past my known issues with anti-intellectualism in writing, the novel itself gets a number of things right. One interesting element of the novel is the appearance of the protagonist around page 80 or so. Normally that would be a bit of a faux pas, but the nature of Aloysius Pendergast’s job explains why the reader doesn’t see him immediately. As this is also the first in a series, the writers may have taken longer to introduce their protagonist simply because they could. (With each new volume, those first 77 or so pages become a smaller percentage of the whole, yet take on greater meaning as providing not only the inciting incident for the first novel, but the initial inciting incident for the entire series.)

The writers also took great pains to make dialog believable and actionable. By the latter, I mean that the dialog leads to action or to actions being undertaken even if they are not given through description or exposition. That is, when someone calls in the cavalry (so-to-speak) the cavalry comes (or doesn’t take the call seriously in the first place.) Sentiments come through in the dialog; I found hating Director Wright much easier, found his death more amusing, after reading his dismissal of the people who ventured into the basement as “fools” and “lemmings.”

So while I didn’t much care for the anti-intellectualism and the now-played-out South-American-Anthropology-Nightmare trope, I found the original much preferable to the copies. I can see why this idea would’ve been picked up by TV writers–the book was well written.

7 thoughts on “Great novel, played-out premise

  1. I haven’t seen the film version, so I went into this book completely blind and I’m glad I did because I ended up loving all the twists and turns along the way. There definitely were a few parts that played into the cliche of how a police situation would go down in fiction, but even so I was so invested in Margo, Pendergast, and D’ Agosta, that it was easy for me to overlook some of the used up tropes and such since the main characters were written strongly and interestingly.

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    1. I think we’re looking at the origin of a South American Monster premise that was popular in the 1990s. It’s fascinating how that rests atop worn-out tropes only to be itself worn down to a nub some 20 years later. Moral to the story: Keep the story elements fresh, maybe?

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  2. I too enjoyed this read. You pointed out an interesting idea that these stories tend to need a scientist/archaeologist/anthropologist to both open and then close the door to the horror. There’s an interesting parallel here to western thinking.

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  3. Even though the trope is a little played out, you can’t deny that they did a great job with it. It read fresh and new. Honestly I didn’t even notice that it WAS a trope until you mentioned it, haha. You really hate Anti-Intellectualism, don’t you?

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    1. Most scientists are happy to profess their ignorance. The know-it-all scientist (…is called a mathematician?) is really quite rare.

      Engendering mistrust of the intelligentsia is one of the precursors to despotism. It should probably be avoided.

      If you want to make a scientist look silly, then do it through her humanity, as any of us could look silly.

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  4. Great point on the X-Files parallel. I definitely got the same kind of vibe. The revelation of ancient religious superstitions rooted in something highly scientific is certainly played out, but it’s typically not something I have a huge issue with. Here, I just got drowned in the absurdly lengthly scientific process to get at the contrived heart of what all these characters are really dealing with. Again, not entirely something we haven’t seen in lesser episodes of The X-Files.

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