Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Review of "Bethany's Sin" [by Robert McCammon]

When I read my way through Robert McCammon's books in the late-eighties/early-nineties high-school period during which I was discovering a love for horror fiction, Bethany's Sin was probably my least favorite of the bunch.  It just didn't grab me, for whatever reason.

I was a bit apprehensive, then, about revisiting it; but I was also curious to see how it would stack up against my memory of it, because there have been a few instances in which I've returned to a novel I disliked in high school, only to find in adulthood that it suited me just fine.  Stephen King's Cujo and The Tommyknockers and Gerald's Game are probably the best examples, but you can also put Fahrenheit 451 and To Kill a Mockingbird and A Separate Peace on that list.

Hey, what can I say; sometimes, younger me got things wrong.  Younger me also thought Diamonds Are Forever was a good movie, so what did he know?

In any case, I thought there might be a chance that I would have a better experience with Bethany's Sin these many years later, and hey, whattaya know: I did.

Sort of.

I mention this up front because I realize before having even written it that a great deal of this review is going to end up being negative, and I don't want to give the impression that I didn't enjoy rereading the novel.  I did enjoy rereading it.  In fact, I read the last half of it practically in one sitting, while staying up late as ... well, late as sin doing laundry one night.  I'd hear the dryer stop and think, "Gosh, I'd better go get those shirts out before they wrinkle," and I'd keep going for a page or two more because I simply didn't want to stop reading.  I only vaguely remembered what happened, and I wanted to bring those dim memories into focus.

My shirts didn't wrinkle, but it was touch and go on every load.

So, yeah; I definitely enjoyed reading the book for the first time in a couple of decades.  Let's all be very clear about that, so that when I start talking about the elements that I don't think work too well, nobody will be confused as to the overall feelings I have about the book.




I should mention, I suppose, that there will most definitely be spoilers in this review.  I'll do my best not to go overboard, but I'm not going to make any promises.

*****

"Most dangerous is the female," she said softly, because she strikes without warning.  She appears soft, and weak, and directionless, but that is the basis of her power.  When the time is right" -- she drew a fingernail across his stomach, and a red welt rose slowly -- "the female has no hesitation."  (Chapter 2)

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Bethany's Sin, here is a brief synopsis: Evan Reid, along with his wife Kay and their daughter Laurie, moves to a tiny Pennsylvanian village called Bethany's Sin.  Kay has gotten a job teaching math at a nearby college, and Evan, a writer (and former POW in Vietnam), is hoping to benefit from the relative quiet.  Little do they know that Bethany's Sin is being stalked at night by a group of seemingly-supernatural killers who ride on horseback and kill anything in their path.  Evan will eventually learn that the secret behind this terror involves a powerful woman, Kathryn Drago.  She was once in charge of an archeological dig in Turkey that excavated an ancient battleground, and also disturbed the slumbering spirits of Amazonian warriors ... who hitched a ride back with her.

What's going on here is that Drago becomes possessed by these Amazonian revenants, and brings them back to America, where they end up in the sleep little hamlet of Bethany's Sin, Pennsylvania, there to live on in host bodies.  They ride the night sometimes, and do fun things like killing hobos and chasing drunk drivers; they also seem to enjoy slipping roofies to guys and raping the shit out of them so as to get pregnant and continue the line.  And sometimes -- apparently to increase the males' potency in some way -- they mutilate the men by chopping off an arm or a leg, or two legs.  Or, other times, they just bury an axe in a man's head.

These Amazons were -- in their original earthly guise -- from Themiscrya, and if that makes you think of Wonder Woman ... well, I'd like to point out that Wonder Woman came from Themyscira.  And yes, I do indeed assume that somebody at DC simply misspelled Themiscrya decades ago and the company kept on truckin' with it ever since.  I could be wrong.

All this strikes me as being pretty damn cool.  You know what?  I like women.  Among the many, many things I find to be compellingly hot: a woman who can kick ass.  I don't mean in a fake-ass Alias and/or Buffy the Vampire Slayer way (although I love both of those shows); I mean in a Gina-Carano-in-Haywire way.  Hot.  Sorry; but it's just the truth.

So you better believe I'm cool with the notion of an entire army of scantily-clad badass women running around ancient Greece, decapitating fools with impunity.  They don't even have to be particularly pretty, 'cause you just know they're all athletic and stuff, so they're hot by default; the rampant decapitations only make it more so.

My tongue is in my cheek here, but only a wee bit.  The idea of the Amazon IS a compelling one; scary, too, but part of me can't help but feel a bit romantic about those warrior ladies.

A big part of my frustration with Bethany's Sin, then, comes down to the fact that I don't entirely understand why they are depicted as such villains here.  I mean, yes, I get that they are -- in their new forms as spirits possessing the bodies of modern women -- doing terrible things, such as murdering innocent people, mutilating and torturing husbands, using men for unwilling stud service, and chucking slaughtered male babies into a landfill.  What I don't quite get is why they are doing these things.  Yes, granted, I know that the idea is that those are the types of activities the Amazons would have engaged in during their original, corporeal lives, so they're just continuing their practices.

But why?  Some sort of curse, perhaps?  Did their failure at Caraminya -- the site of the excavation where Drago discovers the site of their defeat -- displease Artemis, causing her to condemn their spirits to be tormented until such time as they can ... what?

This is the novel's major problem.  The villains do not seem to have any particular purpose, other than killing and subjugating men.  Because they are presented as highly intelligent, highly capable women, this creates a discongruity; they are seemingly aimless, yet they are entirely too self-aware and reflective to be pure monsters.  So what gives?  Doesn't it seem as if such nobly capable women as Amazonian warriors were to suddenly find themselves possessing twentieth-century women, they would -- once they accommodated themselves to the seemingly-magical world of technology that existed around them (an accommodation they seem to have made like champs) -- put their considerable capabilities to use in some other, more era-appropriate way?

Or have I perhaps gotten this all wrong?  Is the idea that these women are remaining essentially themselves, and the Amazonian spirits are only exerting themselves as background noise of a type?  In other words, Kathryn Drago is still, at her core, Kathryn Drago, but with a malevolent Amazonian warrior spirit driving her the way you or I would drive a car?  Old Kathryn was Coca-Cola, whereas new Kathryn is Coca-Cola with rum mixed into it: still demonstrably Coca-Cola, but overpowered into a new, more potent and dangerous form.

Is that the idea?

Either way, whether it's full-blown possession or more of a symbiotic parasitism, it doesn't quite come off.  As a result, the novel lacks genuinely compelling bad guys girls, and never quite comes into focus as well as, say, Baal does.  For all its faults, McCammon's first novel worked; his second (or third, depending on how you look at it in relation to The Night Boat, which was published third but apparently written second) doesn't.

Another major example of that lack of focus can be found in the main character, Evan Reid.  Evan is a former short-time POW who was the subject of a particularly unpleasant torture at the hands of the Vietcong during the war.  Let's just say a big-ass spider was involved and leave it at that.  It's clear that McCammon wanted to draw some sort of parallel between this torture -- which was partially conducted by a woman -- and the type of torture the Amazonian revenants have been visiting upon people like poor Harris Demargeon, whose leg inventory now comes up -2 every time it is counted.  Again, it just doesn't work.  Partially this is because the torture scene involves a male Vietcong officer, as well as a female one, and thereby loses the specificity of gender warfare it would need.  However, we also have some understanding of why the Vietcong would be doing that sort of thing to American men.  We don't have to agree with it; we simply have to understand that they have goals, and are pursuing them.  We never get this with the nightriders of Bethany's Sin, so the parallel breaks down yet again.

Even more troubling, to me, is the plot element involving Evan's second-sight.  He is apparently the latest in a long line of Reids who could divine the future in some way through their dreams.  From practically the moment he falls asleep in Bethany's Sin for the first time, Evan is dreaming dreams that warn him that there is danger in this seemingly-quite little burg.

The problem with that is that it is pointless, and ends up adding nothing of any real value to the story.  Evan, as you might recall, is a writer; it would have been just as easy for him to grow suspicious of the town by virtue of the way in which his keenly-developed writer's eye began noticing things that didn't add up.  Add to that the fact that his senses were already on edge thanks to his years fighting in a jungle war, and there is simply no need for precognitive dreams to come into play.  They don't end up having a particularly notable impact on the plot, or on Evan's actions; they are only a distraction.

