Pestilence (UK: Hamlyn, 1983)

"Don’t go near the water."

This is yet another title that I never read back in
the day, having stumbled upon it quite
accidentally a few years ago. The tagline gives
you the impression we’re about to wade into the
bloody waters of yet another
potboiler and the cover illustration
seems to confirm that: those fearsome jaws rising from the water do
look very shark-like. Regardless, the cover tells us all we need to know:
this is a monster book and better yet, a monster
from the sea book!
First off, I know very little about Edward Jarvis other than he wrote
another little pulpy horror thriller--
Maggots--which despite the cool title
and immense possibilities pretty much stank the joint up and not in a
good way. Let's just say that every time Jarvis had a chance to make
Maggots into a decent horror story, he stumbled and dropped the ball..

But on to
Pestilence. As the result of illegal nuclear testing on the
ocean floor by those damn Ruskies again (will they never learn?) a
group of giant lampreys are woken from their dormancy and threaten
waters worldwide. Jarvis never goes much into the science of the thing
as to whether these are prehistoric creatures or sleeping lamprey
mutated by radiation. There are some things, apparently, the reader
was not meant to know. The lampreys are in the oceans, the rivers, the
lakes, and even the sewers and drainage ditches. Bastards! Jarvis,
unfortunately, keeps most of the bloodiest attacks offscreen and rarely
gives us much in the way of description for the lampreys themselves.
But we do know this: the lampreys are categorized as Standard
Lampreys, Greater Lampreys, Giant Lampreys, Mammoth Lampreys,
and Mega Lampreys which kill not only blue whales but sink a U.S.
Navy Destroyer! Seriously. Maybe there's even a Super-Duper Lamprey
that I missed. The lampreys attack people, attack boats, even family
pets. But, again, most of the bloody action is referred to after the fact
and Jarvis never lets us see much of it.

The main character here is Garry Marshall, a former journalist turned
advertising exec who is drawn back into journalism after losing a
couple fingers to a lamprey while cleaning a drain which causes him to
go on a crusade to fight the growing lamprey menace which the
governments of the world are sadly ignoring.  Garry has a lovely wife,
Verni, and a couple kids. The relationship between Garry and Verni is
well-drawn. They are a fun, likeable couple with a good rapport. You
believe in them. Something which grates on the reader later when
Jarvis kills Verni off for no other reason, it seems, than for the fact that
he wants Garry to hook up with a hot journalist named Lorna Leigh
who is his assistant. Apparently, Verni decided to go shopping in
France and as she crossed the channel (pre-Chunnel days), the ferry
was attacked and sunk.
Shopping? Across the English Channel? And
this while her husband is crying out for everyone to avoid waterways at
all costs? Did she sneak off without telling him? Or, and worse, did he
know and tell her,
sounds like a wonderful idea, love, enjoy your day.
Verni's death and motivation, in fact all details of what would seem to
be a major plot point are referred to after the fact by Garry so we never
know. If Jarvis wanted Garry to hook up with Lorna, why bother with
creating Verni at all? After he mentions her death, she's pretty much
forgotten as he spends his time screwing Lorna.

This sort of amateurish, incompetent plotting leads me to believe that
Pestilence must be a parody of sorts. Something which seems more
and more likely as you plow through its 158 pages. The Americans in
here talk like they just stepped out of a 1950's sitcom. The Brits often
say "bloody" four or five times in a single sentence. The French are a
little too reminiscent of Inspector Clouseau and Hercule Poirot. And to
further confound any tenuous reality base this book might have had,
the movie
Jaws shows up, not as a movie but as a reference to
something that
actually happened to the resort community of Amity
Island. Huh?

All in all, it should be said that Jarvis has a fairly lively writing style and
his comedic asides are pretty funny, particularly those dealing with
bureaucrats, the classification of the lamprey, and the Yanks and Brits
arguing playfully back and forth as to who has the biggest lamprey.
When an Indian girl loses her leg from a lamprey attack and considers
legal action she's told she "doesn't have a leg to stand on" and Garry
himself (minus fingers) is chosen to head up an anti-lamprey
committee because he has "first-hand experience."

I'm not honestly sure what to make of this one. If you want a laugh,
read it. If you want a good monster story, avoid it.

Pros:  Great idea. Interesting characters for the most part. Other than
that, not much.

Cons:  Too many. First off, the beast on the cover is NOT a lamprey
but apparently some kind of shark or fish. The actual mouth of a
lamprey is much more vicious-looking than what is pictured here. But
that's nitpicking, of course. The real problems here are that Jarvis gives
us very, very little action or gore and so fails completely on the Ghastly,
Gruesome, and Gor-ifying scale. This book is way too damn
talky and
the characters often behave in irrational ways. The plotting is often
ridiculous and makeshift.

Overall: Does this book suck? Depends on how you look at it. As a
nasty, I'd say it's a near-complete failure. But if you take it as a parody
of the same, it's amusing in places. Just not exactly the sort of thing
you want when you pick up a book like this. A true Nasty it is not.

One Bloody Skull out of Five (and this only for the comedy).

Next up, the original, archetypal pulp horror novel that started it all:

"The rats have emerged from the darkness."
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