Should’ve listened to Fatboy Slim: a review of Brian Keene’s The Conqueror Worms

It’s October! Which means I’m gonna be jumping on the Halloween bandwagon and doing a bunch of horror-themed stuff for the next month, because…well, why not? I even planned ahead a little bit, and began reading horror stuff over the weekend, but I finished the book on the first, so that still counts, right?

In any case, let’s have a go at Brian Keene’s The Conqueror Worms.

Back in the 50’s, I imagine it was easy to make a giant monster movie. Giant ants, giant lizards, giant tarantulas- basically, all the really creepy animals were still available. As time went on, movies went to other animals like shrews, or rabbits, or frogs, or whatever.

Fast forward to 2006, at which Brian Keene says “I bet nobody’s done giant worms before!”

Okay, except maybe that guy.

I first learned of Brian Keene from my good friend Jeremy (of A Brew to a Kill), but I haven’t had the chance to sit down and read any of his work until just now. And because ‘giant apocalyptic earthworms’ seemed like a rather interesting take on things, I figured I’d check him out.

And to be honest? I wasn’t too impressed.

The book (at least two thirds of it) is written from the perspective of one Teddy Garnett, a surprisingly spry 80 year old man. It’s written as if it were the final account of a dying man, which is a pretty common trope- common enough for me to look past the question of ‘How did he have enough time to write 300-some pages of stuff before keeling over?’ The thing is, Teddy says he’s not much of a writer on the first page of the book, which just kind of seems like a metatextual cop-out. I’m not expecting anything brilliant from a book about giant worms, but at the same time, bringing up the quality (or lack therof) of your work from page one isn’t the best way to start things.

In any case, the setting of the book is fairly straightforward; for whatever reason, the entire world is blanketed in rain for 40 days, which floods just about everything except for the very tallest mountains across the world. And, y’know how when it rains really hard, you see a bunch of earthworms crawling across the sidewalks, so they don’t drown? Well, it’s like that, only the earthworms are the size of buses, and they eat people.

Not exactly deep literature here, folks.

This said, the eternal-rain of the setting actually makes for a fairly interesting apocalypse, as you’re left to wonder how things would work with water getting into everything. Keene does a rather good job of emphasizing how wet and cold and miserable such an environment would be. Heck, I’ve been through big storms where it’d rain pretty constantly for a week, and even then I felt a little stir-crazy after a just a few days, much less something on a biblical scale.

The problem is, apart from a thoroughly wet and muddy setting, Keene doesn’t really do anything with the premise. Nothing new, at least. Keene hits all the notes one comes to expect from a post apocalyptic tale: the lone survivor, the doomed outpost of civilization, the hoarding of supplies (and the shortage of modern luxuries), despair, suicide, isolation and so on.

The tropes come even thicker when we get to the middle chunk of the novel, in which another survivor tells Teddy a story of disaster and survival in Baltimore. As a coastal city, Baltimore didn’t get hit with worms- instead, they wound up dealing with an evil mermaid, and then a giant evil octopus, complete with cultists and Lovecraft references. It was a perfectly serviceable ‘rise of the old ones’ kind of story, but it feels just a bit out of place, like Keene didn’t have enough ideas for giant worms, so he hammered out some stuff about evil cultists and a giant squid. It’s like watching The Walking Dead through a fishbowl. I guess that’s what happens when the cultists get their way, instead of getting blown up by Mack Bolan.

Maybe I went in with my expectations too high, or maybe The Conqueror Worms just isn’t Keene’s best work. As I said before, it hits all the expected tropes, but it doesn’t really do anything new with them. Just compared to stuff I’ve read over the last year, Keene’s not as grotesque as Mieville, not as post apocalyptic as Clines, and not as Lovecraftian as Stross.

But again, this book is about giant worms eating people, so it at least delivers on that. I get the feeling Keene set out to do just that- nothing more, nothing less. Of course, given how worms are pretty much down there at the bottom of the food chain, I’d love to see Keene write a sequel where the worms are eaten by a giant bird or something.

Close enough.

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1 Comment

  1. Being his second book, it’s not his best. I can say there were scenes in City of the Dead that grossed me out.

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