James Morrow's bizarrely funny new book Shambling Towards Hiroshima turns the usual Godzilla paradigm on its head: Instead of being inspired by the horrors of nuclear war, Godzilla is its herald. OMG spoilers!
The latest book by famed satirist Morrow, Shambling Towards Hiroshima might be the silliest book I've read in ages, which is saying a lot considering how silly some of the others have been. And yet you sort of take its demented scenario half-seriously despite yourself, because the narrator's bitchy stream of observations feel so true-to-catty-life.
In Shambling, a horror movie actor named Syms Thorley (who's sort of a Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi figure) tells of his participation in a mysterious government project during World War II. It turns out that while the Army was developing nuclear weapons with the help of Oppenheimer and crew, the Navy had an alternate plan for getting the Japanese to surrender: specially bred giant lizards that could crush Japanese cities. It's a mere historical accident that nuclear bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki instead of scaly behemoths.
Where does Thorley come in? The Navy wants to arrange a demonstration for the visiting Japanese brass, to convince them to surrender. The specially bred miniature versions of the giant lizards are too docile, so the Navy builds an eerily convincing miniature giant lizard suit for Thorley to wear and stomp a model city, under the direction of famed Frankenstein director James Whale.
It's even more demented than it sounds. The book is one half Thorley's reminiscences of Hollywood feuds and politics, and one half the insanity of total war and the mindset that creates weapons of mass destruction. You veer from descriptions of the mechanics of bringing to life Corpuscula (a Frankenstein-esque character Thorley plays) to the dueling plans to nuke Japan and unleash giant monsters on it.
This book will appeal most of all to classic horror and daikaiju buffs, because it's steeped in trivia about both genres. But it also rewrites the history of both genres playfully, adding fictional creautres like Corpuscula, Kha-Ton-Ra, Gorgantua and Lycanthropus. Even with a whole brace of new franchises added, the classic-horror genre in particular winds up feeling incredibly tiny and insular, because it's a tiny community of actors, writers and directors who all know each other. But even if you're not into horror movies or kaiju films at all (deviant!) you'll still enjoy Shambling for its look into the nature of make-believe and the mindset of people who create our most disturbing and campiest fantasies.
Thorley works on two different horror films (involving weird experiments, super-brains and real apes versus gorilla suits) at the same time as he toils on the Navy's top-secret dramatization (which leads to hot lizard-suit dressup sex.) As the book goes along, entertainment and horrifying reality come together more and more, until the phrase "theater of war" takes on a new meaning.
And then you're confronted with the genuine horror, the wholesale slaughter of civilians by weapons of mass destruction, and everything you've been laughing at throughout the book becomes just the frilly covering around the horrendous secret at its core. In the end, you're left wondering if our love for horror movies and apocalyptic spectacles actually aids and abets the real-life world-destroyers by making the idea of an apocalypse seem more acceptable.