Dargolla: A Kaiju Nightmare — My Debut Novel and A New Universe Rises

To quote the highly inspirational song “Faith of the Heart” by Russell Watson (yes, it’s the theme song for Star Trek: Enterprise, my fellow Trekkies!): “It’s been a long road, getting from there to here; it’s been a long time, but my time is finally near.” Or, in this case, actually here!

Yes, my first novel has now been published, after a long time working up to this with several short stories published in anthologies and eZines from great indie presses such as Black Coat Press, Sirens Call Publications, Pro Se Press, Pulp Empire, Horrified Press, Grinning Skull Press, and a few others who have since slipped into oblivion. I was greatly honored to have stories deemed worthy of professional publication from all of the above, and it was a lot of fun taking the many arduous steps necessary to develop the reputation necessary to getting a novel accepted.

I’m particularly thankful to Jean-Marc Lofficier, co-publisher and editor of Black Coat Press, for giving me my first professional break in Volume 8 of his terrific annual anthology Tales of the Shadowmen, devoted to yarns of heroes and villains culled from French pulp fiction of the 1920s-1940s. I’ve endeavored to get a short short story published in every subsequent volume (with Vol. 14 due next, in December of 2017), and you can bet I have many more plans for projects with Black Coat.

I am also very thankful to the great writers and creative mythographers who comprise the Wold Newton publishers that have continued and expanded upon the great shared pulp and sci-fi universe built by the late, great Philip Jose’ Farmer, in particular Win Scott Eckert and Chuck Loridans for first welcoming me into their circle of influence, which enabled me to meet many great friends and colleagues, many of whom I have collaborated with for many years now. The inspiration which they and other creative mythographers provided to me was immense, and it’s safe to say I wouldn’t be a published author today if not for the friendships and networking I acquired as part of their creative circle. Thank you, guys, for everything!

So needless to say, I was thrilled to the gills to have my first submission to Severed Press accepted, as this great publishing label is undoubtedly the biggest force in kaiju prose today (as well as other horror and sci-fi sub-genres, such as books devoted to sea monsters, zombies, dinosaur mayhem, post-apocalyptic scenarios, and space military action). I was quite familiar with them and a fan of many of their publications, including Eric S. Brown’s awesomely horrific, high-selling, and long-running apocalyptic Bigfoot War series; and my friend and colleague Matthew Dennion’s kaiju novels, including gems such as Atomic Rex, Polar Yeti and the Beasts of Prehistory, Operation R.O.C., Chimera: Scourge of the Godsand Kaiju Corps

I’m especially grateful to Matt Dennion, as my first published work that truly belongs to the kaiju genre is “The Criminal and the Kaiju,” and it appeared in Matt’s anthology Attack of the Kaiju: Age of Monsters Vol. 1. I met a lot of talented friends and colleagues by working on that and other projects of Matt’s, and I was as proud to share a byline with them in that anthology as I was with the many great authors (which also includes Matt) in the Tales of the Shadowmen volumes. Most importantly, the above-mentioned short story was also the first published entry into the shared kaiju/sentai universe I’m building.

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Cover to Attack of the Kaiju: Age of Monsters Vol. 1, where a new universe started with Blue King and Mokkadon. Thanks, Matt! 

For those who may not be fully in the know, “kaiju” is a Japanese term roughly translating into English as “monster” or “mysterious beast,” and the context in which most English-speaking fans of the genre use it is an abbreviated form of “daikaiju” (sometimes spelled as two separate words) which means “giant monster.” Think Godzilla, King Kong (at least the larger versions of the size-fluctuating giant ape, i.e., the Toho version and the current Legendary MonsterVerse iteration), and Gamera. The term “sentai” is a Japanese word that roughly translates as “monster-fighting super-hero” (well, not literally, but in concept), particularly those who can achieve kaiju-level size to get the job done, either by dramatic size-and-mass accruing themselves, or as pilots of giant robots which rival kaiju in size and power. Think Ultraman, the jaeger (giant robots) from Pacific Rim, and the Power Rangers’ giant polyglot robot the Mega-Zord.

Which brings us to my first novel, and the latest entry into my shared and (hopefully) exponentially expanding kaiju/sentai universe, Dargolla: A Kaiju Nightmare.

 

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One giant step for me; and numerous giant steps for Dargolla.

Though I have every intention of pitting kaiju against each other in city-smashing battles, as well as sentai vs. kaiju battles — as I did between Blue King and Mokkadon in “The Criminal and the Kaiju” — in my future work, this first novel gives the podium to Dargolla alone. What is the basic skinny of this tale?

For one thing, I extenuate the horror aspects of the kaiju genre. Rather than depicting these gigantic monsters as being in any way funny or goofy, I pay homage to the antiquarian roots of kaiju from world mythology (e.g., Jormangand the Midgard Serpent and Tiamat) and the Biblical beasts Leviathan and Behemoth, where they were destructive, overpowering, and living forces of nature that even the gods respected (and often used for their own destructive tendencies).

I also strive to pay homage to the wondrous kaiju-films I grew up watching, which fascinated me and piqued my creative impulse on a deep psychic level. They certainly constitute great childhood viewing memories, albeit of a decidedly different sort than the type I got from watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island or The Brady Bunch.

Which brings us to Dargolla. As the sub-title of the novel makes clear, this is not a kaiju you want visiting your home town, or even co-existing on the same planet with you. This creature doesn’t simply smash buildings and flatten automobiles that happen to be directly in his path. Like most kaiju in this universe, he views the tiny humans in his midst as rivals for global food chain hegemony, so he makes literal food out of them at every opportunity. When he isn’t devouring humans, he’s deliberately smashing their buildings and kicking their vehicles about, which his bestial but far from simplistic mind correctly identifies as constructs that harbor his miniature competition for dominion of the planet. People in this world live in mortal terror of kaiju, as humanity’s best military weaponry often has minimal effects on them.

Which brings us to the military of this nightmarish world, who are frequently engaged in the development of weapons specifically designed to deal with these living WMDs, and often pose as much of a threat to the civilization they are hoping to preserve as the kaiju themselves. This becomes evident in the novel when the fleeing hordes of hapless residents of the city of Metroville find themselves besieged by a military attack on Dargolla, as cluster bombs and building debris blasted loose by the weapons rain down on them and claims as many of their lives and limbs as the monster himself.

Which next brings us to the main human protagonist, Colin Wilson. He’s a young boy that finds Dargolla’s attack on his home city to be anything but cool or exciting. The story focuses on Colin and the rest of his nuclear family as they desperately try to escape from the city while a skyscraper-sized beast and the additional obstacles of attacking military forces and stampeding crowds of terrified people present additional obstacles.

With this novel, I endeavored to answer a series of disturbing questions I have always harbored in the darkest recesses of my mind: What would it actually be like, from the point of view of an average family, to have to deal with a kaiju attacking their city? What would be their realistic chances for survival, or even of simply getting out of such a disaster zone intact? Could every member of the family be expected to make it? What would their interactions with their panic-ridden fellow residents be like as everyone desperately attempted to flee for their very lives? How would they deal with the psychological trauma of seeing people crushed, eaten, and blown to bits all around them? How would they act and react knowing that this was their own likely fate at any moment? What would be the thoughts of the military aircraft pilots as they faced almost certain death, but were determined to do their best to carry out their orders anyway? How would these soldiers feel about the destruction they would inevitably wreak upon the very city and citizenry they were trying to save, and how would this effect them psychologically? And what about the military brass safely ensconced in distant military bases who had to issue the orders, if for no other reason than to make them appear to be “doing something” about the kaiju incursion? How would they feel about authorizing the use of an untested doomsday weapon on the kaiju, which could have far-reaching consequences for millions of people and the biosphere itself?

