Wednesday, 1 March 2006

Golem

Greg Vilk
Ricochet Press (self-published)
ISBN: 0-9772189-0-2

It’s 1942, and the Second World War is raging across Europe. Far removed from the conflict, in the icy wastes of Greenland, a crack team of U.S. Rangers is sent to destroy a secret Nazi research facility and rescue the American scientist forced to work there.

Saddled with the scientist’s daughter and a bureaucrat from the War Department, the Rangers set off on their assignment. But the base is not all it seems, and the Germans’ meddling has unleashed something dark and hateful. As the Americans scrabble to survive, their mission is suddenly the least of their worries.

Greg Vilk’s ‘about the author’ gives his day job as visual effects director on a number of blockbusting Hollywood films, and ‘Golem’ is written in that same cinematic tradition. Description and characterisation are so sparse that the novel could pass for a film script, with only the dialogue possessing any sign of effort on the author’s part. Even that is barely passable; when they’re not spouting action-movie clich├ęs, characters both heroic and otherwise announce their plans and motivations to all and sundry.

Characterisation is paper-thin, with most of the Rangers apparently lifted straight from the Dirty Dozen or Kelly’s Heroes. Carrying a picture of one’s daughter and kissing it from time to time does not a realistic character make… though it does mark the poor sod for ‘tragic’ and ‘heroic’ death. The traitor – and isn’t there always a traitor? – is sprung without any foreshadowing, and his actions never explained beyond the novel’s desperate need for a diabolical villain. As if a big faceless monster stomping around the place wasn’t enough.

Ah, the monster. Pulp horror excels when it builds an atmosphere of suspense, and keeping your nasty in the shadows is a simple and effective way to build that tension. Strange, then, that on its first appearance Vilk’s Golem does the literary equivalent of tap-dancing in front of the camera. It kills, and we know how and what it is. Fear of the unknown, the greatest terror of all, never even gets a chance.

That doesn’t stop Vilk constantly trying to up the ante, however. Each time the golem kills, it grows a little more powerful… and a couple of feet bigger. By the time the dramatic climax arrives, you could practically see the thing on an atlas, but it’s still no more frightening. Size is not the same thing as scary. The golem is a wasted opportunity – just think of the possibilities for creepy and genuinely disturbing horror. A thing that builds its body from the inanimate matter about it could be terrifying, insidious and utterly alien. Instead the critter just stomps around hitting people with spades and ice, and getting bigger.

You’d think a man who works in cinema would have seen The Thing, or Alien, and taken a few valuable lessons away. But there’s nothing new here, and everything unrolls just how you expect it might. The pace is fast and the action never lets up, but that only means there’s no time for readers to develop any connection to the cardboard cut-out characters. When they die, it’s almost a relief. At least now their eyes can ‘bug out’ no more; they’re saved from enduring Greg Vilk’s endlessly repeated expression of surprise. And to save myself ever from having to read this again, I’m going to bury Golem in the depths of the shelf marked ‘abominable screenplay in disguise’.


This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com