Well here’s a timely book! Just the ticket, as we all settle down for a season of Corona Virus, when we won’t be able to leave the house because an alien organism is quietly taking over, breaking through our locked doors, turning our loved ones into creatures we’d really rather not meet (let alone get close to), seriously compromising our ability to go to work or hold dinner parties and generally threatening the future of civilization…
But take what comfort you can, dear readers, (since even if you fill up your freezers, invest in industrial quantities of hand-wash and tape up all the doors, you’ll probably still catch it). Corvid 19 is a pretty little predator. It wouldn’t look amiss on a micro-biologist’s Christmas tree, so just focus on the pictures if you catch it.
The disturbing creatures who plague the little town on Highway Twenty have a much more repulsive aspect– all claws and teeth, with nasty reptilian skin and insectile eyes – not at all the kind of thing that you’d want inside a loved one.
It is also much more murderous. Our Corvid 19 may be really very nasty, but it’s not in the same league. Moore’s infection has a kill rate nearing 100% for anyone affected – so 50 times worse than Coronavirus. It’s actually worse than Ebola even, unless ‘having your body and identity permanently recycled as a host for a parasite’ counts as recovery. Its incubation period is only 48 hours and its spread rate is such that by my calculation (allowing for the most modest version of the organism’s appetite) the entire mammalian population of the planet could be wiped out within 46 days. (Yes, I did the mathematics: please understand that my nerdy dedication is limitless. The intriguing thing – Moore isn’t wrong – is that it would take most of this time just to knock out a modest size town and its animals. For most of its course, the graph moves almost imperceptibly – then boom! The last few days clear the rest of the planet – after which all the food has gone and the party is over. Oh how I love exponential numbers!)
Enough of this! I distract myself. What I wanted to say is that I really, really loved this book.
This is supposed to be a review, so let me get the mechanics over. Michael J Moore knows how to write. His writing intoxicates before you even notice it, leading you hypnotically between mundane reality and dreams and nightmares. His dialogue is superb – he clearly spends a lot of time listening to how people really speak, and (which is equally important) has the craft to make you believe that the very different speech that makes sense when you read it, is a scrupulous reproduction of this. In the same way he creates a town that seems entirely solid and plausible, a place you might think you remember driving through, at the rag end of some unsatisfactory road-trip – yet which comfortably accommodates his fantastical story.
And the characterization: beautiful. I hadn’t expected this. As a general habit, I don’t read ‘orror stories (I only came to this one because an old friend pestered me). So I was rather expecting a reprise of those comic book characters I recall from my last few horror dabblings. But not at all. Each of the characters in Highway Twenty seems sculpted from flesh and blood (quite a lot of that): not a cardboard cut-out or superhero in lycra amongst all of them.
In particular, of course, I was struck by the lead character and his girlfriend (and while I am here, let me pause for a moment to award a special prize for the mentioning of her period. That blood is marginally functional in the story – though he could have copped out and given her a nosebleed – but the mention is refreshingly real and uncomplicated, so well done Michael J Moore, and well done Conor and Shelby). I love this couple, both of them, though neither on their own is wholly likeable. The relationship between them is drawn with an aching honesty about the human heart and its self-deceptions, even as it passes from the troublesome bickering of ordinary living, into some romantic nether hell.
This isn’t a two horse show, however. Moore is equally meticulous in his other characters, even the ones tangential to the plot. They all have depth – one imagines they have lives reaching back out of sight of the narrative – any of them could have been at the centre, if the land had lain a little differently.
This leads, crab-wise, to one of the most interesting things about this book, considered as ‘craft’: it dispenses, most pleasingly, with a lot of the lying tropes that guide our expectation of a ‘disaster plot’. This is not ‘Independence Day’: we are not left at the end, after all the contributory sacrifices, with the usual happy resolution in which the inevitable survival of our hero means that none of the preceding matters. Nor does the final scene offer us the happy reappearance (oh-but-we-thought-you-were-dead!) of his personal loved ones, to give all the gratification of recovering a misplaced iPhone. And this story – though it builds and drives with relentless pace – doesn’t stick to the pyramid structure in which secondary characters function only as hardcore and scaffolding – footholds for the hero’s narrative ascent.