I endeavored to answer all of these unsettling questions as best I could, or at least to confront them head on. This particular novel has no true heroes, just an average family doing their best to flee the only home they ever knew and retain both their sanity and their lives as horrific death and destruction constantly ensue all around them. Besides that, we have soldiers who engage in heroic actions, but are first and foremost soldiers who must obey orders and make sacrifices no matter what the possible consequences to both themselves or the people caught in their crossfire (I personally consider soldiers to be a category of warrior, but not necessarily a category of hero — just like mercenaries — but I’ll deal with that in depth in a future blog when I discuss character concepts and categorizations).

Time and reader reaction will ultimately tell if I effectively addressed these questions and successfully provided a scenario to do them some type of justice with this novel and subsequent publications, but it was a lot of fun to make the effort, and it’s a dream come true to be given the opportunity to make this nightmare happen. I’m now at work on my next kaiju novel occurring in this universe, Megadrak: Beast of the Apocalypse, and I look forward to inflicting that upon the world as well!

For all my fellow kaiju-fans who may be interested in purchasing this debut novel, you can buy it for your Kindle or rent it for free if you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, or purchase it in paperback. Your choice, as the nightmare and mass destruction will unfold in either format 🙂  Thank you to all who have already purchased, and those who will do so in the future, as your contribution to making this book a success is appreciated more than I can possibly say.

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I Just Finished Reading Michael Crichton’s CONGO… and Compared to the Movie Version, It’s Nothing to Go Ape Over

 

Let me admit this right off the bat, despite how much it goes against consensus opinion on the matter: Paramount Pictures’ 1995 big screen adaptation of the late, great Michael Crichton’s novel Congo  is one of my favorite horror/adventure films of that decade. To those who have read even a moderate amount of consensus reviews on the quality of this movie, let me assure you that you did indeed read that correctly. Nearly every single review of the film I’ve read over the years, who are often quick to compare it to Crichton’s 1980 novel — and who range from the most famous film reviewer to the lowliest ad hominem-hurling Internet commentator — is generally this: “The movie totally sucked. You really need to read Crichton’s novel, which was brilliant. The movie version left a reeking shit stain on Crichton’s great work.”

What finally inspired me to compose this blog was my state of mind after finally getting the chance to read Crichton’s novel, completed just the other day. I was hoping that my greatly contrary opinion to consensus thought about the quality of the movie wouldn’t extend to that same opinion regarding the oft-stated “brilliance” of its literary inspiration. It wasn’t to be the first time one of my hopes were cruelly dashed, but it was the one relevant to this blog. So if you bother to stick around after this sentence, you are about to read my pontifications as to how the book compares to the movie, specifically why I greatly disagree with the frequently heard commentary from those who have critiqued and compared both.

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This mo’ fo’ will do a lot worse than hurl feces at you.

I. Conventional Wisdom is Not Always Wise

Contrary to what those who read my non-fiction scribing and also do not know me too well personally may assume, I’m not one of those people who knee-jerkedly goes against anything considered to be conventional wisdom merely for the sake of “being different” or “looking for negative attention.”

There are, in fact, many aspects of conventional wisdom I do fully agree with, including within the realm of literary and film criticism. To wit, I think Citizen Kane  is an absolutely brilliant film. However, I have more than my share of disagreements with the vast majority on certain commonly held opinions: e.g., though I concede The Godfather III  most certainly did not match the grandeur of the first two films in the trilogy, I do not  agree that it thoroughly sucked a certain unmentionable anatomical appendage.

I’m simply notorious for being vocal about aspects of conventional wisdom that I may disagree with based upon a combination of personal experience and research, no matter how dear to the heart of mainstream thought such beliefs, opinions, or interpretations may be. Just ask anyone who has ever heard me dare to criticize anything about Alan Moore’s attitude and decisions regarding his infamous falling out with DC Comics (I do not think his motivations were based on principle or that his work has earned him the right to be an arrogant asshole), or publicly mention that the movie version of The Princess Bride  is not  on my list of cherished cinematic memories (I know what you’re thinking about that last one: “inconceivable!”).

