Sunday, November 22, 2015

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

Okay, Boils and Ghouls, I know, I know, 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 then 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, fair warning: after a smashing opening prologue that introduces 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.

Peter Tonkin's Killer was first published in 1978 but perhaps packs more of a punch today as the psychological trauma and emotional damage of captive Orcas has come to light, which 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 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 humans it swims across. 

Meanwhile, an arctic scientific expedition winds up on an ice floe after their plane crashes and breaks off a sizeable 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; he's also 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, a man with many secrets, who is haunted by many ghosts, and 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.

Unfortunately, this blunder puts Ross into direct conflict with Simon Quick, who lost a brother on Ross’ last ill-fated expedition; there’s also Hiram Preston, the plane’s co-pilot (-- the pilot was killed on impact); and lastly is Job, Ross’ ever-faithful Inuit companion. 

Thus, as I mentioned earlier, I was rapidly losing patience with this book by about page 60 or so because we were STILL getting to know these characters and only one person had been eaten -- and that was back on page six. And as I breached 100 pages, the death count had only increased by a seal, a polar bear, and a blue whale.

Now, it probably should be noted at this point our 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 an ice sheath that forms 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 between man and whale at long last 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 herd of Graboids, picking off a few more victims 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.

Thus and so, with the surviving humans caught in the middle, the whole thing gets even more patently ridiculous when our Rambo-Whale morphs into Jason Vorhees as the alpha predator refuses to go quietly. And then Ross and the book goes all "Ahab with an axe" during the mind-blowing climax.

Another entry in Signet's throwback nature's revenge / animal kingdom gone amok literary campaign of the early 1980s that included Gila, Fangs, Panther, Spiders, about a dozen in total, author Tonkin takes great relish in painting a grisly picture with each victim's demise -- be it human or animal. The systematic destruction of that blue whale was downright disturbing. But the book tends to grind to a halt when the author gets hung up in the details, especially when he goes on and on, and on and on, and on and on and on, about glacial ice in a ‘blah blah blah, science science science, get to the *chomping*’ already sense.

The melodrama between our characters was a bit thick, too; and don't tell anybody but I totally skipped the whole chapter that explained how and why our looking-for-redemption hero, Ross, lost his arm in that last ill-fated expedition.

But despite the slow start and the constant momentum hiccups, Killer really came through in the end. For once the mayhem gets started in earnest, it makes everything else well worth it -- and I look forward to tracking down more of those Signet books. Go. Read this. Now!

All Art, Stills and Lobby Cards were taken from Orca (1977).  

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