In a fifty year career as a novelist, David Morrell has never hesitated to introduce uncanny and fantastic elements in his fiction. I think particularly of the cave sequence in First Blood, but the novels Testament, The Totem, The Fraternity of the Stone, The Covenant and the Flame, Long Lost, Creepers, and Scavengers (of the novels I have read) all contain such moments folded into their broader thriller plots.
The Shimmer is Morrell's first (and to-date only) science fiction novel. Its thriller elements - parallel third-person action and broad historical context - offer the reader a rich, lean narrative of real emotional resonance.
Rostov, Texas is home to a strange Fortean phenomenon: orbs of light of unknown origin and composition. People flock to the area to experience the lights.
Morrell's protagonists Dan and Tori Page sum up the uncanny implications:
"They match what people bring to them. If you need something to believe in, they'll inspire you, but if you built a wall around yourself, you won't be able to see them. If you're angry, they'll make you angrier. If you want to turn them into a weapon, they'll use that weapon against you and make you realize just how terrifying a weapon can be."
"Plus, if you hope hard enough for a miracle," Tori said, "they can make one happen."
While Dan and Tori ultimately come to realize they have experienced an inexplicable form of grace in the interactions with the lights, Earl Holloway and Colonel Warren Raleigh have a very different experience.
Holloway is a private security contractor at a radio observatory twenty miles from Rostov. The facility claims to be studying the universe, but is actually surveilling the Rostov lights. A consequence of this radio surveillance is that Holloway becomes obsessed with a music his facility picks up.
As he stepped back, the noises from the earphones changed again, sounding definitely like music. But it was unlike any music he had ever heard.
As a teenager, he'd dreamed about becoming a rock star. He'd had a garage band and still played an electric guitar damned well. He knew about major and minor keys and four-four and three-four beat patterns. But this music didn't have any key he'd ever heard, and it sure didn't have any beat pattern that he recognized. Faint as it was, the music floated and dipped, glided and sank. The notes merged and separated in a rhythm that was almost like the way he breathed if he were on R & R, lying on a beach in Mexico, enjoying the salt smell of the air, absorbing the warmth of the sun.
"I don't know what that is, but it's the most beautiful thing I ever heard."
Gordon took off his glasses, and to Halloway's surprise, he didn't protest again. Instead, when he spoke, it seemed as if he felt relieved to do so, to share his discovery with someone.
"It is beautiful," he said.
"Why didn't we hear it this afternoon?" Halloway asked.
"I have no idea. Whatever this is, it happens only after the sun goes down."
Holloway's fate in The Shimmer is grim indeed.
The exposure experienced as the phenomenon's power increases also thwarts the best covert efforts of Colonel Raleigh's team to understand the national security potential of the lights.
Raleigh is a third generation Rostov experiencer. He is not Ahab-mad. He is simply blind to the unintended consequences of the lights, and the unintended consequences of his command's study of the lights. Ultimately, he gets his men in Rostov killed.
The Shimmer is a splendid thriller, checking boxes for the fantastic in a very contemporary way. It raises questions out of its plot ferment, and is one of the few thrillers that satisfactorily leaves underlying causes unexplained.
12 May 2020
I posted the below excerpts from David Morrell's splendid 2009 novel The Shimmer on Facebook this week.
[Dan Page rushes to Rostov, Texas in his Cessna 171, trying to catch-up with spouse Tori, who has walked-out without explanation. From the jacket: "Rostov, a remote town in Texas famous for a massive astronomical observatory, a long-abandoned military base, and unexplained nighttime phenomena that draw onlookers from every corner of the globe. Many of these gawkers--Tori among them--are compelled to visit this tiny community to witness the mysterious Rostov Lights."]
....Nonpilots often assumed that the appeal of flying involved appreciating the scenery. But Page had become a pilot because he enjoyed the sensation of moving in three dimensions. The truth was that maintaining altitude and speed while staying on course, monitoring radio transmissions, and comparing a sectional map to actual features on the ground required so much concentration that a pilot had little time for sightseeing.
There was another element to flying, though, and it was a lot like the drinking that took place at after-shift decompression sessions with his fellow officers. Page enjoyed flying because it helped him not to think about the terrible pain people inflicted on one another. He'd seen too many lives destroyed by guns, knives, beer bottles, screw- drivers, baseball bats, and even a nail gun. Six months earlier, he'd been the first officer to arrive at the scene of a car accident in which a drunken driver had hit an oncoming vehicle and killed five children along with the woman who was taking them to a birthday party. There'd been so much blood that Page still had nightmares about it.
His friends thought he was joking when he said the reward of flying was "getting above it all," but he was serious. The various activities involved in controlling an aircraft shut out what he was determined not to remember.