Which brings us to my opinion on how Congo the novel compares to Congo  the film.

I insincerely apologize to the vast majority of critics about this, but I most certainly do not think the movie version sucked ass. Was it a blockbuster epic along the lines of Aliens? No, it wasn’t, and no one deciding to watch the film should expect such a thing going in. But it was a slick, relatively well-acted adventure flick with good casting choices, a decent if not stellar script courtesy of John Patrick Shanley, and some impressive physical effects despite a limited budget during the last years before CGI almost completely took over. The species of vicious, gray-furred gorilla which menaced the human expedition to the remote rain forests of Zaire (that’s what they call the Congo now, people!) were genuinely fearsome-looking and deadly… much more so than the versions that appeared in the book, in fact. But I’m getting just a bit ahead of things here.

The cast was genuinely likeable, even if over half of the expedition members were comprised of porters native to Africa who weren’t played by well-known thespians, and were simply there as fang fodder for the gorillas to rip apart. And these simian horrors didn’t skimp on any of that in the movie version! These killer gorillas were said to be the product of an ancient form of eugenics developed by the lost populace of Zinj, who bred and trained them to aggressively guard their precious diamond mines. It turned out that these simian creations of primitive genetic engineering kept up a sizable breeding population up to the present and continued their predatory security purposes long after the human civilization that spawned them vanished from the historical records. That spelled really bad news for the various individuals comprising the expedition that was hired to search for the legendary but unsubstantiated old city and its reported store of diamonds.

It’s a terrible shame that the company’s intel on the fauna bred by the people of Zinji wasn’t as good as that which they acquired for the lost civilization’s mineral resources. But if it was, the crew would have gone far better prepared, resulting in no loss of human life and a consequently huge loss of entertainment value for the viewers.

Congo02

You gotta “hand” it to that laser weapon’s efficiency! Bwah-hah-hah!

This strange species of aggressive gorilla resembled the two known and gentle conventional species, but had gray fur, somewhat sleeker (and thus faster) bodies, and were much more evil-looking. You wouldn’t want to confront one of these things in an alley, whether dark or fully lit, let alone in a jungle environment far from any human habitation. Having to deal with a horde of such killer simians in a very dangerous and remote area of Africa that these apes knew much better than any human was a true nightmare to experience. I think it’s a complete shame that we never saw more of these creatures in either additional movies or other in other mediums, thanks to the film’s lackluster performance at the box office. So I won’t hold out much hope for seeing Dark Horse Comics acquire the license from whoever now owns the copyright to produce a group of Congo  mini-series, including one titled Predator vs. The Apes of Zinj in the Congo or Tarzan vs. the Zinji Apes, or something like that. And what way cool crossovers those would have been! (Shameless plug: I had the Zinj Apes clash with Felanthus the Tiger-Man and the French vigilante Judex in my short story “Justice and the Beast” in the pulp fiction anthology Tales of the Shadowmen Vol. 12: Carte Blanche from Black Coat Press, so there’s that at least!).

II. Okay, Why Do I Think the Movie Didn’t Suck?

Shanley’s screenplay was faithful to the main story that Crichton took far too long to tell in the book. To paraphrase an apropos expression that someone living on a farm must have invented: Shanley cut most of the wheat from Crichton’s chaff and took one of the slowest stories I ever read and turned it into a reasonably fast-paced movie without losing anything important. The end result focused largely on the main details of the corporate-funded, ill-fated expedition’s trek into the lost city of Zinj and directly into a brutal life and death struggle with the Zinji Apes (did I just coin that term? We gotta call them something, right? And isn’t this easier to type than “Those Killer Gorillas From Congo“?).  Almost all extraneous details not integral to that particular plot, or even having direct bearing on it, were excised. And there were veritable heaps of this extraneous and semi-extraneous material in the novel. This very necessary excision amounted to cutting literally 70% of the text in the book… trust me on this, as I actually checked the counter on my Kindle tablet at the point in the novel where the expedition finally reached the area where they had to deal with the apes.

