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CRAWLERS
This isn't exactly a review. I am John Shirley's literary agent so, theoretically, there's a conflict of interest. (Of course, you read reviews that are just as "conflicted" one way or another all the time -- the reviewers just don't mention it.) I confess to that venial sin, but yield to a higher morality of sorts -- not telling you about Crawlers would be a deadly sin --

By Paula Guran

CRAWLERS
John Shirley
Del Rey / 400 p / $14.95
ISBN 0345446526
June 2003

John Shirley has never conformed to genre rules. His work is often literally indefinable. Nor does he write in an always-identifiable groove. He writes in his own original and singular zone. In the publishing world, that translates to "uncommercial" -- a word that's usually an epitaph rather than an adjective.

So, when I say that with Crawlers John Shirley has written the most commercial novel of his career (excepting some written under pseudonyms), that might be like saying the Pope is pregnant or that Shirley's sold-out and produced pap. It's neither. Crawlers is a book that is accessible and entertaining to a broad audience (more commercial) while remaining intelligent and retaining more than surface meaning (as he's always done).

Crawlers' basic premise is a venerable science fictional horror theme: We've created a monster we can't control. The monster soon outdistances its creators. We are doomed -- unless a small band of non-heroes can heroically thwart the monster.

CoverJohn Shirley's approach to this theme in Crawlers is comparable to that of Stephen King. (There's a sentence some Shirleyfans thought they'd never see.) Elizabeth Hand once wrote King "exploited the symbolic power of everything we fear most -- that is, everything we do wrong -- forcing us to gaze at ourselves through a long shadowy tunnel. The secret of King's success is not that he writes so well about monsters and ghosts, but that he writes so persuasively about us."

But...

Shirley is still Shirley. King always connected with the Middle American Zeitgeist: small towns, regular folks, classic rock. Shirley has always been plugged into the current or even the stream slightly beyond the "now": New York/San Francisco/LA/Places You Don't Want to Find, edgy types, punk.

One of Crawlers' middle-aged protagonists notes, at the novel's explanatory moment, that we all have surrendered some of our own lives to our technology, we all, in fact, have surrendered too much. King would have used that character (and similar ones) to carry the plot and present the book's primary point of view. Not Shirley. His highly believable adult characters play their parts, but it's the adolescent protags -- the gear-laden, PDA-toting, IMing, cellphoning, downloading, burning, technology-native kids -- who are the heart and true heroes of his novel. Horror must evolve to remain horror and the resonance of Crawlers is 21st century while King's work, however admirable, belongs to the 20th.

The adult inhabitants of the northern California town of Quiebra are typically damaged. Everyone is flawed. Relationships are cracked. Life is full of rifts and chasms. The kids are just trying to grow up -- whatever that means. Teen-aged Adair recognizes that things come apart and come together again -- but that things have to come apart again, too. She likes a new boy in town, Waylon, who is way into UFOs, shadow government, conspiracies, and CIA plots, dude. They and their friends are a heartbreakingly real mix of kindness and cruelty, anticipation and resignation, cockiness and unsureness. For most kids, even those from "good" families, their sense of what is needed to grow up healthy comes from "sitcoms and shows like Boston Public and TV movies and HBO specials and all that shit..." as much or more than from their parents. After a government satellite streaks through the night sky and crashes through an old dock in Suisan Bay, things start getting weird in Quiebra.

There's something wrong with a growing number of the adults: they act like automatons. In fact, there's something "off" about all of Quiebra. Soldiers are running over cats "accidentally." Home computers are stolen or just torn apart with parts stolen. The electronics class at the high school is ransacked. People's cars are stripped. Everyone is building strange little satellite dishes and attaching them to their roofs. Not all the adults are affected. Adair's Aunt Lacey -- a newspaper columnist who has left her job because the paper could not risk some truthful, but damaging, revelations she had written -- isn't. Neither is Bert Clayborn, a neo-transcendentalist sometime-high schoolteacher and writing instructor at the local college. Both are rational, thinking people but when Lacey discovers odd devices being delivered to town mailboxes, she knows the strangeness is more than paranoia. She turns to Adair and Waylon who have pieced together other parts of the dangerous puzzle. But they dare not speak out yet.

Vinnie "Vinegar" Munson, sees things clearly, too, not that anyone would listen to him. Vinnie wanders the streets talking to himself and seeing the world in a way some might term daft. ("Once you started thinking of roadkill it was hard to stop. He hated thinking of roadkill.") Vinnie knows better than to tell anyone about the squirrel with eyes that extend from their sockets on thin metal stalks and with blue sparks in its over-large mouth; or the blue jay with a head that rotates on its neck all the way around, unscrewing, till a little silvery worm comes out from the opening; or the mid-sized terrier swinging through the trees like a monkey. When he sees the local bank methodically robbed at one in the morning by its employees and other upstanding citizens, he does speak up. But no one pays him any attention. Things get stranger -- kids disappear and their parents are not concerned, the teachers no longer show up for school, the cops give the kids Jack Daniels, marijuana, and tranquilizers and encourage them to party. All those homemade antennas are pointing in one direction, and none of them are aimed at the sky.

Meanwhile, Air Force Major Henri Stanner (who we first meet in the damned scary prologue) has shown up to vet the possibility of collateral damage from "the accident." He's there to protect the townsfolk, but his governmental assumption that lying is the best way to do it may prove fatal. If something really has escaped in Quiebra -- something that can't be contained, something with the imperative to experiment and find new ways to proliferate, something that either "converts" humans or uses them for spare parts -- then destroying the town and everyone in it may be the only way to save the rest of the world...and cover-up a secret Pentagon experiment gone far out of control.

And so Crawlers goes -- following the "standard" genre path but always impelled by that element, that essence, that puts it slightly in front of the pack and makes it all new.

By the time the final standoff comes the reader will be hard put to deny that the world is truly on the brink of disaster or that this particular techno-nightmare doesn't already exist. King himself wrote, in Danse Macabre, that "the primary duty of literature" is "to tell us the truth about ourselves by telling us lies about people who never existed." Shirley tells us the truth about ourselves and our world, in fact, we get the feeling he's not always lying.

Meaningful, imaginative, and creepy, Crawlers is one novel you definitely should not miss. -- Cemetery Dance #45)

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Copyright © 2003 by Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.