That helped Page now. His confusion, his urgency, his need to have answers-on the ground, these emotions had thrown him off balance, but once he was in the air, the discipline of controlling the Cessnaforced him to feel as level as the aircraft. In the calm sky, amid the monotonous, muffled drone of the engine, the plane created a floating sensation. He welcomed it yet couldn't help dreading what he might discover on the ground. When he entered Texas, the Davis Mountains extended to his left as far as he could see. They were hardly typical of the rest of the state and in fact reminded him of the aspen- and pinon-covered peaks he was accustomed to seeing in New Mexico.
He monitored the radio frequency for the Rostov airport. He knew from his preflight research that there wasn't a control tower and that he needed to broadcast his intentions directly to any aircraft that might be in the vicinity to make certain no flight paths intersected. During his long approach, he heard from only one other pilot, a woman with a deep Texas accent who reported that she was heading in the opposite direction.
The aerial map made clear where the prohibited airspace of the observatory was located, but even without a map, Page couldn't have missed the installation. The large white dishes reflected the sun and were awesome to behold. They resembled giant versions of the satellite dish on the roof of his Santa Fe home. Incongruous with the flat landscape in which they were situated, they radiated a feeling of sheer power that made them appear huge, even when seen from a distance.
He was puzzled that the observatory was located on comparatively low ground, especially when compared to the distant mountains. Didn't observatories work best when placed at as high an altitude as possible? But his musings came to an end when the practical concerns inherent to flying replaced his curiosity. Careful to stay clear of the dishes, he continued along his course toward Rostov.
Small communities were usually hard to spot from the air, and Rostov was no exception, blending with the seemingly boundless ranchland that stretched everywhere. For a moment, Page felt an eerie sense that he'd been here before, that he'd flown over this exact area on an earlier occasion and had seen these same cattle spread out, grazing. He was particularly struck by a picturesque windmill next to a pond at which cattle drank, a view he was positive he'd seen before. But he'd never before been in this area of Texas.
This just happens to look like a place you've flown over in another part of the country, he told himself. Pay attention to what you're doing.
His map revealed railway tracks and a road that went through Rostov. Flying parallel to the road-which was easier to spot-he soon noticed a faint cluster of low buildings ahead.
The map indicated that the airport was three miles northeast of the town, but as it came into view and Page prepared to angle in that direction, he felt confused when a second airstrip appeared on the opposite side of town, to the southeast. It wasn't marked on the map. Flying lower by that time, he was able to take a closer look, and he saw that the runway was cracked and buckled, a lot of it covered with dirt, patches of weeds and cactus growing at random. The crumbled ruins of hangars lay next to it. Lots of hangars, he noticed curiously. Many years ago, this had been a sizable facility.
What happened to it? Page wondered.
He noticed something else: an unusual topographical feature that stretched beyond the decayed airstrip. There, contrasting with the rugged brown grassland, was an extensive area of what looked like huge black cinders, seemingly evidence of volcanic activity that eons ago had pushed subterranean debris to the surface. The cinders had formed the rim of a volcanic crater that had eroded over time until only half of it remained visible, barely rising above the surface of the surrounding land.
Whenever the eruption had occurred, the force of it had scattered chunks everywhere. Page had seen other areas like it while flying over Arizona. They were generally called "badlands," a fitting name for something so bleak and forbidding. He couldn't help concluding that the place looked the way he felt.
....In World War II, when the hangars and the runway were freshly constructed, this would have been a scene of intense noise and activity, enough to make one's heart pound. Hundreds of airmen had trained here every month, practicing bombing runs and aerial dog- fights in a place so remote that only the cattle, coyotes, and jack – rabbits were inconvenienced by the commotion. But training airmen had just been the cover story.
A breeze swept dust across the decay. When the darkness was thick enough to conceal them from prying eyes, Raleigh pointed toward a hangar that seemed less collapsed than the others. The Suburbans followed, and he tugged away a section of corrugated metal, revealing a space large enough to allow a vehicle to enter the hangar.
Once they were inside, Raleigh pulled out a flashlight and examined a thirty-foot-high pile of debris that appeared to be the result of a clean-up effort long ago. Pushing aside some of the debris, he un- covered the edge of a camouflaged radio dish that was aimed toward a similar dish at the observatory. After verifying that the dish hadn't been disturbed, he edged behind some of the debris and pushed a button.
A portion of the concrete floor rumbled as it descended to form a ramp. Lights shone up from below, activated by the same button. His footsteps crunching on dirt, Raleigh walked down the ramp into a rush of cool underground air. The Suburbans followed him slowly, and the moment they reached the bottom, he stepped to a wall, where he pushed another button. The ramp ascended, becoming part of the ceiling.
As the men clambered out of the vehicle, Raleigh said, "Sergeant, assemble the team."