The gore and onscreen mayhem inflicted upon human victims was surprisingly intense for a PG-13 rated movie, and what survived the cutting room floor for the theatrical version really pushed the limits for that rating. We see the Zinji Apes’ penchant for literally tearing off the heads of human victims and then contemptuously tossing them at the surviving humans in quite graphic detail. This, btw, was in contrast to how the apes preferred to kill people in the book: they smashed their heads on each side with stone paddles specially sculpted by the ancient citizens of Zinj to be used by their ape sentries for that purpose. Yes, you just read that correctly; evidently, Crichton thought the considerable strength of the apes’ bare hands wasn’t sufficient to do the job. I’m thankful that Shanely’s script rectified that matter.

Travicom’s experimental laser beam, powered by the blue diamonds of a certain size that were found in Zinj’s precious mines, was utilized by Travicom’s maverick computer expert Dr. Karen Ross to literally slice through the ranks of the killer apes like a hot knife through wads of butter. And it was seriously sweet to behold! Those scenes hardly skimped on the retaliatory onscreen slaughter wreaked upon Zinj’s simian sentries.

The blue color of those diamonds actually signified a form of impurity that made these gems all but worthless in a financial sense, but extremely valuable in a sheer practical manner as a power source for certain advanced electronics. In turns out natural diamonds can serve as powerful semiconductors (remember learning about those things in high school physics class?) if they are put through a synthetic process called boron-doping, with said impurities leaving the normally clear sparkling gems with an azure hue.

The diamonds in the Zinj mines, however, are subjected to some volcanic process that leaves the lot of them naturally boron-doped, and thus invaluable semiconductors for all manner of technology. In the book, the device intended for this power source was a computer system designed to process command protocols and bolster communication speeds for human-created missile-firing armaments; they served mainly as an opportunity for Crichton to show off his extensive knowledge of late 20th century advanced computer and munitions technology. In the movie, the blue gems were used to power the large sophisticated laser which provided the human expedition members with opportunities to give as good as they got against the apes.

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Karen Ross kicks some serious hairy ass with the way cool weapon that Crichton didn’t include in the book version.

Take a guess as to which of the two diamond-powered devices I found to be more interesting and exciting. This was another change in Shanely’s screenplay from Crichton’s book that was a great improvement IMHO. The automated, laser-guided ground-mounted machine guns used by the humans to guard the perimeter of their camp from the apes appeared in both the book and movie versions, and the book actually used them to somewhat more of an effect. However, the addition of the diamond-charged laser rifle more than made up for that. Crichton’s book also described a more elaborate perimeter defense system, which included small but effective moats of water dug by the expedition members to exploit the fear of water that all great apes have. I don’t recall this shown in the film, but the moats were hardly missed due to the movie’s far faster pace.

Perhaps I should also mention that the company whose Evil Capitalist CEO, R.B. Travis (Joe Don Baker) employed Dr. Karen Ross and funded the American expedition to seek out the diamonds was called Earth Resource Technology Services Inc. (ERTS) in the book, but changed to the previously noted Travicom for the film. I’m not sure what the reason for the change was, but let’s face it, the latter title sounds much more satisfactory for the arrogance of a wealthy shark in human clothing like R. B. Travis. Even Tony Stark couldn’t resist naming most of his own businesses after himself!

Dr. Karen Ross was perhaps the main character in both the book and the movie, but in the film (where she was played rather well by a young Laura Linney) this tough-as-nails dame was given more humanity. The book version, while not truly malicious, was more or less totally self-centered, focused on finding the diamonds and making a name for herself in the company at all costs. The movie version was equally driven and determined, but she was greatly humanized by having screenwriter Shanely provide her with a fiancee that her literary counterpart lacked: Charles Travis (the inimitable Bruce Campbell of The Evil Dead  fame!), the doomed son of R. B. Travis, who was pulverized by the Zinji Apes during the first expedition sent by the company to find the diamonds.

