Monday, October 3, 2022


Aftershock, by Robert W. Walker
November, 1987  St. Martin’s Press

Another horror PBO from the imprint that brought you The Nightmares On Elm Street, Aftershock was by Robert W. Walker, who later did the four-voume Pinnacle Books series Decoy as Stephen Robertson. I’ve had the first volume of that series for years but still haven’t read it, and a few months ago I contacted Mr. Walker via his website to see if the Kindle editions of Decoy were revised from the original paperback editions. He replied that they were not, and also shared the cool tidbit that “Stephen Robertson” was a play on the fact that his son is named Stephen, “so Stephen Robert-son, get it?” 

At the time I was on a big cop novel kick so thought I’d finally read Decoy, but the way these things go I’ve now moved on to a horror novel kick. And I was surprised to discover that I also had a horror novel by Walker (and another that’s now a Kindle edition, btw). As I always mention, I go through horror kicks every five or six years, where I just want to read or buy every horror PBO I can get my hands on. Then abruptly the kick will fade and I will have absolutely no interest in horror fiction…until the next kick. So maybe it’s like a really lame literary version of lycanthropy or some other affliction. Anyway, Aftershock is apparently one I bought six or so years ago, when I was on my last horror PBO kick – and it’s one I seem to recall wanting to read asap, but just never got around to. 

One thing I’ve learned is that I’m more of a creature feature-type horror fan; I’m not much into the cerebral or gothic horrors. I like the monsters, and that’s what the cover of Aftershock promises. And a note on that uncredited cover art: whoever did it really got some good art direction, as the creature here is depicted almost exactly as it is described in the book. The metal hands, the glowing red eyes, all of it. But then Walker seems to be describing the titular creature from Alien in the book, particularly when it comes to is methods of procreation. Another note on the cover: It took me quite a while to realize that those symbols in the background are actually the collapsed letters of the Hollywood sign. 

This is because Aftershock takes place in Los Angeles, and the collapsed Hollywood sign is indicative of the massive earthquake that rocks the city at novel’s start. For as it turns out Walker has a bunch of stuff going on in Aftershock: it isn’t so much a horror novel as it is a disaster novel. While it does have a healthy dose of creature feature gore, it does take up a lot of its 248 pages focusing on the post-quake carnage of Los Angeles. All I’m trying to say is that we don’t have here a fast-moving piece of horror-pulp a la The Slime Beast, which is probably still my favorite creature feature horror novel yet. Not that Aftershock isn’t cool, too; it just aspires to be more than pulp. 

Curiously, a few reviews on imply that Walker intended this novel to be satirical, spoofing B-movie horror flicks with cipher-like characters and other OTT nonsense. I didn’t get that impression at all. I mean I definitely got that impression with William Schoell’s The Dragon, but here it seemed to me that Walker was genuinely trying to write a novel that encompassed horror, disaster, and even burgeoning romance. What I mean to say is that I didn’t get the impression that his tongue was in his cheek. The sequences from the creature’s perspective, for example, strive to bring the monster to life in a way that is at odds with a “it’s all a spoof of B-movies” impression. Indeed the creature is downright creepy, what with its predilection for eating brains and spinal cords and then hanging its victims upside down to turn into incubation pods for its eggs. 

Actually there’s more than just horror and disaster going on: Walker also works in a runaway virus angle. This is what starts the proceedings, as we meet a husband and wife team of scientists who are several stories underground, working in a sealed-off vault beneath a medical research facility in Los Angeles (called the CCDC, which is humorous in a post-ironic fashion). This weaponized virus can literally eat people, and the stubborn wife – whom we’re told is younger than her husband and likely only married him for status – ignores her husband’s pleas to call off her latest experiment when some minor quakes rock the building. Oh and there’s also a friggin’ cyborg down here, one with flesh arms and legs but steel claws for hands and a monitor for a face. Then a 9.5 quake hits and the virus gets loose, and the scientists suffer a horrible fate. 

This takes us into the brunt of the novel, which concerns the impact of the eartquake and its aftermath. At times Walker’s description of the chaos eerily predicts 9/11, with crashing skyscrapers and panicked people rushing through the smoke and dust-filled streets. At this point we’ve met the character who will for the most part act as the protagonist: Dr. Mike McCain. An AIDs researcher, McCain has come to CCDC to start up a new division or somesuch. We meet him, shortly before the quake hits, as he’s interviewing another doctor who might join: Dr. Casey Stern. 

