Funny how the mere mention of a forgotten novel on social media, or just the sight of its cover art, "re-collects" the past in a reader's consciousness.
This morning someone posted the cover of a UK edition of Whitley Strieber's 1993 novel The Forbidden Zone. With a wallop I was immediately back in 1994, in the living room of my mother-in-law's house on Candlewood Lake in Morrow County, Ohio. It was a humid, rainy day, and I was slogging through Strieber's ambitious yet poorly focused novel.
Today I can only recall a few shards of plot: strange light emanating from televisions at night? Mutating people?
Clearly with The Forbidden Zone Strieber hoped to recover some professional ground as a writer of fiction. But the novel lacks the energy of The Night Church and his other early works; it also lacks the scope of his ambitious 1988 historical novel Majestic.
(I have not read Strieber's fiction since The Forbidden Zone).
One scene in the novel sticks with me: men in traffic on a highway, one of whom catches sight of something awful out the corner of his eye:
....Although it was only fifty miles to Towayda by the old road, the new highway with its smooth curves and moderate grades was faster. The site was sixty miles up the Northway, then ten more through Towayda, deep into the Jumpers.
For a time, they drove in silence. Brian's mind remained fixed on Loi. "Did she seem just normally upset, or real upset?"
"You've had a fight?"
"No. But she's been moody."
"It's the pregnancy. Nancy gets on a roller coaster at the beginning of the third trimester. And that's without the worry of complications."
He shared a lot with Bob, but he didn't see how he could share this, not any of it. "I hope that's all it is."
"You married a very special woman. You know how I feel about her."
"Yeah. A beautiful woman with all kinds of incredible assets."
"Would you look at that," Bob said, snapping Brian's train of thought. He was peering into the rearview mirror.
"Oh, beautiful," Brian replied dutifully. A brand new Dodge Viper was closing from behind. It was bright red, being driven by a cross between Nick Nolte and Cary Grant. Beside him sat the goddess Venus. Cars normally bored Brian, but this one was remarkable.
"Is that a vision or is that a vision," Bob said. He loved fine cars. He had an Austin-Healey he'd been rebuilding for years, but it was nothing like this. Chrysler's new competitor to the Corvette was the hottest car to come out of Detroit in thirty years.
"How fast are they going?"
Bob sped up so they wouldn't pass, paced them ahead. "Seventy-one. Nope, now they're slowing down. They've noticed the livery."
As the Viper dropped back, Bob slowed even more. Soon they were alongside. The car was all mean angles and seductive curves. To him its engine sounded like fabulous sex.
He peered down into the leather interior, looking directly at the perfect lap of the woman. "Oh, man, short-shorts." As he watched, the girl turned her young face and smiled at him. Then she made motions. She wanted him to roll down his window. He complied. She yelled, but he couldn't hear her over the throbbing engine.
"Say again," he shouted down at her.
"... setups..." was all he got. But it was enough. He knew what they wanted.
Brian looked over at him. He'd heard, too. "You gonna tell her?" If Bob found out the location of the radar units ahead on the highway and told the Viper, he and Brian were going to get a chance to see what it could do.
"What the hell, let's find out." He went to the radio. Dispatch gave him the location of the next radar trap, a single unit at the one-six-zero mile marker.
They were still running parallel to the Viper. "They're at the one six zero!"
The driver saluted. He had thirty-one miles of clear road. "This is gonna be fun," Bob said.
"Is it legal?"
Bob laughed. "Course not." At that instant he noticed the driver's arms. They were jointless like snakes, and long, monstrously so, curving around the cockpit, looping down into the foot well. And the hands—long, muscular fingers that ended in black claws. "Goddamn! Can you see the guy?"
"Look at his arms!"
Brian strained, but he couldn't see that far into the vehicle. Bob swung the Blazer toward the center of the lane but the Viper accelerated. As it did he caught a last glimpse of the girl. Now the pretty face seemed entirely changed. It was nothing but cheap plastic, something you buy in a dime store. It was cheap, painted plastic, and behind the dark eyes there were things glittering and rushing, as if the mask concealed a seething mass of bugs.
"Oh, fuck, Brian, look at that!"
Even though it had started at nearly seventy miles an hour the Viper was pulling swiftly away.
"It's a beautiful thing to see, Bob."
Bob hardly heard the words. His blood was rushing in his temples, his heart was rattling in his chest. That man had the arms of a—a—he didn't know what. And the girl—he'd wanted her, tasted her in his mind.
His stomach heaved; he only had seconds before it went on him. Swerving across the lanes, he caused a Lexus jammed with elderly ladies in designer hair to bleat its angry horn.
"Jesus Christ, Bob!"
He couldn't talk, all he could do was pull onto the shoulder. With little more than a glance back at the onrushing traffic, he stumbled out of the vehicle. Before he could get off the highway, his stomach turned inside out. A second later a UPS thirty-six-wheeler came blasting past, its airhorns blaring. Bob grabbed the door of the Blazer, choking as he swayed in the rig's slipstream.
Then he was out of control again, his whole insides seeming to twist against themselves, as if a fist was opening and closing in his guts.
Brian piled out and then he was holding him, lifting him from his helpless crouch. "What's the problem, buddy?"
Bob peered down the road. The Viper was half a mile away and going like the wind. "Did you see?"
"They were—" But what could he say? He couldn't tell anybody what he'd seen, not even Brian. If one word of it got back to the Department, he'd be put on psychiatric report. He steadied himself against the hood of the truck. He was a state police officer in uniform, he could not reveal weakness like this in view of the public. People would assume he'd been drinking.
Another car passed, its horn blaring. He hopped back into the cab. "Too much cheap breakfast," he said as Brian joined him on the other side....
The Forbidden Zone can be ordered here: