Originally posted by Brian Switek
On April 6, 2009, at 8:10 AM
One of the unwritten rules of creating a good horror yarn is that the location your story takes place in has to be as frightening as your monster. The setting almost has to act an an extension of the bloodthirsty antagonist; a place that can more easily be seen as its lair than a place of human habitation. In Lincoln Child’s latest novel Terminal Freeze that place is Fear Base, a rotting military facility shivering the the shadow of Fear Glacier, and it is stalked by something utterly horrifying.
Readers of The Relic, another horror novel penned by Child and his sometimes partner Douglas Preston, will feel right at home as they delve into Terminal Freeze. Fear Base is a dusty, dark, and labyrinthine place just as foreboding as the natural history museum in which Preston and Child’s first hit novel was set. (Child’s choice of setting also closely recalls that of John Carpenter’s The Thing, based on the short story “Who Goes There?“) A further similarity to the earlier work is that the story follows a diverse group of characters with a scientist, in this case paleoecologist Evan Marshall, as the hero.
The basic storyline is as follows; a group of scientists discover something frozen in the ice, a creature with two predatory, cat-like eyes. At first they think it is a Smilodon frozen in ice, but as more information comes to light they are less sure of their initial hypothesis. Such a momentous discovery soon grabs the attention of the people who underwrote the expedition, the Terra Prime documentary network, and soon the scientists are sidelined as the film crew turns the base into a media circus.
The plan is to thaw the creature in front of a live worldwide audience, but before that happens the creature disappears. The Terra Prime bosses try to finger who stole the creature, and their anxieties increase of their crew starts to turn up dead. Maybe that thing in the ice wasn’t dead after all, and those who stay at the base have an awfully difficult time figuring out how to kill it.
All of this makes for a familiar, but satisfying, story. It is not the best creature-centered horror story ever written but it is far better than most of the similarly-themed pulp put out in any given year. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that Terminal Freeze is an amalgamation of other stories. The setting is almost straight out of The Thing, the protagonists try a method of killing the creature that fans of The Thing From Another World will immediately recognize, the creature’s demise is very similar to that of the antagonist of Peter Benchley’s White Shark, and there are many, many similarities to Child’s earlier collaborative work, The Relic.
The correspondence between The Relic and Terminal Freeze is anything but coincidence. The scientists in Child’s new book even cite the “Callisto Effect”, a sort of saltationism with a vengeance, that was the pet theory of Dr. Frock in The Relic and Reliquary. It states that when a species becomes too numerous or starts to lose evolutionary vigor a monstrous superpredator suddenly appears and kills until it can kill no more. The new beast in Terminal Freeze is such an animal, a mammal/reptile hybrid that appeared at just the right time to cause the extinction of other creatures, even though its existence is never fully explained. In this way Terminal Freeze is sort of a sequel to The Relic as it clearly occurred in the same fictional universe, and I have to wonder (and, admittedly, hope) whether more novels about “Callisto Effect” creatures are being planned.
There are a few drawbacks to Terminal Freeze, however. First is that the characters are a bit stereotyped. There is the obsessed film producer, the stuck up actress, the wise old Native American, our “everyman put into the wrong situation” hero, etc. Those who act immorally ultimately get what is coming to them and it seems that the monster is an agent of higher powers as much as an earthly threat. This is conventional monster movie stuff; monsters act as a final judgment for the immoral. There is also a helluva lot of scientific jargon, particularly involving sound. I cannot explain why without giving too much of the novel away, but the scientists use so much jargon so frequently that they resemble the stereotyped scientists of 1950’s b-movies more than any academics I personally know.
In some parts of the novel it seems that Child wants to show off what he knows about a given subject and does so through his characters. In one part the paleoecologist has to perform an on-the-spot autopsy. He protests that he has not studied a cadaver since grad school and wouldn’t know what to make of it, yet he delivers a point-by-point study of the obliterated body that would make any forensic professional proud. Child falls into this trap of showboating his own knowledge through his characters multiple times in the book, and it certainly makes it seem more like classic schlock than realistic horror.
If you are a fan of creature features with a free weekend and a few bucks to spend I would certainly recommend picking up Terminal Freeze. It is quick, fun, and wouldn’t make a bad movie if done right. If you’re are not particularly fond of monsters causing mayhem in an isolated Arctic base, though, you might want to give this one a pass. It’s satisfying for fans but those looking for a superior book might want to check out The Relic instead.