*****

The novel cannot fully overcome those two major deficiencies.  Not for my money, at least.  However, it still makes for fairly compelling reading, and I think the main reason for that comes down to McCammon's facility -- which seems here to have developed tenfold since the writing of Baal -- to make us empathize with the point-of-view characters.  Evan, Kay, Neely Ames (a journeyman who becomes a sort of town handyman in Bethany's Sin), Oren Wysinger (the sheriff, who is complicit in all of Drago's debaucheries); they all come off as well-sketched, compelling, believable characters.  We feel for these people, and as such, we remain consistently interested in finding out what will happen to them.

I wish there were a few scenes where we were allowed to empathize with Drago.  The closest we get comes during Kay's dreams, when she is having hyper-vivd dreams of fighting as an Amazonian warrior.  These are engaging, evocative sequences, and if we had some similar sequences that allowed us to understand what's going on with Drago, perhaps the novel would have gained some clarity as a result.

So, all in all, what we have in Bethany's Sin is a readable, engaging failure.  That's hardly the worst thig that one could ever say about a novel; I've read more than a few in my time that were failures and yet were neither engaging nor particularly readable, and since those qualities do allow the novel to entertain, on the whole I'd say it's a net win.

A few notes:

  • I really like the opening chapter, in which Kathryn Drago -- unnamed here, presumably so that we can be surprised when she reappears later in the novel -- risks life and limb while trying to discover the Amazonian ruins.  It's a well-written sequence, and starts the novel out on a note of highly appropriate mystery and apprehension.  I especially like the way it subtly foreshadows elements that will become important to the novel.  The opening sentence refers to a woman's shadow falling over a group of men; nice touch, that.  So is the way in which Kathryn operates with total disdain for what the male archeologists think and believe.  She is, in her own way, already an Amazonian.
  • In Chapter 7, Wysinger is going about his rounds, in the course of which he has a brief interaction with a teenage girl who works at a McDonald's.  He lusts after her a bit, right down to noticing the fine hair on her arms.  This is creepy in a way (although eminently relatable from a mature male point of view), and I get the feeling that we are supposed to think this is one of the multitude of reasons why Amazonians decided to forgo the world of men as much as humanly possible.  But Wysinger doesn't act on his pervy feelings in any way; he doesn't leer at the girl, or try to coax her into some inappropriate activity.  He simply notes that she is desirable, and keeps his thoughts to himself.
  • I like the scene in which poor Muscadine John -- the charmingly-named hobo -- wanders into Bethany's Sin unwittingly and meets a bad end.  He appears in only one chapter, and serves absolutely no importance to the overall plot, but he is a nicely-drawn character who, like more major ones, instantly engages our sympathies.
  • What's with the electric-blue eyes?  This seems, to me, like the type of detail one would find in a movie, where there would be a visual need -- or if not a need, then at least a desire -- to make the women in Drago's cult ominous-looking.  In a novel, though, I don't know that it makes much sense.
  • Let's go back to the Wonder Woman thing.  McCammon, a wily fellow, has correctly sussed out that many readers will be put in mind of that most famous of lady superheroes.  This would have been especially true in 1980, when the three-season run of the Wonder Woman television series (starring Lynda Carter) had only ended the year before.  So as to acknowledge this, McCammon wisely has Evan asks "Amazons?  Like Wonder Woman?" at one point when another character is giving him some info.  More entertainingly, he has several of the possessed women wear bracelets throughout the novel.
  • Kathryn is described as being rather Amazonian in stature, a nice coincidence that I'm sure was deeply appreciated by the Amazonian spirit that decided to take control of her body.  Are we meant to think that that is why Kathryn was chosen?  I don't know; if so, it doesn't come across.  Either way, while reading the novel, I could not help but picture Kathryn as Caroline Munro, who was a notable model and actress during the seventies.  This is probably due to the fact that I'd recently watched The Spy Who Loved Me, and had Munro on the mind; never a bad thing, that.

