In this novel Dan Simmons portrays psychic vampires in a horror genre, which he uses to illuminate real evil in this world. I read this book in 1989 when it was first published and it has stayed with me.
Simmons took the name of this book from a poem written in 1918 by a religious writer, Gerald Manley Hopkins. The story Simmons tells is one of sociopaths with powers. People diagnosed as sociopaths, (or exhibiting all the qualities of such), have no feeling for what others are experiencing. They may think of themselves as being very moral, and or religious. But they are incapable of empathy and so cannot experience any horror they might bring to others. Compound that with beings that can enter one's mind and control one's actions, and you have the premise for this book. Three characters are old mind vampires: Willi, Nina and Melanie. They have been playing a game to see who can make the most people kill themselves, in the most interesting ways, as they are bored with life.
People (and relatives of people) used and abused by these psychic vampires come to realize what they are up against and band together to go after them. One character, Saul Laski, first met Willi in a Nazi death camp where Willi used him and others in a deadly chess game featuring human chess pieces. He has been tracking WIlli ever since. Other protagonists include a young black college student who figures out that his fathers “suicide” was the direct result of interference from one of these creatures, as well as a Southern sheriff who is much more intelligent than he lets on.
The uneasiness one feels reading this book may be due to Simmons changing to the point of view of Melanie Fuller, one of the players of the “game”. Seeing the world through her eyes is horrifying; every murder committed by her is justified by numerous reasons she patiently explains to the reader. It is the sheer banality of her evil that is most disturbing. Simmons shows us how easy it becomes to commit monstrous acts when the ordinary rules of civilized society are suspended. These creatures, who are less than human, use their powers to try to dehumanize those who are human.
At almost 900 pages, this can be a daunting read, yet Simmons pulls it off. This is a “smart person’s” horror read. When the book was reissued in 2009, some felt it was dated, as there are no cell phones, etc. But the basic premise of the book is not affected by that-it is a timeless tale.
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