Book Review by Steve Solomon

The Millennium Quartet, Book 2: In the Mood

by Charles Grant

Tor. © 1998, Charles Grant. 342 pages (paper).

IF THERE'S ONE THING JOHN BANNOCK HAS PLENTY OF, it's problems. Personal problems, family problems, career problems--he pretty much has the bases covered. No one could blame him for feeling a little sorry for himself.

Granted, some of John's troubles are relatively minor. His resemblance to one of the most recognizable figures from American history lets him in for tiresome jokes and unwanted nicknames, but that's more of a petty annoyance than a real problem. Then there's the effect he has on just about everybody he meets: Perfect strangers feel compelled to open up and tell him their life stories, whether he's interested or not. Also annoying, but hardly fatal--and actually an asset in his current line of work.

Then again, some of John's other problems are a little more serious: His career change from successful but stultified accountant to struggling writer has dealt his marriage the coup de grace. His wife, Patty, has left him, taking their little Joey with her. Then there is the matter of the writing assignment John's patron, a published author and former accounting client named George Trout, has handed off to his protégé: traveling around the country interviewing convicted serial killers for a book aimed at getting inside the minds of murderers. The killers open up to John as readily as anyone else, so he's able to conduct scores upon scores of productive interviews. But as he is discovering, the insides of murderers' minds are not healthy places to spend time. As the interviews progress and the pain of separation from his family grows more and more acute, John Bannock finds himself seeking solace in the bottle with increasing frequency.

And finally, there's the little matter of the mark.

John Bannock has been marked to confront one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

So says Father Casey Chisholm, the only clergyman who has ever succeeded in impressing the decidedly non-religious John. The two men met and struck up a friendship when John interviewed a perpetrator in a New Jersey prison where Casey was ministering to the inmates. To hear Casey tell it, he himself was marked to oppose Death, who came to his home, a quiet New Jersey hamlet called Maple Landing, in the guise of an attractive woman named Susan. Many of Casey's parishoners lost their lives, and Death came within a hair's breadth of destroying the whole town and killing Casey to boot.

For all his respect for Casey, John would dearly love to disbelieve this story. Believing it, after all, would necessarily entail accepting the idea that he, too, is marked and must shortly undergo harrowing experiences paralleling the priest's. Surely Casey is mistaken, unbalanced by the horrific violence he witnessed. Surely the Four Horsemen don't really exist, much less ride in human form. It's a crazy idea.

Crazy, but it might explain some things: The incomprehensible motive so many of the killers John interviews seem to share, for example. Or why John is haunted by the ghost of a still-living person, his wife, Patty. The recurring dreams John has, dreams of floating or flying, accompanied by a crow with impossible, bright-blue eyes. Why John is being followed by a mysterious televangelist whose broadcasts about the Book of Revelation cause madness in faithful viewers. Why John, like Casey before him, seems recently gifted with a sort of miraculous power.

Yes, Casey's crazy idea about the Four Horsemen explains a few things.

And if the Horseman in question happens to be Famine, it might also explain the drought blighting the United States, the increasingly frequent shortages of foodstuffs, and the freakish weather afflicting John's hometown of Vallor, Illinois.

Welcome back to the spooky world of Charles Grant's Millennium Quartet. The second volume of the series, In the Mood, continues the apocalyptic tale begun in Symphony. Readers of the first volume will recognize much in the second: Grant's skill at creating believable characters, his deft interweaving of plot strands, and his ability to turn the ordinary chilling are all in evidence in the now-familiar Quartet  formula, which pits a flawed but fundamentally decent human being against an avatar of one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. However, there are also differences. In the Mood  is in some ways a subtler piece of writing than Symphony. Though less satisfying allegorically and in terms of poetic justice, this second installment does a better job of keeping the reader guessing. The prime example is the treatment of the given Horseman's avatar: Whereas Symphony  piles clue upon clue that Susan is, in fact, Death personified, In the Mood  successfully casts suspicion first on one character and then on another, and maintains the mystery of Famine's identity until shortly before the novel's conclusion. Furthermore, Famine's method of gathering human followers is much more insidious than Susan's straightforward recruitment of would-be killers Lupé and Stan. Grant's approach to readers of this installment is similar to the favorite modus operandi of one of Famine's minions, a killer who likes to drop victims from great heights: Knock them off balance. This approach offsets the novel's minor deficiencies and makes In the Mood  an entertaining scare.

