It’s All Hallow’s Eve tonight___a perfect time to tuck yourself between the covers of a good, scary read. Oooooooo……now to shiver and shake with the ghoulish and the macabre.

But, what can be more chilling than a story with the probability that it could be terrifyingly real?  A story that could happen today, tomorrow, next month or ten years hence but may be percolating secretly under our very noses?

So, chuck the vampires, ghosts, and goblins this year and settle in with The Cobra Event.  It terrified a President*; it will scare the bejesus out of you.

Author : Richard Preston

Release Date : 1997
ISBN : 0-245-40997-3
Pages : 422

A teen-age schoolgirl dies suddenly in bloody, gruesome spasms.  Soon after, previously healthy people succumb violently and inexplicably to the same terrifying end.  Dr. Alice Austen, CDC pathologist, races to identify the killer pathogen…  Thus starts a harrowing investigation  into bio-terrorism.

“Ho-hum”, you’re probably thinking, “…another biotech thriller…not very halloweenish, is it?”  But you want to be scared; and, Richard Preston is no ordinary techno-thriller author.  He writes with the intense objective of rendering us, acutely aware of the genuine, immediate threats facing humanity today.  I feel Preston must have had the urgent need to share his private alarm and agitation; and what more clever way than to couch his facts in a racy, heart-pounding fictional story that’s guaranteed to have mass appeal and thereby higher public awareness and attention to bio warfare.

If you believe in devils, believe in microscopic demons that can transform the world into a living Hell.  Imagine a pandemic of global proportions, the like that can eclipse the horrors of the black plague in the 14th century.  Grave possibilities are magnified to terrifying levels when the threat can be carried out anywhere, by anyone, psychologically imbalanced enough and with the know-how to concoct and release fast-acting lethal viruses, genetically modified to survive modern medicines.

Preston’s incredibly detailed narratives reveal his intimate knowledge and meticulous research in everything he touches on in this book.  One could actually surmise that he has probably dabbled in real autopsies and spied rogue labs.  My edition even has a photo of the baculovirus, the real germs on which this fictional Cobra virus is based on.  In his afterword, “The Reality Behind the Cobra Event”, Preston writes :

“I pursued the subject of biological weapons with the same reporting methods I’ve used for my previous books, which were nonfiction.  The nonfiction roots of this book run deep.”

“The transparent substance I call ‘viral glass’ in this book is an actual material. I have chosen not to give its technical name or describe it too precisely.  I have deliberately distorted and blurred certain key aspects of the bioweapons-making process so as not to publish a deployable recipe.”

“The natural strain of the virus in this book is real, and engineered strains of it have been developed with a broadened host range.  The virus has great peaceful potential because it is so versatile.  Its versatility also makes it a potential weapon.  I have imagined the engineered form of the virus that appears here as Cobra, but it should be taken as one example of a wide range of possibilities that actually exist for the construction of advanced bio-weapons.  The knowledge is public, the techniques are commonplace.  The dark apple hangs on the tree.”

“What is dangerous is human intent…To think that the power of the genetic code is not being bent toward weapons is to ignore the growing body of evidence, the lessons of history, and the reality of human nature.  As Thucydides pointed out, hope is an expensive commodity.  It makes better sense to be prepared.”

So what’s not to be afraid of, if our demons can simply be tank-brewed in an obscure lab in any location___in a top secret military facility, your neighbour’s basement, or even at the back of a delivery van?  The scare is here and it is REAL!

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

*“THE BOOK THAT PETRIFIED THE PRESIDENT :  “Mr. Clinton was so alarmed by…THE COBRA EVENT, which portrays a lone terrorist’s attack on New York City with a genetically engineered virus—that he instructed intelligence experts to evaluate its credibility.” — The New York Times

My Mark : Excellent

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Author : Allan Folsom

Release Date : December 26, 2006

Former police detective Nicholas Marten gets an anguished call from an old flame who is wife to a recently dead U.S. Congressman.  She tells him she is dying of an infection, which she believes was purposely injected.  Her death immediately sends Marten off to an investigative hunt that brings him and U.S. President John Henry Harris together on a harrowing trail toward an old, secret Machiavellian brotherhood with a five-century lust for world power.

This, is a novel on adrenaline.  It’s a fast ride…so pumped up that you actually won’t mind the lack of character development.  No time for that, anyway.  With the number of plot surprises, you’ll just want to know: “What next?”.

From the first page to the last, I felt I was running on a literary treadmill, racing through pages as though I were powered on an energy drink. The action was relentless; and I came out breathless in the end.  I need to get my second wind, though, as the story will run on and on…the book is set up for a sequel.

A lot of reviews have commented that Allan Folsom could have done better and that this effort isn’t up to par with his other books.  Perhaps, true, as the only special thing about it is its whirlwind pace.  A pretty routine thriller, as Publishers Weekly would put it, and for others, a really tall tale.  But what it lacks in plausibility, it makes up for in entertainment.  Well, what’s a thriller for, anyway? Ha, ha!  Oh, and I think it’ll be great on the big screen, too.

One teensy note : There  was the “sniper element” that I felt was just extraneous to the plot. No matter, it does make a good thread for a follow-up.

I enjoyed my run with this zippy novel.  If indeed this book is sub-par, then the author must be a very good one.  This is my first Folsom book, and as it is, this novel is quite a thriller—great for those long waits at the airport.

My Mark : In between Good and Outstanding — Great!

Author :  John Connolly

Release Date : April 25, 2005

“In the crowded killing fields of crime fiction, John Connolly is a unique voice.” — Michael Connelly

Indeed he is.  As my first foray into John Connolly’s work, I am amazed by his ability to elevate crime fiction writing with beautifully crafted prose.  He has a rare knack of weaving elegant, loftily worded paragraphs with contemporary, casually-toned ones.  The result is a smooth read with seamless alterations in moods, without jarring stops and starts, mid-stride.

Black Angel is the fifth novel in a crime series.  The central hero, Charlie Parker,  embroils himself in an investigation over the disappearance of a close friend’s cousin, Alice.  His search leads him to face a horrible truth—the existence of a demonic being known as the Dark Angel, whose lost whereabouts over the centuries have led The Believers, an army of evil men and fallen demons in human guise, to carve a bloody, gruesome trail of death in their search for him.  The Believers is championed by the Dark Angel’s twin, accompanied by a  malevolent soul-eater.

The novel is heavy on the paranormal and the gothic, its inspiration drawn largely from at least three major sources:

a) an Old Testament apocryphal book, The Book of Enoch;

b) the Sedlec ossuary in Czechoslovakia, which as a major setting, appropriately lends the macabre flavor to the story;

(If you’ve never heard of this place, take a peek : )

Official Website

Sterf

Panoramic views of the Bone Church

The Ossuary in Sedlec

c) a controversial Mexican religion venerating the Santa Muerte.

John Connolly’s delightfully detailed historical accounts in this book have probably fired up some readers to learn more about them.  I know they have compelled me to scurry through the internet for my own research.  So midway through the book, I’ve been entertained with a mound of fascinating albeit morbid material on this novel’s inspirations.

The characters are also what make the book interesting.  This particular novel, being the sequel to four others, does not elaborate on the backgrounds of its protagonists; but, you may glean some bits and pieces about them as the story progresses.  Not knowing much about them, though, will not impede anyone’s enjoyment of this book.  However, to know the characters intimately, a new reader to John Connolly would be better served if he were to start from the first in the series, Every Dead Thing.

A lot of credit should also go to the author’s ability to present violence so artistically.   He has an intensely meticulous graphical style that makes his descriptions so vividly crystalline.  Unfortunately, it is precisely this quality that may render the novel too verbose for some readers.   People who prefer a straight-to-the-point manner may be annoyed at being drenched with all that verbiage.

True, the novel could have been a shorter read.   But for readers like me who revel in Connolly’s beautiful phraseologies, there is no such wordiness.  It is a rare treat to find a crime-thriller written with such eloquent and oftentimes almost poetic language; and, an even rarer pleasure to discover one that dared to successfully defy the accustomed patterns of its genre.

My Mark : Excellent

Author : Joe Hill

Copyright : 2007

“Jude had a private collection.”

So begins Joe Hill’s first novel of an aging but successful rock star, Judas Coyne, who possesses a black hobby of collecting the bizarre, the eerie, or the perverse.  Naturally, when an obscure internet auction offers a ghost for sale,  Coyne snaps him up for a thousand dollars.  Little does he know that he would be paying more __much, much more.

The original idea of a poltergeist for sale piqued my interest in this book.  The author set a good pace; his modern  writing style made this an easy read.  He wrote with scenes that abruptly changes moods in mid-stride so you’re jolted from time to time — a pretty good technique in a horror novel.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t really feel the fear of the protagonist; so, I couldn’t feel the terror as well.  That is the failure of this book, I think.  I could just perceive anger and fierce determination in the character but not the all important feeling of terror which should be THE element in a horror novel.

I didn’t have the spine-tingling chills. I didn’t close the book in mid-paragraph because I couldn’t bear to be more scared.  And I didn’t cringe nor take to nail-biting.  For a book that wants to scare,  there were just pinpricks of chilling scenes that gave me little goosebumps, but no more…scenes like Judas Coyne finding the ghost next to him in the front seat, with yellow teeth and mad black scribbles for eyes.  Aside from these very few, nothing much gave me the thrill I was looking for from a horror novel.

But because of a well paced plot and smooth writing style, I still enjoyed the book.  I cannot say, though, that Joe Hill wrote a good horror novel.  A Heart-Shaped Box just lacked that bite of fear for it to be so.  Rather, I shall say that Hill penned a good dark fantasy instead.

My Mark : Good

Author : Lee Child

Release Date : April 26, 2005

According to a guy I met at the bookstore, I’d be doing myself a favor by picking up this book.  Well, why not, I said to myself, it’s on sale and it’s got all these glowing reviews by Newsweek, New York Times, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times,…

I was sadly disappointed.  The book did not live up to the hype.  Maybe I was just too ill (had a fever at the time I was reading it) to appreciate it or I was expecting too much from it.

I liked the beginning pages, though.  It was the middle part—where the hero, Reacher and his lieutenant, Summer, investigates the crimes — that left me flat and bored.

I had to read on though, because the good part might just be toward the end.  I was, in part, right. The end was a surprise as the hero, Reacher, does something I never expected a hero to do.  So, that was OK.

But overall, the characters were all too remote —so stingy with emotions.  It’s as if they actually reveled in their stoicism.  Maybe the author has this “macho thing”.   For instance, Reacher and Summer have sexual relations in the story but as the case closes, Reacher never sees nor hears from her again? Huh? What ever happened to cellphones and e-mails?  It’s not as if the story was set in the 50’s.

Oh well, the book was not a total waste of time.  The author peppers it with interesting bits of trivia on weapons, tanks, etc.   These made up for the book’s rather dull characters.

Entertainment Weekly commented, “[Child] emerges as a worthy successor to Tom Clancy. ”  I’ve read Tom Clancy and enjoyed him immensely.  I don’t think Lee Child’s style comes very close to Tom Clancy’s power to thrill.  But then, this is the first novel I’ve read by this author.  So perhaps his other lauded work, The Persuader, might just get me to change my mind.

My Mark : Mediocre