Creature (1989) by John Saul

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Welcome to Silverdale, where the All-American dream lives in the hearts of dads who want nothing more than see their wimpy kids turn into football heroes. The tech company which lords over the model town obliges, providing the local team with a sports clinic featuring a mad scientist who injects the slackers and the nerds with experimental growth hormones and vitamins, turning stringy teenagers into burly men and eventually something less human.

While the dads, mid-level managers with such paternal monikers as Chuck or Blake, are all in on it, the moms are smarter and more protective of their offspring. Initially the hormones work, but with great power come violent tempers, less human behaviour and actual changes in bone structure. Creature might be easily considered a satire of the American obsession with football and sports heroics in general, all rooted in violent, animalistic behaviour.

Saul is often derided as a hack, a writer so poor a high school kid could churn out novels like his. And they all have toddlers in peril! Well there’re no young kids here, mostly just teenagers, and the writing is fine. The plot itself is also alright, similar in tone to something Dean Koontz or Bentley Little might’ve produced. Where Saul falters is character development, most adhering to cliches, none more so than Dr. Ames the mad scientist, who is barely more than a cartoon villain. The sexual roles are also quaint, with dads being dads and moms being moms.

On the other hand, the novel takes a fairly tragic turn towards the end. There’s no happy ending here for the main character, Mark the newcomer, who also gets injected with Dr. Ames’ cocktail of instant manhood. As if killing his own dog and trying to murder his mom isn’t enough, Mark ends the novel escaping into the wilderness, not a kid anymore, but neither a man. Just an animal, another victim, wandering the mountains and forlornly looking towards a life that’s now forever lost. Thanks, dad!

*** (3/5)

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