Grant's characterizations seem even stronger and more convincing than in his previous Quartet  novel. Although there is no one who can quite compete with Reverend Casey Chisholm, John Bannock is a strong, believable leading man and is supported ably by a large and very diverse cast of characters: In the Mood  features unlikely killers even more dehumaized than Symphony's, a spunky waitress, cynical New Yorkers, laid-back Louisianans, high-school sweethearts, Bible-thumping preachers, twin giants, a cute little boy, a cantankerous Santa Claus lookalike, small-town cops, and some of the nastiest fictional in-laws ever. Almost totally absent from In the Mood  are the improbably eccentric, "goofy" supporting characters who, initially at least, marred Symphony.

Two other significant differences between the first and second Millennium Quartet  novels are also noticeable: Symphony's explicit and extensive use of musical metaphors for the apocalypse is muted in this volume. The primary musical reference (to the famous swing tune that lends the novel its title) is admittedly important, but understated. Horses and riding, on the other hand, figure much more prominently than in the first novel. The stable in Vallor is the location of several crucial scenes, and the horses boarded there play two important roles: Their odd and sometimes agressive behavior helps establish the requisite creepy atmosphere, and they assist in Famine's final assault on John Bannock and his hometown.

I mentioned above that In the Mood  is less satisfying allegorically than Symphony. The problem has to do with the personification of Famine. This Horseman fairly cries out for depiction as a grotesquely emaciated figure, but Grant goes another route enirely. His depiction is certainly imaginative, but doesn't really evoke the concept of death by starvation. Those who have read my review of Symphony  may well wonder why I praise Grant's depiction of Death as Susan, who looks a lot more like a Yuppie than like any traditional depiction of the Grim Reaper, while criticizing his depiction of Famine as too ordinary. What's the difference? It's a matter of specificity: Death is general, but Famine is particular, as are the remaining two Horsemen, Plague and (presumably) Warfare. Famine is a specific form of death, so a personification of Famine ought to be specific. Otherwise, why bother with a personification at all?

The matter of specificity also raises a question about Famine's human minions. It makes perfect sense for Susan to recruit humans to commit murder, because anyone who kills others in any way can be seen, allegorically, as serving Death. But if Famine is going to recruit human followers, they ought to kill by somehow contributing to the spread of starvation--but they don't. They kill in a variety of ways, just like Susan's "friends." Another possibility would have been to make hunger the motive for their murders, but Grant does this only once, when a hungry street punk tries to kill John and his friend Lisse for their picnic lunch. Aside from that one incident, there seems to be little connection between the activities of Famine's followers and what ought to be Famine's distinctive method of dealing death: causing starvation. Also, the Second Horseman's supernatural assault on the natural world never seems as real as the First's does. Death's murderous heat wave is palpable, but Famine's starvation remains largely an abstract problem that never seems to seriously endanger any of the main characters.

Another quibble is a theological one carried over from Symphony:  Is the end of the world God's will? And if so, is it right for humans to try to oppose it? In the Mood  raises this question, but doesn't resolve it: While interviewing a death-row serial killer who had been active in her church before her murder spree, John asks if she fears meeting God. Not at all, she says, and explains that, although she isn't sure God will forgive her, she isn't afraid to face Him because her murders were part of His plan. Were they? Casey isn't around and John is not inclined to theological speculation, so we never get an answer.

Finally, like Symphony, In the Mood  suffers from the occasional annoying glitch. For example, I would expect an experienced writer to know that "smote" (p. 71) is the past tense of the verb "to smite," not an infinitive in its own right. A teenager who has been waving a birch switch as he speaks throws it away, and then has it inexplicably "still in his hand" on the very next page (pp. 115-16). Another teenager, we learn, keeps hearing from her grandmother--who is dead. The girl tells her to leave, and we never hear from Grandma again--why? Why bother mentioning that a character can communicate with the dead and then never do anything with that concept? Perhaps Grant has plans to bring this character and her spectral granny back in a later volume--and I hope he does, because he could use the opportunity to tie off other loose ends as well: the fate of certain Symphony  characters, for example, and just desserts for In the Mood's despicable muderers. The lesser glitches, though, are simple editing problems, and I'm surprised that Tor didn't do a more thorough job before sending this novel to press.

But don't let these quibbles prevent you from enjoying the In the Mood.  It is an intelligent, sophisticated scare filled with biblical imagery and informed by Christian principles, a standout in the field of apocalyptic fiction. It left me hungry for more millennial action. Bring on the Third Horseman!

Edited March 19, 2000. Updated May 26, 2000.

Copyright ©2000 by Steven R. Solomon. All rights reserved.
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