Friday, April 24, 2015

Bathos in the North

The Dawning by Hugh B. Cave (2000): Born in 1910, Hugh Cave started his writing career around 1930. He worked in and out of genre, notably horror, for years before moving on to the slicks and to writing various books both fiction and non-fiction, including well-regarded non-fiction works based on his experiences in Haiti. He returned to horror and fantasy relatively late in life, in the 1970's, and ended up collecting a handful of lifetime achievement awards from various genre organizations.

I note all that because it seems a bit churlish to point out that The Dawning really isn't a very good novel. Published when Cave was 90, it's amazing that he was writing anything by then. 

One problem is that the novel is misidentified as horror by its publisher, the late and unlamented Dorchester Publishing. It has a few scenes of horror, but so too does James Joyce's The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It's really a tale of survival in a world teetering on the brink of environmental apocalypse. You know, just like James Joyce's The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

But boy, do things take their own sweet time. Most of the characters are sympathetically drawn, though often in a sickly sweet, sentimental way. There's a cute, overly intelligent dog. There's a lot of canoeing. There are some wise Native Canadians. There's a monster, or perhaps several monsters. 

One of those monsters is a skunk the size of a bear. It's really hard to suspend disbelief when dealing with a homicidal skunk the size of a bear. It just is. The house-sized, three-eyed frog doesn't help either.

Cave sends a disparate group of Americans, led by a wise old professor who turns out to be about 45, into the wilds of Northern Ontario to escape the breakdown of civilization. One of those recreational drugs that makes people homicidal but seems to have no other effects -- a type of drug seen only in fiction -- has helped accelerate societal breakdown. 

Early on, the group relies on the wilderness skills of an outdoorsman who is also a cruel lout, a spousal abuser, and a rapist. You can pretty much guess who the human antagonist of the novel will be on about page 20, when this character is first introduced. Don't wait around for any subtleties of character for this guy. You're not getting any.

Eventually, something starts stalking them. Well, occasionally stalking them. As it kills the least developed characters first, it clearly possesses a certain narrative sense. Eventually the novel ends. I skimmed a lot of pages. Cave's professionalism carries the novel about as far as polished, professional prose can carry a thing. 

The Dawning isn't badly written in a technical sense. It is stereotypical in much of its characterization and occasionally mawkish in its sometimes sunny, sometimes weepy sentimentality. The dog makes friends with a lovable doe. The dog, a miniature Greyhound, has been named Rambi by its owner because it's like a little doggy Bambi. There's 300 pages more where that stuff came from. Not recommended.

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