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Okay, I've read this book for the second time now and it remains as powerful as the first time I read it. Perhaps more so because with the second reading you remember more and so feel closer to the characters.
I've read Wilson in the past but never his Repairman Jack novels. For those of you who don't know, Wilson's Repairman Jack is spoke with as much fan approval as those who speak of Joe Lansdale's Hap and Leonard. Somewhat the same, yet radically different. At least with HOSTS because, while Hap and Leonard get into some hairy situations, they do so with a free wheeling sense of humor.
Wilson doesn't write with humor so much as a sense of New York City reality.
His Repairman Jack is a man of mystery and, even though the character is explored to great depth here, there is so much more than remains unseen. Having never read the previous Repairman Jack novels, we'll let this one stand on its own merits.
HOSTS uses a time honored theme among Science Fiction authors, that of the creature who takes over your body. We've seen it from John W. Campbell's short story WHO GOES THERE? (made into the John Carpenter/Rob Bottin masterpiece, THE THING), as well as Robert A. Heinlein's THE PUPPET MASTERS, Jack Finney's excellent INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, and John Wyndham's CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED.
Any story that deals with a creature or thing that can take over your mind and life - control you and be you, is a horror story waiting to happen. I don't know of anyone who has a more creeping fear of anything than that of mind control, brainwashing, or being robbed of ones own identity. It's why we crave our own privacy.
Another unusual thing about this novel: it is printed by small press publisher Gauntlet.
There are certain things we come to expect from the small press. Chief is the fact that the novels and collections will not be up to the standards of the large publishing houses. The stories will be poorly written, characters will be poorly drawn, and there will be myriad other flaws in the tale.
But the small press has its followers, me among them, for a very good reason. Small press is to the reader what out of the way restaurants are to the gourmand who eschews the professional food of the chain restaurant, or small galleries are to the art collector who avoids the major museums and their community approved shows.
There is a tiresome banality with most large press novels. Like the large recording companies, the big publishers demand a certain style, form and movement. They want to make sure that whatever book they publish is getting the fad of the week seal of approval. It's a business that wants to make a profit and that's all well and good, but for many of us Big Press is irksome. Their stories are formulaic and their endings are seen long before their arrival. Story telling art as entertainment wanes and you are left with breathless prose that "Is a rollercoaster ride from start to finish!" "Breath taking!" and other BanalSpeak.
The polish of writing becomes an oversweet glaze and even long established writers grow tired of churning out another "hack novel".
Small press publishers, on the other hand, are nurseries for the hot stars of tomorrow. Talent there is incubated and comes bursting forth after years of work as if they were overnight sensations. The stories can be beautiful even in their flaws, as fresh ideas rise out of the mire of well trodden plots.
F. Paul Wilson, is a Science Fiction/Horror Writer who is known among the SciFi fans for his very poor science during a period when the readers shout out for hard-core SF. To the average reader though, one who doesn't understand the intricacies of the various forms of SF that Wilson's medical terms fail to address, the story can be judged on its own merits.
HOSTS, like the infection it is about, starts out at a benign pace, with sudden flashes of warning here and there. The story is actually written, revelation after revelation, in the same way that the parasite of the tale works on its victims.
Kate, tracks her lover to an unusual gathering. Through the window she sees her lover sit in a silent circle with others and do nothing. Relieved and perplexed, she is startled to find herself discovered by an enigmatic old woman and her dog.
The woman addresses Kate's relief at thinking that her lover is just involved with a simple religious cult.
"Not cult," Kate is told. "Worse than cult. Much worse. If you wish to save the loves of your life you must stop them."
The old woman gives Kate a phone number, and that is how she makes contact with Repairman Jack.
While scientific explanations are given in HOSTS, fans of SF really shouldn't mind. This is a Horror story plain and simple. If you are talking about reality then there would naturally have to be a reason why this would happen. Not every story dealing with monsters can be so flippant as to say "We don't know a damn thing!" This is happening and we don't know why is only good enough in small doses - as in short stories. They don't work in a novel where the reader demands an explanation.
So I read HOSTS twice.
F. Paul led me down the road to an unknown destination with the first read, and to his "Great Inevitability" the second time around with characters as real and desperate as any living person could be in such circumstances.
HOSTS, starts off with zest, but not so stunning that I couldn't put it down and get on with my life. There came a moment in the story, however, when I felt an abrupt hook! Wilson had captured me with his prose and if I left the book his story and characters would tug at my mind until I returned. I had to know where they would go, who would survive, and above all, why this event took place.
The story moves faster and faster, with twists, unexpected new characters, and issues that resolve themselves only to have launched new issues unforeseen at the beginning. Repairman Jack is a man of secrets and his abilities are frightening, but though he fights against impossible odds, he is no superhero. His mortality is always in question and, like with any reoccurring character in a novel, each subsequent story could be the one where the author puts his hero down. It happened to Flemming's James Bond and it happened to Douglas Adams' Arthur Dent.
Repairman Jack is a decisive man, resolute in protecting the ones he loves, and will stop at nothing to save their lives. To some he is evil, to others he's good. The best and worst that can be said for him is that he has his own, very defined moral center, different perhaps from yours or mine, but fixed solidly in the real world.
The most honest word I can use to describe Wilson's novel is powerful. HOSTS is a powerful book and one that will send me back to the bookstore to find and read every damn Repairman Jack novel that exists.
HOSTS is not a classic to be sure. The plotline is too well worn for that. But in F. Paul Wilson's capable hands, it is very nearly perfect.
This review copyright 2001 E.C.McMullen Jr.
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