First Day on a New Planet

StingerIf you’re writing genre fiction, it’s a gamble to swing for the fences.  In some ways it’s easier (and maybe more satisfying to some readers) to forgo things like character development and thematic resonance in favor of plot momentum.  Just strip it down and let it rip.  If, on the other hand, you want to go for longevity, you’ve got to give the reader more than just cheap thrills, and that’s where Robert R. McCammon’s almost successful Stinger (1988) ultimately fails.  Because if you’re going to take the time to dig a little deeper into character and story, you’d better be good at it.

The novel is almost begging for the first approach I described above.  A benevolent alien, escaping from an intergalactic prison, crashes its craft near Inferno, a remote Texas town, and takes over the body of a six-year-old girl until it can find a way to escape.  Meanwhile, one of the creatures maintaining the prison traces the escapee to Inferno, activates a skygrid around the town that imprisons everyone inside it (like Stephen King’s dome, only written 25 years earlier), and proceeds to hunt it down, wreaking havoc in its wake.

When McCammon gets there – when Stinger, as its called, crash lands in the center of Inferno and begins its violent search – the book is a narrative steamroller.  It’s creepy and thrilling and does all the things you want a pulpy horror novel with literary aspirations to accomplish.  The problem, however, is that it literally takes over 200 pages to get there.  Here we are, on page 203 of 539:

The fireball – almost two hundred feet across – roared down and crashed into Mack Cade’s autoyard, throwing sheets of dust and pieces of cars into the air.  Its shock wave heaved the earth, sent cracks scurrying along the streets of Inferno and Bordertown, blew out windows, and flung Cody Lockett off his feet . . .

As fun as Stinger ultimately gets, what precedes that passage is 200 pages of deathly tedious world-building and attempts at developing characters we care about.  We’re treated to these various plot threads:

• Tension between the white residents of Inferno and the Mexican-American residents of Bordertown, which usually manifests itself in gang violence between high school students (and some frankly atrocious racist language and attitudes, which I think is meant to be critical of the white townspeople, but because it’s handled so clumsily just comes off as garden-variety racism).

• The activities of the Hammond family – parents Tom (high school teacher)  and Jessie (veterinary doctor) and their children Ray and Stevie – which include Ray’s creepy obsessing over his female classmates and Tom’s attempts at motivating two students, Cody and Rick, who are – surprise, surprise – key members in the two opposing gangs.

• A World War II vet who takes care of an imaginary dog.

• The arrival in town of Rick’s hot sister Miranda, who exists for no reason other than to create more tension between the gangs because Cody, natch, thinks she’s “a smash fox” (a dumb phrase McCammon overuses the first time it appears).

•  A whole lot of clichéd father-son tension between Cody and his neglectful alcoholic father Curt.

• The arrival of two Air Force men – Barnes and Gunniston – on the search for the crashed spacecraft.

It goes on and on in that vein for almost half the book, just a lot of generic prefab family drama that might as well have come out of a kit.  I know why it’s there: McCammon’s trying to ultimately show how different groups of people who don’t particularly get along can band together against a common enemy.  But the payoff isn’t satisfying because the setup is so hokey.

And again, that’s kind of a shame, because from the moment Stinger lands, the book gets a whole lot more interesting.  As Stinger tracks down Daufin – the name the escapee gives itself after taking over Stevie’s body – it does so by killing Inferno’s residents and reanimating their bodies in variously creepy ways: human form but with needle teeth and claws; a man with half a dog growing out of his chest; a horse with a scorpion tail.  In this way it removes any threats from the town while in its different human forms it tries to blend in in ways not totally dissimilar from John Carpenter’s adaptation of The Thing.  It ultimately becomes a race against time for the town’s survivors to help Daufin escape before Stinger brings its entire army to Earth for colonization.

I first read Stinger in high school (McCammon was one of the authors I discovered around the same time as Stephen King) but remembered very little about it.  What I really need to do now is revisit some of his other books because I actually have very warm memories about them.  I’m not sure if Stinger is a weak spot in his bibliography, or if I just hadn’t developed the critical faculties to help me see how disastrously ordinary the first half is.  If McCammon had cut out most of the ancillary world-building and structured the first half to focus on the discovery of Daufin’s pod, the takeover of Stevie’s body, and the arrival of Barnes and Gunniston, and then skipped straight to Stinger’s arrival and the town’s imprisonment, the book would have been a lean, balls-to-the-wall thriller.  Right now, though, it’s just needlessly flabby: a 530-page novel flailing about for importance when it could have been a hugely satisfying 300-page book that just wanted to scare the bejsus out of the reader.

*****

Current listening:

Lou new

Lou Reed – New York (1989)

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