The Manitou

By Graham Masterton
ISBN 1587541033

Publication Year: 1975

Tags: Horror, Native American

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Harry Erskine is a phony clairvoyant who reads Tarot cards for a living. One of his “wealthy old ladies” has a niece, Karen Tandy, who has been having disturbing dreams and, perhaps coincidentally, has developed a strange lump on the back of her neck. Growing at an astonishing rate — measurable in centimeters per hour — the lump has some of the characteristics of a developing fetus. Piecing together clues both material and psychic, Harry believes this to be the impending reincarnation of a Native American Medicine Man from 300 years in the past, returning to reclaim the land from the White Man. If he grows to maturity, if he escapes Karen Tandy’s body, the girl will be the first to die… and the body count will only grow larger…

This book is one of those rare instances where the film version is far better than the book it came from. Another case is Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, filmed by David Cronenberg (even King said that he thought the film better than his book, which he described as “slow-moving”). The screenplay, written by director William Girdler and producer/actor Jon Cedar (playing Dr. Hughes), lifted various bits of dialog directly from the book, but they also changed at least one key point — the relationship between fake clairvoyant Harry Erskine and victim Karen Tandy — that revitalizes the entire plot. However, this is about the book, so…

This is the first work by Masterton that I’ve read, and if the quality is consistent with his other works, I’m not likely to read another. His descriptive passages are often turgid, unwieldy at even the simplest level, and he seems addicted to italics and exclamation points! He exaggerates time ridiculously (“I lay there, unable to move, unable to see for five or ten minutes”), even when the rest of the action insists that far less time than that had passed. He confuses sensations (at one point drowning in noise and, in the next sentence, hearing something “dropped into the silence”). His characters’ motivations and changes are poorly executed (men of science believing the supernatural too quickly and without even shaky evidence). Perhaps least forgivable is that descriptions of things that could be deliciously spooky are rendered impotent with flabby description, while merely gory or blatant horror is treated to poor imitations of Lovecraftian exaggeration that only gets boring after a few paragraphs.

Despite this, the kernel of the book lent itself wonderfully to visual interpretation. There’s no crime whatever in describing a scene in a book using a sense of looking at it as a movie set, with camera angles, dialog, blocking, and so forth. The crime comes from treating such visual, visceral effects as just another bit of common verbiage. Erskine, as a fake reader of Tarot cards, gives himself a reading about the passing strangeness of recent events (early in the book). Without any particular flair or build-up, Masterton tells us that Erskine deals out the identical pattern twice, with the only exception being the last card of the second deal… a card that is utterly blank. The suspense and horror-building effect of this action is buried under almost pedantic prose that evokes little more than a sense of, “Gosh, isn’t that odd?”

The film, which doesn’t use that sequence precisely, nevertheless provides a very nice bit of visualization in a similar situation. If Masterton had managed to make his writing as emotionally compelling as the film is visually compelling, he’d have had quite a winner on his hands. As it is, the film gets a solid B+ while the book struggles for a C-.

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