"Abomination" Book Review
Written by Angry Scholar
Published by Inkshares
Written by Gary Whitta
2015, 352 pages, Fiction
Released on July 29th, 2015
Abomination is the first novel by Gary Whitta, who is perhaps best known as screenwriter of The Book of Eli. Set in ninth-century England, the book is a dark alternate history wherein the beleaguered English discover an unlikely secret weapon which offers hope of repelling the occupying Vikings. During the reign of Alfred the Great, some previously unknown Latinate scrolls come into the possession of Aethelred, archbishop of Canterbury. These scrolls, it turns out, contain powerful spells which when uttered aloud have the power to transform living creatures into hideous monsters. Aethelred wants to use the monsters against the Vikings, and Alfred initially agrees, giving the archbishop leave to experiment with the spells. When he sees how cruel and twisted the dark magic really is, and how its use has corrupted Aethelred, the king orders the clergyman to cease his experiments. But by now it’s too late, and mad Aethelred flees toward the Danish border, turning every human settlement along the way into monsters which he plans to throw against the Viking occupiers. In desperation Alfred turns to his most trusted soldier, a man named Wulfric, who leads a small force after the archbishop in the hopes of stopping his army of monsters before they can destroy the fragile peace with the Danes.
Despite its historical framework, Abomination is mostly a story about monsters killing people (and, to a lesser extent, the reverse). The text follows Wulfric, who leads his army to victory over the mad archbishop but is cursed in the process. Most of the book actually takes place fifteen years after Aethelred’s death, with Wulfric, now a broken man, living a life of desperate isolation as he tries to protect his countrymen from the abomination he has become (ho ho!).
Things start off much more horror-y than they are by the end of the novel, when effectively only a single abomination remains (there apparently are others hiding throughout England, but only one that counts in the narrative). This last monster is a giant scarab beetle, which seems somewhat less frightening than the creatures encountered earlier on. The first time we see Aethelred create a monster (from a live pig), we are told that “bony, jointed, stalk-like appendages, resembling the limbs of some monstrous insect” burst out of its body:
And then the thing—it could no longer reasonably be called a pig—rose up on its six newly formed legs, each bristling with thick, fibrous hairs. The creature’s jaw unhinged and dropped wide, revealing a mouthful of sharply pointed fangs.
The winking allusion to Carpenter’s The Thing sets us up for a splattery body-horror-fest, but while there is some splatter, the horror elements quickly fall away. This isn’t necessarily bad, but the contrast in tone between the early monster-filled pages and the later melodramatic struggles of the unfortunate Wulfric is stark.
Abomination offers some interesting ideas but sadly falls short of its potential. The biggest problem is the overreliance on heavy-handed narration, including a preponderance of past-perfect verbs which effectively tell us about the action of the story after the fact (he had done this, she had thought that, they had gone there, etc.). More time is spent detailing character’s mental lives and personal histories than moving the plot forward. Naturally background is important, but the constant narrative asides to tell us about, for example, how great so-and-so was with a sword as a child, or how Wulfric likes dung beetles because his father was awesome, have the effect of taking the reader completely out of the novel’s present.
Hammy proclamations on the nature of love and war and fear don’t help restore any sense of urgency or importance to the plot. For example, after a fight with his wife, we get Wulfric’s cringe-worthy musings on the nature of both marriage and war:
This is why warriors should never marry. ... Because war is a jealous mistress. She has a way of calling us back to her, long after we thought we had bid farewell for good.
The dialogue is stilted and artificial, apparently in an attempt to sound archaic. Tense shifts and descriptive inconsistencies make it difficult to fully engage in the narrative or identify with any of the characters. These issues, and the general feeling of being crushed under the ponderous weight of unnecessary description, combine to make the novel a bit of a slog despite the inherent coolness of The Thing-style monsters running around in pre-flamethrower Europe.
A final problem is the third-act conflict introduced seemingly from nowhere. Toward the end of the novel, a character who had been an ally randomly becomes a villain with no clear reason why. It’s not that he suddenly does something bad: once again, it’s because he did something in the past, which we learn about at the last minute, and which is evidently supposed to make us hate him even though his misdeeds are extremely small-scale in a world full of skin-splitting acid-spitting spider mutant things used as supernatural bio-warfare.
In fairness to the author, a great many of these problems seem to stem directly from the book’s editorial process—or rather, the lack thereof. It’s published by Inkshares, a crowdfunding publisher which only provides full editorial services if an author reaches 750 pre-orders for their book. According to Abomination’s page on Inkshares’ site, it only had 506 pre-orders. This means it would only have qualified for “light editing,” whatever that means. This is a real shame, because a good editor could have transformed this into a fun, interesting book. It’s incredibly difficult to see problems in your own writing, which might explain why so many made it through to the final product in this case.
Incidentally, Abomination's story seems much better suited to the graphic novel medium. When I imagine each scene unfolding in comic panels, with most of the narration stripped away, the story seems to work in a way that it simply doesn't in a text-only format. Maybe in the future we can see it adapted to that medium, which would go a long way toward redeeming what is after all a pretty cool idea.