Robert Devereaux, Walking Wounded (Dell, 1996)
[originally published 23November2002]
To saw that Walking Wounded is Robert Devereaux’s weakest effort is rather like saying that Atom Heart Mother was the weakest Pink Floyd album; when looked at in relation to the rest of the canon, it suffers, but compared to the greater view of the horror novel (or psychedelic rock), you’re still head and shoulders above the cloud. The moon can still eclipse the sun, despite its relatively small stature.
Most of my problems with Deveraux’s second novel are nitpicky at best, especially in horror. Sometimes it seems that the everpresent perversity is more forced than before (or since, for that matter); I hesitate to use the word “gratuitous,” especially where naked flesh is concerned, but every once in a while it reared its ugly head while I was reading. As well, some subplots and minor details seemed to float off into the distance and disappear artificially; for example, one of the main characters finds herself dissociating from her circle of friends as quickly as does the other, despite a much (timeframe is never given, but “much” is the heavy implication) longer association with them; during a later scene, it’s almost as if her passing from amongst them has gone unnoticed. Granted, that sort of thing could be (and has been often, in other realms of fiction) a novel all its own, and here it’s a plot point at best. Still…
Criticism aside, everything about this book will tell even the most scanty acquaintance of Devereaux’s other work that he’s crossed into that recognizably-Devereaux territory where even such celebrated libertines as (early) Clive Barker have always feared to tread. Devereaux is the undisputed master of the twisted horror novel. Here, he gives us a woman who finds herself, suddenly, with the power to lay on hands. As with all responsible healer-type horror novels, the healing power also has a darker side. She finds herself in an interesting situation; she knows her husband is cheating on her. She also knows he has Parkinson’s. Use the power to heal his disease, or accelerate it? And just to throw a monkey wrench into the works, what should she do with the woman with whom her husband is cheating when the two of them start to fall for one another? A less twisted mind couldn’t have come up with stuff half this decadent, much less make it work. Where the novel weakens (and let me stress, pardon the pun, that it never fully gives way as did the other recently-read healer-horror novel I reviewed last month, Saul Wernick’s Cain’s Touch) is when Devereaux takes this gorgeous framework and attempts to add the garage. There’s a reason homeowners’ associations don’t let you do too much weird stuff to your house. It starts getting ungainly.
In defense of Devereaux, I might have given this book a far different review when it came out. All of the extraneous things tried in this novel succeeded when tried in “Caliban,” which also has odd stuff jutting out here and there. Perhaps it’s best to look upon Walking Wounded as a first novel, despite the publication of Deadweight some four years previous. (Nothing in the horror genre, still, ten years after its publication, approaches the brilliance of Deadweight.) Some false steps got taken, but they were righted later in the author’s career.
I’ve spent way too much time slagging this novel and not nearly enough praising it. It sometimes seems, though, as if the same compliments can be attached to every book Robert Devereaux puts out. As usual, if you’re a fan of horror with a high squick factor, once you’ve started page one, it’s a relatively good bet you won’t be sleeping until you’ve turned the last page. This is both a product of Devereaux’s inherent readability and the same function in lizard-brain that makes us all slow down for car accidents (the more violent the accident, the more likely it is traffic will be blocked for miles, natch). Once you’re involved, you can’t help but stare at these poor, twisted creatures that come out of Devereaux’s brain. It’s only after you finish the book you realize how much they resemble you (again, with those extraneous parts jutting out). The ending is the kind of thing every self-help “guru” has wanted to write for decades and has never had the cojones to actually set into print. Needless to say, the strong female protagonist is a rarity in horror fiction (let alone a pair of them). All of these are excellent reasons to be reading Bob Devereaux. Despite the relative amounts of space given to them in this review, the criticisms above are in no way reasons NOT to read Devereaux. Recommendation: read his books in the order they were released (and definitely save Caliban till after you’re done with this). At a guess, as I said before, the moon of Devereaux is capable of eclipsing the sun of horror fiction, but the twin suns of Deadweight and Caliban are a little too much for the moon of Walking Wounded to eclipse. ** ½