Thursday, October 20, 2011
Throwback, by Mark Manley
November, 1987 Popular Library
Proving yet again that '80s horror fiction knew no boundaries, Mark Manley's Throwback is a creepy and twisted tale about a middle-aged woman who discovers one day that a monster is growing on her back. It's also further proof that just about anything could get published in the wacky world of horror paperback originals; not that the novel is bad or anything, but it's obviously a short story disguising itself as a full-length novel.
The lady is named Arleen, and her mother too was a "throwback," which we learn is redneck terminology for other women in the past who, in middle age, grew a mutant product of some failed, offshoot race upon their backs. The novel opens with a prologue in 1939 in which Arleen's mother is killed by the local sheriff; Arleen herself is just a child, and is sent off to an adoption agency.
Too young to remember those horrible events, Arleen grows up to be a famous painter who knows nothing about her mother's monstrous nature. Then one evening she notices a bump along her neck, one that won't go away. Lots of meetings with confused doctors ensue. Arleen's twenty year-old daughter, Sharon, becomes concerned about her mother, mostly because she can feel her mom's panic. The mother and daughter share a psychic bond, something everyone else shrugs off but Manley has employed it so he can keep us up to date with what's going on with Arleen when she becomes full-on monster.
It also gives him another way to fill pages. Throwback is filled with incidental detail and time-wasting sequences, in an effort to reach the page count. Manley's favorite trick is the single-sentence paragraph. And the first half is a bit of a bore, as we the readers know what is going to happen to Arleen, but obviously the characters don't, so we have lots of scenes with doctors discussing her problem, going in to surgically remove the "tumor" (which is grapefruit-sized in a day). Meanwhile Arleen feels her mind regressing to some pre-human state, concerned only with survival.
After the bump is removed and grows back regardless, the doctors know something for sure is up. But it's too late, as we finally see the "throwback," which sprouts from Arleen's back. Manley doesn't really describe it, which is unfortunate. He only says it is rodent-like; not a human-sized rat, but of the rat family. Something like that. It grows to such a size that Arleen soon appears as the bump on its back. The monster even controls her legs, which are now twice the size and hairy, stampeding over the fallen bodies of doctors and nurses as it rips through them and escapes the hospital.
This third quarter of the novel comes right out of an '80s straight-to-video horror movie, as schlocky and campy and creepy as you can get, as Arleen-the-monster proceeds to eat cats, kill gangbangers, and generally sow hell in a small town in the middle of the night. Meanwhile Sharon follows after her, using her handy psychic rapport to guide the police.
The climax again is from an '80s movie, as the monster holes up in a mall and the police go in after it. But what's unfortunate is that Manley really obscures the action. Since by this point we are solely within Sharon's perspective, we never get to read what happens during the monster's battle with the cops; it's all relayed by radio reports or cops coming over to tell Sharon what's going on. In a way this is bizarre, because you'd figure given that since this is the part we've all been waiting for, Manley would at least focus on it. Now that he actually has something to write about, you'd think he'd actually write about it. But he doesn't, and it's very unsatisfying.
It ends basically the same as the 1939 prologue, and the readers and the characters are left with the mystery -- will the same thing happen to Sharon in twenty years or so? Anyway, not the most entertaining horror novel, but definitely interesting in a way, with a creepy plot. The descriptions of Arleen's twisted and deflated body dangling from the monster's shoulders are particularly memorable and unsettling. If there had been more stuff like that, and less time-killer about Sharon and her husband trying to conceive a child, then perhaps Throwback would be less obscure today.