The cinematic Ross had a clear conscience that caused her to turn on Travis when she discovered the mutilated and largely decayed body of her fiancee in one of the lost city’s stone temples, and thus realized that her employer and almost-father-in-law cared nothing for his murdered son and everything  for the diamonds and bottom line. In other words, he was a good CEO at the expense of being a bad person, very much in the mold of the Evil Capitalists Obadiah Stane and Darren Cross, whose film versions we saw in Marvel Studios’ Iron Man  and Ant-Man  respectively. The cinematic Ross was ultimately glad to sacrifice her career to make R. B. (“rat bastard”?) pay for his callous attitude towards everyone he ever met, including his son and her fiancee. That was nothing Ross’s page-bound counterpart would have done. The viewers of this movie left the theater with much more respect for the cinematic version of Dr. Ross than the readers of the book did for the literary incarnation, I’d wager.

Taking the place of the self-centered, avaricious, and deceptive version of Karen Ross in the film was the added character of the bogus Romanian philanthropist Herkermer Homolka (try to say that five times fast; he was played by Tim Curry). Perhaps more accurately, Homolka actually acted as the human repository for the base characteristics of Ross’ literary version, rather than a replacement for the character herself. The movie iteration of Ross was similar enough to the book version to be considered the same character, but one might say she was a different variation  of the same character, with the possibility that the version native to the movie reality had her dark side tempered by having a positive love interest in Charlie Travis.

The book incarnation seemed to love nothing beyond her career prospects, and the mission that she hoped would bolster her status within it was always her primary concern. Nothing wrong with a dedicated career woman, of course, but one who loves nothing but herself may leave a bit to be desired as a person. Of course, we all knew that from the moment Homolka was revealed as a fake who was simply after the diamonds that he would be gorilla fodder before the closing credits rolled (does anyone seriously consider this to be a spoiler?).

Dr. Peter Elliot (Dylan Walsh), the scrupulous but in-over-his-head primatologist, and the sign language “speaking” young female gorilla Amy (Misty Rosas; I once had a best friend named Amy! And no, she wasn’t an ape!), whom he raised from infancy and was in charge of, came into the movie with their literary personas mostly intact. The movie made the improvement of including a device worn by Amy that possessed a computerized audio device enabling a crude verbal translation of her signs so that individuals not fluent in American Sign Language could understand her. This was a good replacement for the very frequent and tedious signs between Elliot and Amy that occurred in the book, with only the primatologist being privy to what she had to say until he let the readers know what she said.

The best character improvement in the cinematic version was the book’s Scottish mercenary Charles Munro being modified into the British African-American tour guide Munro Kelly (Ernie Hudson). The book version was an interesting character with heavy knowledge of the continent and the unsavory business that went on within its borders, but Hudson made his cinematic incarnation of Munro a true  character. The tough but witty and agreeable mercenary from the book was given a suave, affable, and quite charming personality courtesy of Hudson’s great acting talent. I’ve always believed that Hudson may be alongside Michael Ironside and Lance Henrikson as one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood. The range of characters he plays well is impressively varied — everything from the sadistically evil criminal Half Dead from Penitentiary 2 to the gentle but heroic intellect-challenged Solomon from The Hand That Rocks the Cradle — and he was clearly having fun in this movie. The end result was therefore much more of a treat to behold than the written version of Munro in Crichton’s book.

Also included from the book was Mahega (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje – try typing that  name five times in a row!), leader of the expedition’s team of African porters. The book version was actually a bit more interesting than his movie counterpart, simply because the former had a “jolly,” good-spirited nature that intermittently offered relief from the grim situation the expedition crew found themselves in. The movie version had much less to say and do, thus making his character, though important to the expedition, largely come off as “just there.” Still, since neither incarnation of the character had any major bearing on the main plot, so I was able to overlook this personality modification.

