Review: James Morrow goes to war in Shambling Towards Hiroshima

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Jul 4, 2015, 6:10 PM EDT

Do you remember Syms Thorley? According to James Morrow's Shambling Towards Hiroshima (Tachyon Publications, $14.95), he was once one of the busiest horror-movie stars in Hollywood, churning out one B film after another, many of them starring either the shambling monster Corpuscula or his version of the mummy, Kha-Ton-Ra.

He was also the man the government went to in 1945 when the Manhattan Project seemed stalled and the war against Imperial Japan poised on the brink of what would have been a long and bloody invasion.

As it happens, the feds already had a backup in case the A-bomb didn't work out: a program of selective breeding that had given them an arsenal of gigantic, indestructible, fire-breathing lizards designed to lay waste to Japan. Thorley's job, one well suited for a man who had made a name for himself playing monsters, was to put on a lizard suit and flatten a scale model of a Japanese city to teach visiting Imperial Envoys that nothing could stop Gorgantis.

Now the war is 40 years over and Thorley's locked in his room at the Holiday Inn, above a science-fiction convention where he's one of the guests. He's writing the story of his contribution to the war effort while preparing to commit suicide out of despair at the one great failure of his life.

Which is? That would be telling, but it's worth remembering that James Morrow has always been the new Vonnegut, whose funniest works always bore a certain rage at the many self-destructive follies of the human race. ...

The story's ultimately a sad one, but before its deadly-serious core reveals itself in a burst of articulate rage, it trades in hilarity as well, granted substantial comic energy by the absurdities of B-movie production, Thorley's own healthy ego and the collision between his wisecracking personality and the humorless military types around him. Fans of film history will especially enjoy the central roles played by real-life film personalities James "Frankenstein" Whale and Willis "King Kong" O'Brien, both of whom work with Thorley on the giant lizard demonstration.

Readers should prepare to laugh out loud, to weep, and then to do both at the same time.

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