I did read one tedious reviewer who was really quite miffed about this, and suggested that Moore just lacked the concentration to put a proper story together. I think this reviewer quite missed the point. Life isn’t like that, and neither is this story. This narrative makes space for a number of characters who clearly could have been the hero – even dangling the possibility (getting away with it not once but three times!) that we might be encountering the ‘Final Girl’ so beloved of horror writers. A spoiler here – they miss the boat. Michael J Moore looks full-on at the lie: the soothing capitalist myth, that the one who ‘makes it’ is the one who naturally deserves to. Be honest: don’t fool yourself: the awful truth. Plenty of great heroes aren’t going to make it. In life, as in disasters, winning is random. There is no teleology.
I’m wriggling a bit here, as I write this. As one who avoids this genre, I’m shying away from the fact I was engaged – much too engaged I think – by the horrible parasites. I finished this book three weeks ago, and they’ve nestled in my mind ever since. (I rather fear I might have been infected…)
Perhaps it is because we are mammals that we have this enduring fascination with the parasite that takes root and grows within us, consuming us from within, permanently changing us. (Certainly, I never quite recovered from being taken to Alien in the final stages of a pregnancy: who are these foreign creatures who grew their bodies inside mine, tore brutally out of my flesh and ended up eating my life? And more of a problem: why is it when I look in their eyes I see both their terrifying otherness and myself? And how come, given this, I would urge anyone I meet – just as Moore’s ‘changed ones’ do – that this is the best thing I have ever done, that this is a transformation not to be avoided, that this is what happiness is?)
I was hooked by the way that Moore gets inside his creatures‘ minds (or is it ‘mind’?) creating a haunting hybrid consciousness, part alien, part human, a consciousness that thinks it knows itself but doesn’t. Do any of us? Really? Are we not all, like his monsters, stamping through the landscape as if we owned it, consuming remorselessly, destroying all we touch, sentimentally dreaming as we march in our sleep towards the moment when we’ve used up everything and the conditions of our survival are gone – all the while imagining ourselves to be reasonable, rational, entitled?
(No, this isn’t a selfie by one of Moore’s monsters: it’s a Desert Locust. One of the characters in Highway Twenty refers to the creatures as ‘locusts’ and surmises that these might have been the creatures referred to in the Biblical plague. To judge by the descriptions in the text, I think that character may have been correct.)
The monster consciousness is horrible; have no doubt of it: perhaps Moore makes it recognizable but he doesn’t make it sympathetic. These creatures have not the slightest compunction as they destroy their human victims – any more than humans, tucking into Sunday lunch, mind at all that their nourishment rests on the enslavement, imprisonment and slaughter of other species. As the monsters set about preparing their terrified victims as fodder, they chide and chat to them affectionately, as one might cajole some wayward child for resisting bedtime – or perhaps as the hardworking vets (such a kindly profession!) cajole the resistant cattle in the abattoir.
But I’m only a parasite on the planet myself, not a god, so such insights did nothing to change my mindset. I was as relieved as the next woman each time an alien copped it: I certainly felt no tragedy in the explosion of their heads or their black blood spilling on the carpet. Nuke the lot of them, I say! Spray DDT into the ants’ nest, get an airgun to the rats. (And why stop there? What about the squirrels? And the feral cats… And while I’m on the subject – what about those hoards who are creeping into my continent by boat, with their different-coloured skin and their unfamiliar voices and their manifest intention to live in my country and breed: aren’t they threatening me and my children too? The plot of Highway Twenty raises no objections to drowning its intruders…)
Dislike of aliens is by no means unfamiliar and the opposite brings no easy solution. Do humans think so differently from the alien parasites in Michael Moore’s book? What if there really aren’t enough resources for everyone? The future favours the winner, and (say it quietly) this should naturally be me.
As I said, three weeks on and I’m still thinking on this book. For me, (tired old reviewer of too many novels), this is somewhat unusual. Especially for a book in a genre I don’t rate. Personally, though, I wouldn’t have branded this as horror: I am reminded of the classic novels – before science fiction shattered into a host of sub-genres, horror included – Mary Shelley, HG Wells, John Wyndham … I still think of their stories too, and that’s decades later.
So thank you Michael J Moore. Great book. Keep writing. Look after Cait. (And I hope you steer clear of Corvid19.)
Michael J Moore has kindly agreed to be interviewed on this site. I am looking forward to welcoming him for a visit soon. I’m hoping his novelist partner, Cait Moore, will join him…
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