III. Why I Think the Book Doesn’t Live Up to the Hype

For one thing, I should note that Crichton, despite being rightfully renowned as a great novelist with a lot of talent, frequently breaks what writing instructors frequently tell their students to be one of the cardinal rules of writing: show, don’t tell. He never hesitates to include long paragraphs of explanatory prose to describe every bit of scientific information and/or historical background behind anything of even moderate relevance that his cast of characters come across.

This includes a long historical perspective of Zaire, and the chaotic political situation going on there since time immemorial to throughout the 1970s decade; the scientific process of boron-doping; the history and technical workings of computer, munitions, and satellite technology, and precisely how such tech was all interwoven by 1980; the history of American Sign Language (ASL) being taught to simians and the details of various famous great apes in captivity who learned and used it; the full scientific skinny on the rain forest; the nature of mountain gorillas and the full range of their intelligence in captivity; the historical background of prevalent cannibalism practiced among so many African tribes right into the 20th century; the history and status of the various tribes living there; the nature of vulcanism, complete with an overview of many of the world’s most active volcanoes; etc., et al.

He is also fond of using this info to make largely incorrect future predictions. Then again, he didn’t suggest there would be a skyline full of flying cars, numerous kids enjoying the use of hovering skateboards, and giant holograms on movie-advertising billboards engaging in simulated attacks on people who walked past the theater by 2015, so I’ll give him a break on that.

Large swaths of the above were not presented to the reader via the dialogue and actions of the characters, but through countless paragraphs of textbook style documentation. Don’t get me wrong, I consider few rules presented by writing instructors to be the equivalent of holy writ, but rather much more a combination of the instructor’s personal tastes and popular convention among the writing community at any given time (for example, look at how many college and graduate school instructors frequently pontificate about how they loathe genre writing and consider it the nadir of the literary realm). Every reader’s preferences differ outside of a basic united desire to see coherent grammar, spelling, and formatting. For those who, like myself, enjoy absorbing knowledge off the page like Superman’s arch-enemy Parasite sponges the life energy from others, you may find Crichton’s work –including this novel– an excellent source of historical, cultural, and scientific info. I was highlighting passages of such dry information-laden text left and right for this reason as I read the book.

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Behold the glorious days before Andy Serkis came along.

But for those who prefer storytelling over big helpings of raw information, they would likely find Crichton’s writing style to be ponderous, not to mention an unwelcome diversion from the main plot and characters of the story. This is a problem you will not have with the movie. I suspect that this is why so many critics and reviewers applaud Crichton’s novel as being brilliant in comparison to the film. The thing is, it can well be argued that his genuine brilliance may be better served writing textbooks than prose fiction, or at least leaving the heavy helpings of scientific and historical information out of a tome devoted to telling a fictional narrative rather than simply providing paragraphs of factual information. This happens so often that the novel often reads like an educational book for grad school students rather than literary fiction.

The pacing of the book is also incredibly slow. I made no exaggeration when I said that you don’t even get to see the expedition encounter the Zinji Apes and volcanic bedlam until 70% of the way into the book. We barely see the killer gorillas prior to that, save for an early prologue sequence at the beginning of the book where their handiwork is shown being inflicted upon the first expedition, and a brief image of one of the apes is caught on one of their cameras. Dr. Elliot also takes long stretches of time to  analyze and theorize on what type of animal is shown in that hazy image.

The day-to-day travails of an inexperienced group trekking through the unforgiving rain forests of Africa take up a huge bulk of the story, but it never really becomes interesting enough to build a compelling narrative. No real tragedy occurs among the expedition during this time, and their encounter with the Ghost People tribe is pretty much a diversion to get them to meet the traumatized and soon to die sole survivor of the first expedition so they can learn something horrible happened. The only hint as to what that horrible thing may have been was the man’s horrified bellow upon seeing Amy the ape just before he collapsed dead. And that’s another thing: a further huge portion of the book is taken up with Elliot’s cute relationship with Amy. Charming interactions to be sure, but hardly necessary in their entirety. In contrast, the close and affectionate relationship between Elliot and Amy was made pretty clear in the movie without it taking up huge portions of the allotted time.