Seconds later, they stood in a row before him.
"Gentlemen." His voice reverberated off the concrete walls. "You're beneath Hangar 8 of an airfield that was a training facility for U.S. military flight teams during World War II. The hangar and this area weren't part of that effort, however. Only personnel with top-secret clearance were allowed in the hangar, and even fewer were allowed down here. The explanation was that the prototype for a new bomber was being assembled in the hangar and readied for testing. Trainees cycled through the program so quickly that they never stayed long enough to wonder why the bomber wasn't completed and flown.
"You're familiar with the race to develop the atomic bomb during the Second World War. The location for that project's main research facility, Los Alamos, was on a remote, difficult-to-reach mesa in New Mexico. This underground area enjoyed similar advantages and had a similar purpose. If it seems out of the way now, imagine how truly out of the way it was in 1943, when the project began. The objective was to develop a weapon quite different from the atomic bomb. In a way, Hangar 8 and Los Alamos were racing against one another as well as the enemy. Of course Los Alamos won the race. In fact, the first atomic bomb was detonated at what's now called the White Sands Missile Range, just two hundred and fifty miles north of here, and after two of those bombs ended the war in the Pacific, the urgency to develop a parallel weapon lost its force."
Raleigh chose his next words with care. "In addition, there were what might be called difficulties in conducting the research here."
Raleigh looked around the subterranean chamber. Even after all these years, rust-colored smears were visible on the walls, but they had nothing to do with rust.
"With the end of the war, there was no longer any need to train massive numbers of military flight teams, and the cover story lost its effectiveness. So for a number of reasons, the airfield was shut down. Except for this underground facility, the base was allowed to deteriorate. This area wasn't exposed to the elements, however, and apart from minor water damage, it adjusted extremely well to remaining in hibernation. Indeed, from time to time, it received maintenance checks in case its mission should ever be reactivated. Fifteen years ago, I did exactly that.
"I reactivated it."
[The house from the film "Giant" is located near Marfa, Texas, also site of the "Marfa lights." In his 2009 novel The Shimmer David Morrell braids it all into a thriller ripe with the uncanny and fantastik. Below the protagonists visit the "Giant" house, though Morrell changes the film title and actor's names/careers.]
....They drove along a dirt road. The heat of the day had dried the puddles from the previous night's storm. Dust rose in small clouds to mark their passing. The rugged grassland extended toward the distant mountains, the vast area so flat and treeless that only the grazing cattle provided variation in the landscape.
Wait, Page thought, peering into the distance. Something's out there.
He saw a speck at the end of the road. Leaning forward, he tried to identify what it was. As the truck drove nearer, the speck became larger.
"It's a building," Tori said, curious.
"Why do I feel like I've been here before?" Page frowned, recalling his sense of déjà vu when he'd flown over the cattle and the windmill on his approach to Rostov. He'd also felt it when he'd first driven along the town's main street.
The building became more identifiable-and more puzzling. It was an impressive three-story ranch house. A covered porch stretched along its wide front. Several chimneys projected from its roofline. A square tower rose on the right corner, ending in a cupola that made the house look like a castle. But as majestic as the place appeared, it had a brooding, gothic quality.
"I've seen this house before," Tori told Page. Abruptly she made the connection. "Birthright."
"Of course!" Page said. "That's why everything looked familiar when I flew here. This is the house Captain Medrano was talking about, the one Mullen took the tour to see."
Page remembered when a restored version of Birthright had been shown in theaters to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. He and Tori had heard so much about the classic film-which had seldom appeared on television-that they'd made a point of seeing it.
"We love that movie," Tori said.
"Yeah, it really makes an impression," Harriett replied, the house becoming more distinct as she drove toward it. "People here in Texas sure admired it. They couldn't stand the novel, which they thought looked down on them, but they felt that the movie showed their strength and determination, not to mention the vastness of the countryside. No fake-looking computer effects in those days. When you saw a hundred thousand head of cattle, every one of them was real. The miles and miles of ranchland. The endless sky. I don't think a movie has ever looked so big. As big as the state. And the actors matched the bigness of the movie. James Deacon, Veronica Pageant, Buck Rivers. Legends."
Page stared toward the looming house. Its dark, weathered wood reinforced the feeling of gloom that the structure exuded. Soon the truck was close enough for him to see that some of the boards had fallen, that there were gaps in the wall, that the porch was in danger of collapsing.
"Doesn't anybody maintain it?" Tori asked in surprise.
"The movie people left it here, and the family that owns the ranch took care of it for a while, but then they got distracted," Harriett answered. "And anyway, who would they have maintained it for? It's not as if they wanted tourists tromping over their land and leaving the gates open so their cattle would wander down the road and maybe get hit by a car. By the time the parents died, the children had pretty much forgotten about it. When they finally remembered, it was too late. Now the place is in such bad shape that it can't be repaired with- out basically being rebuilt."
