Keith Laumer–A Plague of Demons (1965)

PLGDMN1967(Alan Aldridge’s bizarre and lovely cover for the 1967 Penguin edition)

 

If the adage were “Don’t judge a book by its monsters” I would flagrantly violate that jazz all the dang time. I added A Plague of Demons to my list because of Wayne Barlowe’s lovely illustration of the titular alien invaders:

Wayne_Barlowe_Demon

(Barlowe also created the cover for the Baen edition, which is the one I read)

The strategy of reading a book for its monsters has worked for me before. I read A. E. Van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle because of the influence it had on D&D’s famous displacer beast, and found it to be an enjoyable enough story with some absolutely brilliant monster concepts. The sheer antediluvian perfection of Ixtl alone is enough to make it one of my favorite novels.

The demon was a standout in Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials because of its name; among random collections of letters and syllables (Czill, Chulpex, Dirdir etc…) a simple, recognizable word is much more evocative. It suggests more about the reactions of fear and wonder human characters have to the alien than it does about some made up culture or civilization, which I think reflects very good writing.

It’s subtle little hints of technique like that that show you Keith Laumer knows what he’s doing. This is a nicely executed, very fun book. It’s part espionage, part horror/suspense (my favorite part) and part space opera, and it does each of the three well in my opinion. Its core concept can be summed up in one simple sentence: Demons from space steal human brains to power their war machines. Simple, elegant, fun. A likeable, witty protagonist. A cool spin on the alien invasion trope. And great monsters. If you’re looking for enjoyable, actiony, entertaining sf novels, this one is worth reading in my opinion.

Getting into Laumer’s technique just a little more…One thing that stuck out to me was how sudden the events were. At first it felt like the pacing of the novel was off; usually things have to happen at a very specific time for a story to come off right, and at moments I thought that the novel had missed the tempo, but I think it actually creates a very nice effect. The suddenness is jarring in a way that really contributes to the feverish intensity and anxiety that runs through my favorite sections of the novel.

This same delirious intensity is what makes the monsters so great. We never get too much understanding of them; mostly we experience the vague and crippling horror created by their bizarre psychic attacks. This mystery is what makes them so successful as monsters; the physical description is vivid and concrete, and the effects they have on their victims and their interactions with humankind are illustrated well, but that’s all we know about them; we don’t know their goals or their history or their emotions. This is a really successful use of monsters in narrative because the narrative is about human experience with monsters and not about the monsters themselves; this makes the plot, the characters, and the monsters all much more memorable.

One final note…this isn’t really the kind of novel where you talk about its “themes” but I have been noticing an interesting trend of disembodiment as a major factor in several of the books I’ve read and I finally put my finger on it with this book. For now, I’m not sure exactly what the importance of this theme is, but I’ve been paying attention and I’ve noticed it crop up surprisingly often; it’s a factor in The Synthetic Man, in this novel, even in The Neverending Story oddly enough. On the other hand, in some books I feel like it’s been conspicuously absent where I would have expected it. It’s something I plan to continue to focus on. Maybe by the end of the summer I’ll have some good new ideas about how our relationship with our bodies has evolved along with our relationship with science…any recommended reading on this topic is welcome!

(David Meltzer’s 1971 cover (left) and Barlowe’s 1985 cover (right))

The quest continues soon with Naomi Novak’s lovely novel Uprooted!

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