Carrion Comfort

It takes effort to read a Dan Simmons novel. I do not mean to say they are especially difficult or that they are dull or bloated. Quite the opposite, actually. I find his novels wonderfully creative and entertaining. By effort, I mean I must be prepared to commit time to a Dan Simmons novel. In general, his novels are long and thus time consuming, but I also want to be sure I am ready to immerse myself fully in the story because his novels deserve that kind of participation. His novels are involved, meaty affairs that can consume a reader if a reader allows it to happen. Carrion Comfort is no different. The 20th Anniversary edition from Thomas Dunne Books clocks in at 767 pages of some of the greatest storytelling I have ever experienced.

The anniversary edition I read includes a new thirty-page introduction in which Dan Simmons recounts this novel’s arduous road to publication. Knowing that story makes me appreciate this novel –and the author himself—even more. Finally published in 1989 after years of editorial nightmare, Carrion Comfort went on to win the Locus Award, the Bram Stoker Award, and the British Fantasy Award. Not bad for a novel Simmons was once told by the second of three editors to scrap and start over from scratch.

Carrion Comfort is the epic story of a group of individuals with the Ability, a mutation that grants them the power to telepathically control other people. As one would expect, this power corrupts absolutely and these people use the Ability for evil, forcing their innocent victims to do awful things. These vile people form a cabal and rise to positions of power, influence, and affluence. They use their ability for the benefit of nobody but themselves. They play games with each other, using innocent citizens as puppets in violent games with deadly outcomes. It is frightening to consider what these people could do in the real world. Then again, maybe they already exist. Consider some of the most awful figures in historical and contemporary time and ponder how they achieved their elevated status while continuing to be disgusting individuals. What sane person would allow such a beast to rise to such a level? Carrion Comfort suggests these monsters may have stolen their success through the forced and violent mental influence of others. A frightening thought.

Dan Simmons has crafted a fantastic story and populated it with rich characters deserving of your empathy, encouragement, and ire. The villains of the story are so despicable that I rooted for their comeuppance with a visceral fury. The heroes, innocent people who begin as victims, find strength in each other and band together to battle the menace in a class good versus evil struggle. I yearned so ardently for their victory, crying out for retribution or at least revenge. The novel’s structure drove me forward into late nights. With so many characters in play, Simmons presents a scene from one character’s perspective and often, a supporting character winds up in a perilous situation. Considering how that supporting character was sitting down to a leisurely breakfast the last time I saw them, I was compelled to immediately read the following chapter which jumps back briefly in time to tell the story of how that supporting character, now the primary perspective character for the chapter, wound up in the predicament described in the previous chapter. It is an effective structure that helped me tear through this large novel in record time.  One thing I must add is that Carrion Comfort contains the most exciting chess game I have ever read. That’s right. A chess game. Narrated move for move. And I was on the edge of my seat, squirming with anticipation the entire time.

This is a novel about how those with power use it to commit violence upon the powerless. The violence is diverse and not always physical. Mental and emotional violence are real things and this is a known fact to anyone who has ever fallen victim to a bully. Some of this violence should come with a trigger warning. There are a couple of rape scenes in this book so readers who are sensitive to such things may want to steer clear, but for everyone else, Carrion Comfort is a tremendous story. Stephen King called it one of the three best horror novels of the twentieth century. Who am I to argue with the master himself?