Caroline Munro in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974)


And on that note of cheesecake, I suppose I've said roughly enough about Bethany's Sin.  If you've never read the novel, don't let my negativity dissuade you from checking it out.  It's fun, with numerous excellent scenes, and you might not be bothered by some of the things that bothered me.  As I've indicated, I think the macro of the novel doesn't quite come together; but so much of the micro is good that it does not keep this from being an enjoyable read.

Next up on my McCammon reread adventure will be The Night Boat.  It'll be a while before we get to that one, though; before that, I'm going to tackle Shadowland by Peter Straub, and I've got several Stephen King-centric pieces I want to tackle, as well.

Either way, I'll be back soon!



8 comments:

  1. Random scribblings of thoughts while reading.

    Amazons, huh? ......Did they ever meet a girl named Diana by any chance?

    Next paragraph: Oh.

    In a moment of true geekdom, wiki'ed Amazons and yep, turns out their an original part of Greek mythology.

    I recall looking up old childhood kids shows (Heathcliff, Raccoons, Insp. Gadet) and being surprised at the mature way women were handled in all of them. The idea of empoerment for women must still have been recently new and all stunted adolescence and just plain sickos must not have arrived until later. I find a film like Sucker Punch profoundly disturbing.

    Pity McCammon can't quite manage the same maturity here. He also borrows a lot. I know all fiction does that, but this extent smacks of uninspired invention, and conscious casting about for anything that might suggest an idea.

    "A readable, engaging failure." Perhaps that's what Doctor Sleep will amount to. It's the first best case scenario I've ever had about it.

    Not to self: Start anti-"Sleep" fanboy rant here. Point out clumsy psychic plot element, maybe reference George Lucas?

    That reminds me: here's a website to paste and enter for that Michael Kaminski book The Secret History of Star Wars. It's got great informative essays, including whatever became of Marcia Lucas.

    As for the book, the important thing to remember is McCammon was still on a learning curve, trying to find his strengths, weaknesses and what his style was supposed to be. better times are just round the corner.

    ChrisC

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    1. I know McCammon himself is a bit ambivalent toward his first few novels, and has said he feels they are evidence of someone learning to write in view of the public. I think that's a bit harsh; he knew to write, and pretty well, but was learning to write exceptionally well.

      I've got my issues with "Bethany's Sin," enough so as to label it a failure, but that certainly doesn't keep it from being, at its core, a competently-written tale, and a readable one. All learning writers should manage to do as well!

      Now, for my rebuttal of your anti-"Dr. Sleep" sentiment: well, this IS King we're talking about, so the odds of the novel being readable and engaging are pretty darn good. I'm just wondering if we're ever actually going to get to read the thing!

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  2. Here for the record is that link I promised, totally escaped me while writing first comment.

    http://secrethistoryofstarwars.com/

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    1. Bookmarking for later perusal; sounds great.

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  3. I really enjoyed Bethany's Sin. It certainly doesn't rank with Swan Song, Wolf's Hour, or They Thirst.

    Nonetheless, I found it engaging enough to keep my attention whilst sitting in a tropical sauna that is Washington, D.C. in August, smoking cigars out on the back porch of the hotel (no smoking in the rooms).

    This is on my list to review on my blog in the near future.

    Great review, Bryant!

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    1. Thanks! I'm looking forward to yours on "Books of Blood," although since I've never read them I'll have to bookmark them for later perusal. I'm hoping to start working some Clive Barker into the mix here at some point down the road.

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  4. BTW, how do I follow this blog? I follow your old blog via the "follow" button. I would not have known about this review had it not been for Hunter at McCammon.Com posting it on Facebook.

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    1. That's a good question I don't entirely know how to answer.

      There's a way to do it through Google Reader, because all the blogs I follow pop up there, but I'll be darned if I know exactly how I made them do it!

      Are you on Facebook? If so, head to http://www.facebook.com/bryantburnette and shoot me a friend request. I always toss links up there.

      Similarly, you can get me on Google+ here:
      https://plus.google.com/u/0/103411475979670382472/posts

      If I can figure out the specifics of Google Reader later, I'll update.

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