Thursday, August 16, 2012

Koko

Seeing Peter Straub speak at Readercon this summer forced a revision of my reading list. Bump R. Scott Bakker down a few notches, bring Koko from the bottom of the queue.

Koko reminds me a lot of Thomas Harris' "Silence of the Lambs." Both slunk out of the same dank cave in 1988. Both stalk the same haunted, decrepit rustbelt scenery, and both track serial killers with an uneasy mix of sensationalism and clinical detachment.

Meeting for the purpose of visiting the Vietnam Mermorial in Washington DC, four veterans take time to consider the deaths of journalists in the far east. Each of the victims has been mutilated in the same fashion, each tagged with the killer's name: Koko. The four veterans, believing this killer a member of their unit, travel to Singapore, Bangkok and then back to the jungle of New York to track down the killer. Not to stop him, but to save him.

This synopsis leaves out the best parts of the book which are the slippery suggestions that Koko is not truly a person at all. Much like the haunting in Toni Morrison's Beloved, Koko exists in a twilight realm as a living ghost. A lethal killer, but also a symbol of the mutilations of war.

Where Silence of the Lambs became, well, Silence of the Lambs, a book and then movie with significant pop cultural impact - Koko has largely subsided into the horror market. Why? Harris' book is good, but Straub has a real gift for language, able to paint complex and fully rounded characters, and sketch with a very light brush strokes fine gradients of suggestion and dread.

Which is probably why Anthony Hopkins became Hannibal Lector and not Koko. Koko is not so much a mystery as it is a ghost story. Silence of the Lambs works because Clarice Starling catches Buffalo Bill. Order is returned to the world (OK, Hannibal Lector gets out but he likes Starling so she's probably fine.) Koko ends in disorder, like the dust settling down after a shell detonates.
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