Monday, 1 August 2016

The Manitou

Graham Masterton The Manitou (1976)
I wanted to see the film ever since I read about it in Starburst magazine when I was a kid, but never did, which is probably for the best because it's probably crap. Then about ten years ago I found Revenge of the Manitou in the local library. I started reading it but didn't get very far for some reason, and so all I took from this was a realisation of the film I never saw having been based on a novel. More recently I've been vaguely engaged in an effort to catch up with my own past, reading things I've either forgotten or never finished, so I've been on the look out for this for a while on the grounds of it making more sense to read this one, then see if I can still be arsed to hunt down the sequel and have another crack at it.

I'm not really a fan of the horror novel, excepting I suppose a few things which I'm not sure should really count as horror. The problem is that the genre only seems to have one story so far as I can tell: uh oh - there's some horrible stuff happening so let's hope there's a logical explanation for it, but - oh shit - there isn't, and it really is the horrible thing we were afraid it might be, and there's no way to stop it, but somehow we've managed to stop it so everything's fine; or is it? Therefore, as with Frank Carson's jokes, the success of horror fiction is in the telling and how well the author can blindside the reader by hanging something interesting or even genuinely surprising on a retread of the aforementioned story - zombie squirrels, the undead spirit of an ice-cream man turned killer, some other incongruous juxtaposition of the innocuous and the visceral; or they might just try to make us throw up by describing dripping cocks sewn onto human foreheads, but that stuff isn't really worth bothering with; and nor is anyone who tells you that such and such a tedious gorefest has anything interesting to say about the human condition, because it usually doesn't.

I suppose Native American mythology seemed like a new angle in 1975, and so we have The Manitou. The story runs uh oh - there's some horrible stuff happening so let's hope there's a logical explanation for it, but - oh shit - there isn't, and it really is an evil Native American medicine man born again from a womb-like tumour growing on a young woman's shoulder, and there's no way to stop him taking revenge for what the white man has done to his country, but somehow we've managed to stop him so everything's fine; or is it? I'm not an authority on Native American mythologies by a long shot, although I've picked up bits and pieces through how they relate to aspects of the Mesoamerican cultures to the south; but I'm pretty sure that most of the lore here is horseshit invented by the author based on a few Ripley's Believe It or Not strips in the Sunday newspaper. It doesn't ring true; it makes the basic error of assuming that Native American culture was a single thing comprising consistent variations on a single belief system; and it imposes a good-evil duality upon native American mythology which doesn't really work, at least not from my understanding of the subject.

In addition, whilst I'm rolling my eyes, Masterton is pretty damn free and easy with the term Redskin, so it's one of those of its time novels frequently championed by those who feel that political correctness is somehow ruining their lives.

'Maybe we're totally mistaken,' said Amelia. 'Perhaps the spirit is somebody living today. I mean, a hooked nose doesn't have to be Indian. It could be Jewish.'

She's probably thinking of Masterton's The Rabbi.

Anyway, once you're resigned to all of the above, and the fact that what you're reading is essentially horseshit, The Manitou is actually surprisingly decent for what it is. I managed to assume that liberties taken with Native American mythology were mostly things I hadn't heard of, and the author remains judiciously vague in this respect. The opening chapters with fortune telling, tarot cards, and a bewildering reference to watching an episode of Kojak on the telly seem vaguely hokey, but the pace is sufficient to keep the reader interested, and it pays off once we're past the half way mark. It might hopefully occur to some readers that the Manitou has an entirely legitimate reason to be pissed off, and Masterton happily meets the issue head-on in a couple of places.

Singing Rock frowned. 'But surely you wouldn't object if we transferred the Manitou to someone useless—like a hopeless drug addict, maybe, or a bum from the Bowery, or a Negro criminal?'

'Singing Rock, that's out of the question. This whole thing has happened because one race exercised prejudice against another. If it hadn't been for the way the Dutch threatened this medicine man back in 1650, he wouldn't be here now, threatening us. I can't see that there's any justification for doing the same thing all over again to another racial minority. I mean, we'd just be perpetuating the evil.'

It would still be a massive stretch to claim this as a novel about relative values and issues of race - as I expect some horror bores have doubtless tried - but Masterton's views are nevertheless refreshing, so I'm inclined to disregard a few instances of Prince Phillip style cultural insensitivity. Additionally, the climatic end in which somehow we've managed to stop him so everything's fine wheels out some genuinely surprising shit, not least help enlisted from the spirit of the computer down at the Police Department.

It's a horror novel with all of the limitations of the genre, but The Manitou does its best, and generally succeeds, and does it so quickly that no-one has time to get bored. I'd say classic might be stretching a point, but it's certainly a decent read.

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