The Totem (1979) by David Morrell


There are frostbitten hippies in the mountains and they’ve got rabies? Or so goes the plot in David Morrell’s The Totem, a story about a remote Wyoming town plagued by animal attacks. Told in a vague manner so concise it makes Hemingway seem loquacious, Morrell’s first horror novel is a good idea wrapped in a far too tight packaging.

Slaughter the improbably named ex-cop from Detroit is the lawman in these here parts, and the designated main character, accompanied by a borderline necrophiliac coroner and a drunk reporter. A corpse disappears from the morgue, animals attack, something stalks the shadows between the chapters, and the reporter keeps wondering about a red Corvette. The hippies are almost an afterthought, as in oh yeah, those guys, whatever happened to them? I wonder indeed.

The novel was apparently significantly altered according to the publisher’s wishes, prompting Morrell to replace all future editions with his author’s cut in the mid-1990s. The version I have at hand is, however, the first version, which is all muscle and no fat, and so lean it hurts. The chapters are short, the action fast and precise, with very little room for anything else. Even the language is drained of anything extra. Great choice for an action novel, but in horror mood and description count for a lot. Ask that Lovecraft chap, he knows.

Morrell is best known for his 1972 novel First Blood, featuring Rambo the disturbed Vietnam vet, who in later movie instalments grew a lot bigger and became something else entirely. Morrell’s horror output has been slim, but it notably features the excellent short story “Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity”, about a genius painter much like Van Gogh whose paintings happen to hide a sinister explanation. It’s truly a masterpiece of horror and well worth seeking out.

Meanwhile in The Totem the epic, semi-Lovecraftian ending gets it right, but getting there is a bit of a chore, at least for someone who never bothers with action novels. Some sections are good, and the idea is great, but in general the execution doesn’t quite fit the contents. While I haven’t seen the author’s preferred edition, it probably exists for a very good reason. Go with that one, find and read “Orange”, and skip this first version.

** (2/5)