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KILLER
1985

Review © 1997 T. M. Wagner.
Book cover art by David B. Mattingly.

AUTHOR'S SITE (Drake)
AUTHOR'S SITE (Wagner)

DAVID DRAKE & KARL EDWARD WAGNER


What is there to say about a book with dialogue like "Do you see any sign of his lungs?" Not a whole lot, really, other than that line ought to tell you right off the bat if this is the book for you...or not. Killer could just as well be titled Alien in Ancient Rome. It is probably the sort of thing one ought to expect when combining Drake's fondness for ancient history and military action with the late Wagner's horror influence; Wagner was better known in his lifetime for the horror anthologies he edited than for his own stories. A "marauding space monster on the loose" story which takes its inspirational cues not from other works of horror lit, but from Hollywood's gorier gore epics (and Ridley Scott's classic film in particular), Killer commendably enough tries nothing more than to push all of the hot buttons that those films push. Couple that kind of prurient storytelling efficiency with the novelty of the ancient Roman setting, plus some humor and some actually sensitive characterizations, and you have a book that is good, not-so-clean, nasty fun for readers with strong stomachs.

The story has to do with the discovery of a bizarre "lizard-ape" by our hero, a Roman hunter named Lycon, who first sees the "sauropithecus" (or "phile," to give it its real name) in its cage as it is being herded into Rome to give the crowds at the Colloseum endless amusement tearing up Christians and sundry riffraff. No sooner does the first chapter end, than the beast breaks out of its cage (by picking the lock) and starts maiming everything in sight. Delighted, the sadistic emperor Domitian charges Lycon with finding and capturing this beast for his pleasure. But accompanying Lycon is the enigmatic Egyptian hunter N'Sumu, who is enigmatic for a good reason: he is in actuality the alien RyRylee, who was responsible for the creature in the first place, and whose extraterrestrial superiors are undoubtedly unhappy about the thought of having to wipe out all life on yet another planet in case the ravening monster happens to be a pregnant female. 'Cause if it is, look out! The reproduction process is like an unstoppable fusillade of Uzi fire, and the earth would have to be sterilized for its own good, you see.

Drake and Wagner do a good job setting up a few scares, but most frequently they settle for letting the viscera flow. The story never strays terribly far from horror formula, but has a freshness that mitigates that fact. And there is a tongue-in-cheek quality to the tale that lets you know all along that the authors are just having a whale of a time, and that's all they want you to do, too. A few sequences are quite funny in a humanistic sort of way, and the characterizations have more depth than you might expect. Lycon and his friend Vanones have to live, like everyone else, under a constant reign of terror by a mad emperor, a fear which is only augmented for the two men as they literally follow a trail of mangled bodies around Rome looking for this damn thing. And there is a most unusual subplot detailing Lycon's worry that one of his sons may be on the receiving end of homosexual advances by his tutor. Though some might find that objectionably homophobic, you can't deny the depiction of parental concern is convincing. (But possibly anachronistic. I may be wrong but I've been led to understand homosexuality in ancient Rome and Greece didn't have the stigma it carries today.)

Still, this book's main goal is to kick your ass and gross you out in equal measure, a goal attained gleefully, honestly and with no quarter given to wimps. If you're on your own one dark and stormy night, and all the good stuff on the horror racks of your local video store is rented out, then curl up with Killer. And preferably, not on a full stomach.