Then there were the many changes in the cast of characters I noted in the previous section. With the exception of Mahega, all of the character alterations in the movie improved over the versions seen in the book. Some of the humor in the film was strained and forced, but it was usually quite welcome, particularly those moments provided by Hudson. The subplot of the consortium composed of foreign corporate agents mounting a rival expedition to Zinj, and the Phileas Fogg-ish race between the two to be the first party to reach the ancient city, was left out of the movie. No great loss there, since despite the suspense it may have added to the book, it was hardly necessary to the plot and simply served to pad the length of the text further. If anything, it took up further space in the book simply to keep the page count up.

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Nothing “great” about this ape.

[In sign language]: “You fuck off you, Nigro. Amy know you can’t sing ‘Star Spangled Banner’ in sign like Amy. Amy good gorilla.”

Let me also make it clear that the enormous length of novels prior to the previous decade was often insisted upon by publishing houses of the era, since a bloated page count allowed them to justify charging more for the books and the establishment of monopoly price control. As a writer who worked during the era prior to the new possibilities offered by digital publishing, Crichton may well have inured himself to filling a book with 600 pages as part of standard editorial demand. It’s simply how it was done back then. The self-publishing revolution which began in the previous decade has alleviated that requirement, but in prior days there was little way around it if you were serious about being published, at least by a major label. Nevertheless, it doesn’t make the reading experience any less exhausting or tedious, and it embedded the belief in mainstream readers that a novel must be extremely lengthy to be of any value.

More action was featured in the book regarding a short span of pages following the expedition’s departure from Zinj (leaving the vicious gray gorillas behind for good) where the surviving members had to contend with repelling a savage attack by a group of deadly primitive tribesmen from the  remains of their airplane (those bastards even shit on the seats of the plane; I kid you not!). Moderate suspense was to be had here, but considering how much more exciting the confrontations with the gorillas were in the movie than the book, the removal of this sequence in the film version was no biggie.

In fact, the earlier scene of the expedition members dodging hostile government missile fire while traveling over Zaire airspace was even more exciting in the movie version, with Dr. Ross finding a most clever way of diverting the government’s heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles. The very suspenseful volcano erupting sequence from the book was retained in the movie, with the latter going much further in showing way cool scenes of the killer gorillas getting filleted by the raging rivers of red hot liquid rock.

I have since found a few others voices of agreement with me in regards to the quality of the movie, despite the legions of “the book is brilliant but the movie sucked” advocates out there. This includes both my friend and colleague Derrick Ferguson, who describes the film version of Congo  as a cool modern pulp adventure on the Blood & Ink blog here; and the detailed analysis of the movie provided by PhilipJames1980 for the IMBd entry on this movie (just scroll down the page to the top of the ‘User Reviews’ section). I was also recently informed by a valued member of one of my writing groups that Amazon has several reviewers who likewise enjoyed the movie and were not so keen on the book.

Even though the absence of these other praises wouldn’t have affected my opinion, it’s always a bit refreshing to find out that you aren’t the proverbial lone voice in the wilderness when it comes to a certain strong minority view. Conventional wisdom isn’t always wrong, but it’s certainly important to question it on matters where we happen to feel that it is. As such, I fully recommend that everyone who enjoys good, fun pulp-style adventure to give the movie a chance, and to only take the time required to read the book if you happen to be enamored of Crichton’s specific style of writing and are an avid connoisseur of information. To each their own, bro.

Ceasar01

“Okay, I may be from that other  movie about apes who war against humans, but since I’m sure lots of humans can’t tell the difference between a chimp and a gorilla anyway, who cares, right?”

Congo04