Grady Hendrix, author of Horrorstör, and Will Errickson of Too Much Horror Fiction are digging deep inside the Jack o’Lantern of Literature to discover the best (and worst) horror paperbacks. Are you strong enough to read THE BLOODY BOOKS OF HALLOWEEN???
Matthew J. Costello! He consulted on Titanic! He was a Bram Stoker Award finalist for his 1992 novel Homecoming! He writes children’s television! He writes videogames! He wrote an original prequel for Peter Jackson’s King Kong! And in 1991, between banging out the novelizations for Child’s Play 2 and Child’s Play 3 he published one of the funnest, dumbest, goopiest riffs on Alien I’ve ever read.
Imagine the xenomorph as a giant phallic symbol living in a pineapple under the sea and say it with me in a German accent… Ladies and gentlemen, Wurm.
Bollywood’s major movie genre is the masala, a three-hour blend of romance, comedy, melodrama, some touching scenes of filial kids respecting their wise mamas, a big cliffhanger right before the intermission, a chase, a fistfight, and lots and lots of musical numbers including a wet sari number to expose the lead actress’s curvaceous chassis for dad, a love ballad full of soft focus romance for mom, and a rousing party number for the kids that’ll appear on the soundtrack. It’s got something for everyone, and there is absolutely no way to take it seriously. A masala is nothing but pure fun.
Wurm is the paperback horror boom equivalent of the masala, only published in 1991 and without Amitabh Bachchan swinging his hips. There’s family drama, child in peril drama, religious drama, psychic warfare, Lovecraftian summonings, monsters versus military action, a, haunted house set piece, zombies swarming Manhattan, underwater creature drama right out of a Corman picture, Cronenbergy body horror, and scene after scene of squirming, round, thick-bodied, white wurms bursting out of chests like outtakes from Alien.
We begin in an echt-50s monster movie with a group of marine biologists taking a submersible down to the thermal vents that dot the floor of the deep ocean. “But,” as the book gushes, “it wasn’t the geological stuff that had everyone freaking out. No. It was the animals. Over 300 new species, with the number climbing every month. Unbelievable…300 new species living in the most stressful habitat imaginable…no light, incredible pressure, surrounded by toxic water.” And one of these 300 new species is the titular worm! Or, rather, as one of the scientists intones when they haul a fragment of the jelloid, cylindrical sea worm to the surface, “Wurm. An Old World myth. Something from an undergrad Lit class…from Goethe’s Dr. Faustus…to die, to meet the cursed wurm.”
The submersible emerges on the surface, wurm in claw, and just as the callow biologist approaches the living wurm sample, someone realizes SOMETHING IS VERY WRONG, “But it was, of course, too late…” On that ominous note we catch up with our very scattered cast of main characters. Dr. Michael Cross, the marine biologist who long ago warned against the possibility of wurms, but they wouldn’t listen…until it’s too late! Demoted to running the Coney Island Aquarium, still smarting after his expulsion from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, they all laughed at his dire warnings that WURM IS OUT THERE!!!!! Now he takes care of dolphins and shares custody of his adorable teenaged tomboy daughter, Jo, with his remote, emasculating wife, Caryn, a top reporter for global news.
When the research ship of the opening reappears without its crew, the smooth operator head of Woods Hole who fired Michael, a savvy political cookie named Ian Cameron, calls Michael for help. Oh, the irony! After saving Jo from dying in a shark attack (because feeding the sharks at the Coney Island Aquarium is an unreasonably dangerous procedure) Michael and Ian suit up with Navy SEALS and board the ghost ship. They walk through its spooky darkened halls and scary corridors, never once mentioning that this reminds everyone of Aliens. They find a survivor but it is, of course, too late. Apparently the wurm has spent its time in the deep sea abyss plotting the destruction of humanity and now it is implanting itself in the chests, thighs, and groins of human hosts, sucking them dry and controlling their brains before bursting out and impaling a new host. I have not even mentioned the subplot involving a disgraced televangelist being seduced via wurm ESP, or his psychic duel with yet another televangelist, this one clearly based on Gene Scott, “God’s Angriest Man” immortalized in Werner Herzog’s documentary.
The fact that Wurm is clearly based on all the movies that Costello loves is not a weakness, in fact it’s what makes this big, dripping, overstuffed calzone of a novel so trashy and delicious. There are 1950s monster movie tropes as wurm is discovered, a bit of Alien as it stalks the abandoned ship, some Dawn of the Dead as it infects bigger and bigger crowds of humans, and a little bit of Shivers as the infected invade a gleaming high rise in midtown Manhattan.
A Frankenbook made of stitched together movies is not going to be very deep, so devoting the first 200 pages to character development is a bit like diving into a pool that’s only six inches deep, but there are still 150 pages to go and when you’re reading a book about a guy who deals with a black man playing his “boom box” too loudly on the Greyhound by controlling his mind and turning him into a wurm-worshipping sunshine messiah, there are plenty of other pleasures to be had.
Costello’s eccentricities including a deep loathing for hip hop music, a fear of anyone with dark skin, and sickening descriptions of the wurm slithering through a dog pile of human hosts who, well, let the man listening at the door describe it, “They sounded like sex sounds. All kind of wet, and squishy and moans. They were moans. What the heck? Was there some kind of orgy going on here?”
Yes, some kind of orgy is going on here. The trashiest orgy on earth… and men call it Wurm.