There’s some fun pre-PC stuff here in that Dr. Stern turns out to be a “stunning honey blonde,” and initially Mike thinks this gorgeous gal is actually “Dr. Stern’s assistant!” After getting his foot out of his mouth Mike begins treating Casey like a colleague; the mistake was borne of innocence and not sexism. That said, Mike does start thinking about the beautiful Casey as more than just a fellow doctor; Walker also adds in a romance element to Aftershock that’s somewhat hard to buy, with these two doctors falling for each other amid the destruction. Oh and I forgot to mention, but Mike himself is a ruggedly handsome type with “wide shoulders” and all that jazz…so maybe the book really is a spoofy take on the typical B-movie cast. 

The horror element only gradually develops, Walker really playing out the creepy creature which is born of the mutated virus that’s unleashed in the rubble of the CCDC. It’s definitely the stuff of nightmares, given to living in the sewer, slipping out at night to steal a human victim, and feeding on the brains and spinal cords – the only things that can blot out its pain. As the days go on it also starts developing the urge to procreate, and next thing you know it’s squatting over some corpses its stashed away and dropping “egg sacs” on them to cultivate into miniature replicas of itself. As I say, it’s all very Alien, save for the bit with the metal claws. Actually that’s one thing the cover artist got wrong, as the creature has claws, not hands, and this turns out to be some clever misdirection on Walker’s part, as it isn’t until the very end of the novel that we discover the creature’s origins. 

Walker also conveys the horrors of the post-quake city, with thousands upon thousands dead, and Dodgers Stadium used as a holding area for mountains of body bags. Mike and Casey work round-the-clock triage units, only just barely able to get to some long-delayed hanky-panky…which mostly occurs off-page. “He matched her lovemaking measure for measure, kiss for kiss,” is about the extent of it. Curiously Walker is almost as conservative when it comes to the gore. While it’s certainly a violent novel with messy kills, the creature sections are mostly relayed from the creature’s point of view, so there’s no dwelling on the gore. 

What I mean to say is, the creature is so oblivious to humans and their nature that it thinks of humans as “creatures,” and doesn’t even know it’s the brain and spinal columns it’s gorging on. We only learn this due to the later coroner reports on the mutilated bodies popping up around the city; soon the media has it that a “Brain Snatcher” serial killer is afoot. That’s another thing; the back cover has it that Mike and Casey are the stars of the show, but a Mexican-Japanese reporter named Tony Quinn could just as easily take the protagonist mantle. Quinn factors into much of Aftershock, and it’s through him that we learn how blasted the city now is. 

It's also Quinn who first figures out there’s a monster on the loose. Going over video of some diggers beneath the CCDC, Quinn not only catches sight of some weird creature but also later on notices the patchy, flaky skin that shows up on workers who soon thereafter go nuts. As mentioned there’s also a “runaway virus” plot here, and we get a lot of scientific jargon as viral weaponry is explained and discussed. Walker seems to have done his research on all this, to the point that the info the various scientists convey at least sounds plausible, even if it’s all a bunch of bullshit. 

In fact, Mike and Casey obliviously work on, trying to save lives, as Quinn handles the “horror novel” stuff. Quinn’s even the one who figures out there’s not only a creature, but one with a hobby of hiding corpses around and dripping “goo” all over them; “larvae” as Quinn soon realizes. Quinn’s discovery actually makes the creature more dangerous: Quinn is responsible for the torching of the creature’s first breeding ground, flame-roasting all its “children,” after which the creature doesn’t just want to eat humans but also to terrify them. Soon it’s preying on people and relishing the fear on their faces before it rips out their brains and spinal cords. 

The final quarter really ups the horror ante, as well as the Alien similarities. Walker also develops a memorably creepy finale in which Mike and Casey find themselves alone against the creature in Dodgers Stadium, surrounded by piles of body bags. This includes the gross bit where the creature, taunting Mike, jams a claw into a bag and starts chewing on the bodyparts it rips off the corpse. Maybe those GoodReads reviewers are onto something after all, as the finale does seem to come out of a classic sci-fi horror flick, with Mike swinging a rod at the creature and calling it such hoary old cliches as “You son of Satan!” We also get the mandatory “is it really the end?” shock twist ending. 

Overall I did enjoy Aftershock, though be aware a lot of it comes off more like disaster fiction than horror fiction. Walker’s writing is good, though he is a little too fond of the phrase “as if” in his descriptions, and it’s clear he is having fun writing the book. Now maybe I’ll finally check out his Decoy series.

1 comment:

TLP said...

I enjoyed your review enough that I needed to read this book for myself. Hunted it down and finally found a copy on Amazon. I opted for the e-book since it was only $3. The mmpb was $15, so I saved a few bucks. Look forward to diving into it!