The very first Dan Simmons book I read was Carrion Comfort. That novel, quite frankly, scared the piss out of me. Not only was it scary and disturbing and menacing, right in the middle of it Simmons killed off a character I loved. I was shocked. Outraged. And hooked. I mean, if he could do that, then he’s capable of anything and I have to keep turning pages to find out how truly bad it can get. I became a Simmons fan. Now whenever somebody is looking for a scary vampire novel, I tell them to read Carrion Comfort.
You could call Simmons a horror writer, but he’s tough to pigeonhole. Most of his stories deal with the supernatural. Ghosts are an element in many stories. Even Black Hills, which is historical, is also a ghost story. Simmons tells the stories Simmons needs to tell. If there’s a common thread, it’s that all his novel are big, meaty, sprawling, well-researched and disturbing on some level. Simmons pulls no punches.
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Flashback is like that. Set in a grim, not-too-distant future, the global economy has collapsed, societies have fallen apart. The Japanese, embracing a feudal model, have risen as a world power. Israel has been nuked out of existence. A caliphate has taken over the Middle East, Europe and Canada. Mexico is reclaiming parts of the United States it feels were stolen. America, destroyed by debt, entitlements and an overreaching but weak political system, has given up its freedom for what little security it can find. The majority of Americans are addicted to a drug called flashback that allows them to relive fully happier moments of their lives. It’s a grim scenario Simmons paints. It’s a cautionary tale, too, because it uses events happening today to show how they can lead to the events happening in the story.
Flashback is also a murder mystery and a thriller, and also a story of redemption and acceptance. And yes, it’s a ghost story, too. Or should I say, the characters long for ghosts and use ghosts to find relief from their miserable existences.
Simmons sums up the philosophy of the tale in this passage:
It happens to every race and group and nation, Henry Big Horse Begay says, still laughing. The days of greatness roll in like some great, undeserved tide, are smugly celebrated by the lucky peoples– even as mine once did– as if they had earned it, which they had not, and then the tide ebbs and the nations and tribes and peoples find themselves standing there dumb and dumbfounded on the dry and garbage-strewn beach.
So yeah, it’s a powerful story.
I haven’t read every novel Simmons has written, though eventually I hope to. He’s just not an author to glom willy nilly. It takes a measure of commitment to get into his work. No gobbling his words like M&Ms, or reading them in dibs and drabs, a page here, another page later. His novels are big (Flashback is 550 pages) and take time to read and time to digest. Quite often I will find myself stopping, thinking, What? What did he just say? Then I have to go back and reread, more slowly, more carefully. His aren’t the type of genre novels where a reader can think, Gee, I’m in the mood for a ghost story. Yeah, Simmons will give you ghosts, but he’ll give you a whole lot more at the same time. It’s that whole lot more that put him on my favorites list.