Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Guy N. Smith Book Review - Manitou Doll

Wow, it's been a while since I've reviewed a Guy N. Smith book. It's not that I've run out of books, in fact I've got a stack of unread Smith books piled higher than a giant mutant crab, it's just that I typically read in bed before I go to sleep. That nightly ritual has since been supplanted by my Nintendo DS, the siren's song of ScummVM and my collection of Lucasarts adventure games being too strong to resist. Well, with Halloween coming up it's the perfect time to dive back into the blood-soaked world of death and clumsy sex metaphors that is the Smithiverse.

Of course Smith is best known for his horror books, but he has also written a lot of Westerns and Manitou Doll starts with a prologue that allows Smith to briefly indulge his taste for that genre. In 1868 Kansas, a Native American (or "Red Indian" as Smith puts it in his book) named Mistai is raped by a bunch of genocidal US Cavalrymen after they wipe out her village. She prays to Manitou for retribution, but I guess Manitou is kind of a dick because he curses her bloodline. Cut to the present day (ie 1981) and we are introduced to a woman named Jane (just Jane), a direct descendant of Mistai who has been passed down a gift for woodcarving, an ancient curse and an intense hatred of the white man. So she emigrates to the UK, go figure. She finds employment doing fortune telling (gypsy, Native American... close enough) and woodcarving at Shaefer's fair, one of those seedy seaside funfairs that British people flock to during Summer and pretend to enjoy. It's an excellent place to set a book like this, too. Ramshackle quayside shops offering fatty, overpriced snack foods. Ill-maintained carnival rides staffed by surly inbreds. Pasty, grumpy British holidaymakers complaining about the weather, the prices and that they should have gone to Spain this year instead. Truly, it is a horrifying creation.

The book opens on a particularly suspenseful moment. For some reason two rival biker gangs have decided to make Shaefer's fair the epicenter of a large-scale brawl. Things finally boil over when a small child accidentally sticks some fairy floss in the face of a particularly nasty biker named Fat Fry. The guy goes apeshit (maybe he's diabetic) and in a particularly graphic sequence he punches out the boys mother, sending blood and teeth flying, and knocks the kid over onto a protruding nail which pierces his spine, crippling him instantly. The funfair immediately erupts into violence and in the chaos Fat Fry and his friend manage to slip into Jane's tent for some light gang rape. They get their comeuppance though, that evening they are decapitated when their bikes slam into the rear of a truck.

With all of the bodies and blood cleaned up, Roy and Liz Catlin and their deaf daughter Rowena arrive at the seaside resort, determined to have an enjoyable holiday despite the shitty weather. Rowena heads straight to the fortune teller's tent and takes an immediate shine to Jane, who gives Rowena an ugly carved doll. Rowena forms a strange attachment to the doll, but Liz finds it deeply disturbing. Soon it becomes apparent that Shaefer's fair has become the focal point for strange demonic forces, giving Jane's carvings supernatural powers and causing bad things to happen whenever it's convenient to the plot.

Roy and Liz are pretty vile protagonists. Roy is a wet fish who is led around by his boner like it's a divining rod and Liz is a hysterical superbitch. The two of them seem to have no control over Rowena whatsoever, she slips away at every opportunity to, for instance, take a ride on a ghost train with a creepy child molester. Jane is the only likable character out of the three but she is shoved into the background for most of the book. She is trotted out occasionally to provide some cryptic clues or an exotic love interest, and typical of the Smithiverse there's some weirdly retrograde gender dynamics. The curse was enacted not because Jane was raped by a white guy but because she enjoyed it. Roy gets a boner when she reveals that she orgasmed during the rape (creeeepy) and then they totally do it too. Unfortunately her copulation with whitey shames her ancestors even further. Way to go, Jane.

There's also the usual parade of paper-thin characters, set up like bowling pins to be knocked over in ridiculous, gory ways. One guy is fed up with his fat, annoying girlfriend so logically he attempts to rape her on the Big Dipper while it's still in motion and packed with people. He's unsuccessful thanks to some teenage girls who hold him still while his presumably-now-ex-girlfriend literally rips his balls off. Unfortunately their act of vigilante justice is interrupted by a freak accident that tears everyone on board to shreds. Smith gets some good mileage out of carny stereotypes too. A description of an inbred hunchback is lifted wholesale from one of Smith's crabs books, but I prefer to imagine it's the same character, traveling from book and book dispensing vague threats and ominous warnings to Smith's protagonists.

Smith's books are at their most entertaining when they reach the heights of silliness and luckily there are a few parts of this book that are ri-goddamn-diculous. The most hilarious parts of the book involve Rowena's evil doll, which make the Zuni Doll story from Trilogy of Terror look downright sensible. One guy gets lost at sea and is pummeled to death by the tiny wooden doll. Another couple taste his miniature fists of fury during a fishing trip, the doll somehow managing to pulp a man's entire head. That naughty little doll, always running off and getting into shenanigans. One of the highlights of the book is a sequence involving the best Punch and Judy show ever. I defy you to read these chapters with a straight face.

I thought this one was pretty good. Rather pessimistic and nasty in parts, especially the great opening scene at the fairground. Nothing else in the book quite matches the awesomeness of Fat Fry, but it still had enough silly moments to hold my interest. Like a seaside funfair, Manitou Doll is seedy and predictable but it's still a fun day out if you don't take it too seriously.

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