Marenghi was a fixture of the 80's paperback bookstore marketplace and you've probably seen people reading his books on airplanes, moving their lips and needing help later to open their packets of complimentary peanuts. Even when you patiently showed these Marenghi fans what to do, they probably still ended up with a lapful of crunchy snacks and a broken heart.
But it was hard to feel bad for them. After all, they were horror lovers. Weren't they looking for cheap, cruel thrills?
As prolific as Stephen King (who doesn't even remember writing "Cujo") and as litigious as Harlan Ellison (both Marenghi and Ellison will probably sue us now for saying that), Marenghi was one of England's "Gifted Young Louts," part of a twentieth-century group of uneducated, self-taught scribes who were passionate about writing fiction, saying things "first," and getting themselves on television. At one point, his circle of influence included literary lions Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis, both of whom now deny any familiar acquaintance. "He raised more bumps on book covers than he did on spines," said Hitchens once in an article for Vanity Fair, defending himself against Marenghi's allegations that Hitchens stole the name for his book "Blood, Class, and Nostalgia" from one of Marenghi's many unpublished manuscripts that also had commas and the word "blood" in the title.
One thing is certain: Marenghi's talent is as much of an unstable mutation as the gigantism in crabs or animism in knives that has made his novels into bestsellers. He is famous for being wildly uneven, and it was with great trepidation that I finally sunk my teeth into "The Ooze," his second book and what most consider his finest. Would "The Ooze" be as godawful as "Dawn Waters," the only other Marenghi book I'd heard about (I saw the movie once on late-night cable) and which was about nothing more terrifying than a really bad urinary tract infection?
I had to know if Marenghi had ever written anything worth reading. Frankly, I was tired of hearing about him. Often considered a "writer's writer" by fabulists and speculative fiction fans, it was time to take another look at the smoldering Brit with the black leather jacket and the bad boy reputation. Here he was, fighting for his place in the canon against the "elites" and their stuffy "classics": was he an overlooked rebel who could stand the test of time or just another hack with an electric typewriter and a reliable coke connection?
"Can water die?" asks hydrobiologist Dr. Mandy Weaver to her graduate class in the opening pages of "The Ooze." "Is it possible to kill the entire H2O cycle? How would you do it? With a knife? With poison? With a magnum pistol?"
The "end-of-the-world" narrative is as old as the human urge to tell stories. Horror fiction's favorite trope is the idea that beneath all of civilized society lies madness, misery, and a fiesta of pointless carnage. The idea is that if everything else were destroyed, humans would create godless hell-societies instead of merely rebuilding the lifestyles with which they are familiar. Horror fiction is always essentially conservative in this regard; hence its obsession with guns, justice, and all the technological trappings of the modern super-state.
The plot of "The Ooze" is deceptively simple. A beautiful young hydrobiologist comes to the conclusion -- justified or not -- that the world's water supply is drying up. After a night of drug-fueled frolic, she has a vision of a dead planet, dessicated and alien, where all the water has evaporated into night smoke. She sobers from her dream, runs to her lab, and begins performing tests: her hands shaking, her mind jittery, her heart panicking.
It is important to the narrative that we don't know if Dr. Weaver has stumbled onto some dark truth or if she has gone crazy. She believes that the world is running dry, perhaps as a bleak metaphor for her own impending menopause or perhaps as metatext regarding Marenghi's own creative reservoir. Dr. Weaver recruits a loyal band of followers to her aid and convinces them that in order to fight "the drying," they must pool their saliva into a huge communal tank in order to have water to drink when there is none left. She begins calling her flock "survivors," encouraging them to chuck the past and live a new life of renunciation, purity, and strict environmental hygiene.
Dr. Weaver is charming, charismatic, beautiful, and brilliant. She has no enemies in her faculty and no one has any reason to suspect her of lunacy or any other hidden agenda. Dr. Weaver's "pool" begins to grow as she convinces students, friends, and local townspeople to contribute. The fact that she keeps the pool beneath her house causes no comment or consternation: in fact, students are glad to come over to their favorite professor's house and spit into the rising tub beneath her floorboards.
There are some who resist Dr. Weaver's plan. The town lifeguard, for instance, questions Dr. Weaver at every turn, especially when Dr. Weaver convinces the mayor to declare a state of emergency that enables Dr. Weaver to move her lake of spit from her house to the town swimming pool for easier dissemination to the populace. However, because the British hamlet where the novel takes place is so isolated and insular, and because Dr. Weaver is such an expert in her field, the panic she creates appears justified, and her power grows as spring turns into nasty summer and it really does seem like heat and drought will kill them all.
However, as her influence in the community grows, Dr. Weaver becomes more and more unhinged. What Dr. Weaver finally does with the massive pool of spit is nothing short of shocking. I have to confess: "The Ooze" caught me by surprise and left me blinking, breathless, and outright horrified. "The Ooze" may not follow the time-tested conventions of "thriller fiction" the way that Marenghi's other work does, but it is certainly jolting, insofar as the lessons that it teaches about human folly and fear are perennial and enduring.
Surprisingly, the best thing about "The Ooze" is the writing. People don't write with such appalling grace anymore. Marenghi isn't remotely interested in creating precious, perfect sentences. He's a storyteller. Consider this scene where the town lifeguard finally cracks and joins Dr. Weaver's cabal:
"The mucous churned like red wrath, and Dr. Weaver reached out one pert finger, dipping it into the quivering jelly up to her first pale knuckle. She looked at Lifeguard Carl Forrester and then brought her wet finger to her lips, holding it there as if shushing him. His brain began to boil in the hot sun as she stripped off her sweater and exposed her bare midriff and bare shoulders, bisected by her lacy black bra: the kind of sensible but sexy bra that a lady scientist would wear.
"Our water will die just as surely as man and woman will die if we stopped mating," said Dr. Weaver. "The water has stopped mating because it doesn't believe in a future. Do we believe in a future, you and I, Lifeguard Carl Forrester?"
As soon as Lifeguard Carl Forrester's mouth went dry -- dry as the drying -- he knew she was right."
Maybe it's not "art." But it does the job.
If you ignore his tics and asides, Marenghi is one hell of a terrorist. He knows exactly how to build a dirty bomb, packing his pipe with hidden fears and poisoned chunks of prose-scrap that tear your face off and make you curse God.
"The Ooze" is a stirring parable that transcends the conventions of the genre and is written with more poetry than bluster. While Marenghi has earned his reputation as a buffoon and is certainly no actor...
...in "The Ooze" he attains something like genius and earns his self-styled designation as a "dreamweaver" and "class actor." If you ignore everything else Marenghi has done, chalking it up to the insecurity of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks trying to make it in "a gentleman's profession," this novel still stands alone as a terrifying and bloody tour-de-force that is still as relevant today as the day it was written.
Can water die? What then? What next for us all?
Posted by miracle on Thu, 24 Dec 2009 14:47:11 -0500 -- permanent link