Sunday, November 22, 2015

Bought for the Cover and the Cover Alone Book Club Presents :: Peter Tonkin's Killer (1978)

Okay, Boils and Ghouls, while the premise of an Orca bred to enormous size, trained and weaponized by the U.S. Navy to destabilize Vietnamese ports that escapes from its training facility when betrayed by its masters, who winds up terrorizing a group of arctic plankton researchers stranded on a floating piece of ice sounds too good to be true, it does exist. However, after a smashing opening prologue introducing us to our Rambo-Whale, the next 100 pages or so is a bit of a slog of character embellishing of those it will, hopefully, eventually eat. At least that's why I bought the book.

Killer was first published in 1978 and perhaps packs more of a punch today as the psychological trauma and emotional damage of captive Orcas has come to light and has forced SeaWorld to suspend the practice of capturing and training them for entertainment purposes. In the novel, our giant Orca has gone through similar but more far more lethal conditioning, and so, wounded, and suffering from a massive amount of PTSD, our rogue antagonist has an ingrained, insatiable blood-lust to kill all hu-mans it swims across. Meanwhile, an arctic scientific expedition winds up on an ice floe after their plane crashes and breaks off a chunk of the ice pack, sending them drifting off into the open sea, toward Russia. Thus, six survivors, who managed to salvage all their gear and rations before the plane blew up, set up camp and wait out a rescue, blissfully unaware of what is lurking just below the surface.

And while those aforementioned exhaustive backstories are basically irrelevant, our whale fodder consists of Professor C.J. Warren, who is technically in charge, and the estranged father of fellow researcher, Kate Warren, who clandestinely arranged to be on his latest venture to try and reconnect with him; Colin Ross, a cold-weather specialist and a man with many secrets and haunted by many ghosts, who is returning to the field for the first time in some five years after his last Arctic adventure led to the deaths of his entire party; which puts Ross in direct conflict with Simon Quick, who lost a brother on Ross’ last ill-fated expedition; then there’s the plane’s co-pilot (the pilot was killed on impact), Hiram Preston, and Job, Ross’ ever-faithful Inuit companion. And as I mentioned earlier, I was rapidly losing patience with the book as by page 60 we were STILL getting to know these characters and only one person had been eaten back on page 6. And as I crossed over 100 pages the death count had only increased by a seal, a polar bear and a blue whale.

Now, it should be noted at this point that this marooned team is not on an iceberg but a chunk of ice only inches thick in some spots and a few feet in others (-- think of the ice sheath that form on a pond), and they are not facing just one killer whale but a whole pod of 20 that our Rambo-Whale has taken over and turned into an efficient killing machine -- just ask that poor blue whale.

Anyhoo, finally, on page 116 the battle begins in earnest as our first frozen castaway gets bitten in half. And as the whales slowly destroy the frozen life raft out from under them, smashing their way through the ice like an all-too-real graboid, picking off a few more hu-mans in the process, suddenly, a herd of a walruses show up, sparking a war between the whales and the walruses -- no I am not making that up, with the surviving hu-mans caught in the middle. And then the whole thing gets even more patently ridiculous when our Rambo-Whale morphs into Jason Vorhees as it refuses to go quietly as the book goes all Ahab with an axe during the mind-blowing climax.

Oh, yeah, after a slow start this one is definitely a winner, folks. This book was another entry in Signet's throwback nature's revenge / animal kingdom amok literary campaign that included Gila and Fangs and has me itching to track down more of them. (And there's like a dozen. Hooray!) Author Tonkin takes great relish in painting a grisly picture with each victim's demise -- be it hu-man or aquatic mammal. (That systematic destruction of the blue whale was downright disturbing.) The melodrama between our characters is a bit thick, and I skipped the whole long chapter that explained how and why our looking-for-redemption hero, Ross, lost his arm in his last ill-fated expedition, and it grinds to an absolute halt when the author goes on and on, and on and on and on and on, about the science of glacial ice in a ‘blah blah blah blah blah get to the *chomping*’ sense. But the mayhem, once it gets started, makes it all worth it. Go. Read this. Now! 

Art and Lobby Cards are from Orca: The Killer Whale (1977).  

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