As part of my MFA program, I’m taking a class on monsters in the horror genre. I read Relic, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, as an assignment for that class. The below blog post may contain spoilers.
In this book, the Mbwun, a mythical beast of the Kothoga tribe, ends up in a museum, where it kills patrons, staff, and cops. I found a lot to like and little to dislike in this novel. In this blog, I’m just going to touch on one of each, starting with something I disliked.
Throughout the book, there are two main theories presented for the Mbwun’s existence. The first is that the Kothoga summoned the Mbwun at will to perform errands of destruction against neighboring tribes. The Kothoga, however, have died out and cannot confirm this myth. The other theory is presented by scientists in the book, specifically that the Mbwun is a product of aberrant evolution, in which a sudden, grotesque change appears in a species.
I appreciated these two warring theories, in part, because one was a sort of magic-based theory while the other was based on science (or pseudo-science). Toward the end of the book, it occurred to me that the genesis of the monster still had not been resolved, and I was thrilled that it looked like the issue would remain open. I liked the idea that, despite all these scientific people running around, there was still the possibility of magic. Unfortunately, this issue was resolved in a pseudo-science manner. I was disappointed and would have preferred for the mystery to remain. To me, this felt like a missed opportunity for an unsettling ending.
Specifically, it turns out that the Kothoga feed certain fibers to humans, thus infecting them and turning them into Mbwun. On top of wishing this wasn’t resolved at all, I didn’t feel like there were enough hints toward this particular conclusion throughout the story. Generally, I feel that any big reveal has to be supported by prior situations or findings in a story. I want to be able to look back and see all the hints I ignored or misinterpreted, and then realize the author skillfully planned this ending so that all the little pieces fall into place. I didn’t get that sense here. As far as I recall, the only real support for this conclusion is that Whittlesey’s property was found in the monster’s lair, and that wasn’t enough for me because it could just as easily suggest that the monster killed Whittlesey (rather than is Whittlesey).
My favorite thing about this story was the balance between science fiction and horror. The museum is filled with scientists, so it’s expected that one or two will try to figure out what kind of monster they’re dealing with. They didn’t disappoint in this respect. I happen to be a fan of science fiction, so I was fascinated by all the genetic testing and analyses of evidence. However, for someone who’s less of a science-fiction fan (or for someone who just wasn’t feeling this science fiction), all the science talk might have been problematic.
On the horror side, there were occasional moments of high tension throughout the book, and then the final third or so of the story dealt with the monster stalking people in the locked-down museum. For me, this more than made up for the science-heavy early parts of the story.
Overall, I really enjoyed this, and I’d recommend it to folks who think they can bear all the science talk in the first two thirds of the book.