She stopped the truck at decaying steps that led up to collapsed boards on the porch. The ornate front door looked as if it was about to topple from its rusted hinges.
Page got out of the truck, his sneakers crunching on pebbly dirt. He helped Tori down and watched Harriett come around to join them. She put on her cowboy hat. The sun was intense enough that Page wished he'd thought to bring a baseball cap. Tori continued to wear hers, concealing most of her red hair.
"In the movie, a lawn was here," Page said.
"And a curved driveway bordered by flower beds," Tori added. "A cattle stampede tears it all up. Veronica Pageant and Buck Rivers put it all back together. Then they do it again when there's a tornado. Then there's a terrible drought, but somehow they keep building their empire."
"Texas determination," Harriett said.
"And James Deacon's the white trash they humiliate, until he strikes oil and uses his money and power to get even with them. At one point, he drives his battered old truck across the lawn. He's covered with oil from his first well. He jumps out and punches Rivers." Page looked around. "But I don't see any oil wells."
"Forty miles from here," Harriett said. "That's where you'll find them. One reason the movie was made here is that this isn't oil country and there weren't any wells to interfere with the illusion that this is what Texas looked like a hundred years ago, before the oil boom." She paused. "I said there weren't computer effects, but that doesn't mean there wasn't any movie magic. Walk around the house, and you'll see what I mean."
Curious, Page and Tori did what Harriett suggested. Stepping around the corner, Page gaped. All he faced was more grassland.
"There isn't any house," Tori said in astonishment.
"The only part they built was the front." Page couldn't get over his surprise. "In the movie, you feel like you can walk right into the place."
"Seeing's believing," Harriett told them. "But what you see isn't al- ways what's real."
Like the cuttlefish, Page thought. "You're making a point about the lights?"
"Eye of the beholder," Harriett answered. "Sometimes we see what we want to see, sometimes what we ought to see, and sometimes what we shouldn't see."
"I don't understand."
"A lot of people in town were extras in the crowd scenes in Birthright, back when they were kids. Ask around, and you'll hear all kinds of stories about what it was like to have movie stars walking the streets of Rostov."
"What does that have to do with the lights?" Tori asked.
"For about three months, the stars lived right here in town. Rostov was even smaller back then, and everything the actors did was pretty much public knowledge, not that any of it was terribly shocking. There was so little to do that the film crew-including the actors- played baseball every Sunday afternoon against a team the townsfolk put together. People invited the actors to barbecues. Every evening, the director put up an outdoor screen and showed everyone the foot- age he'd shot a couple of days before. Did you know that all three of the stars were only twenty-three years old?"
"Twenty-three?" Tori echoed. "But they look like they're in their forties and fifties for half the film."
"The director had two choices: hire forty-year-old actors and use makeup so they'd look young in the early parts of the movie, or else hire young actors and use makeup to age them. The fame of Deacon, Pageant, and Rivers made him decide to appeal to a younger audience. The acting and the makeup were so brilliant, they convinced you that what you saw on the screen was real."
"More illusion," Page said. "Okay, I get it."
"That's not the point I wanted to make, though," Harriett continued. "Deacon starred in only three movies. First, he played the younger brother in a family that runs a fishing boat in northern California."
"The Prodigal Son," Tori said.
Harriett nodded. "Then he made the street-gang movie, Revolt on Thirty-second Street. And finally Birthright. He filmed all three back- to-back, but he died in a car crash before any of them were released. He never had a chance to find out how big a star he was."
"I knew he died young, but I had no idea it was before his movies came out," Page said.
"The waste," Tori said. Something in her voice made Page wonder if she was thinking about her own disease. "All the other great movies he might have made."
"At the time, his fans were convinced that he hadn't really died in the car crash," Harriett went on. "They believed he was disfigured, that he hid from the public so he wouldn't shock people and ruin his legacy."
She paused, bracing herself for what she wanted to say.
"Deacon was a troubled farm boy from Oklahoma. His mother ran away with the hired hand. His father was as stern and joyless as the father in The Prodigal Son. As a teenager, he rebelled to the point that he was accused of stealing a car and almost went to reform school. A teacher got him interested in acting in high school plays. He loved it so much that he found several part-time jobs, saved a hundred dollars, and hitchhiked to New York City, where he convinced Lee Strasberg to let him audition and was allowed to take classes at the Actors Studio.
"What people tend to forget is that at the beginning of Deacon's career, he played bit parts in a couple of movies, but he never made an impression. He had secondary roles in a lot of live television plays, and no one paid attention to those, either-deservedly. Even though he studied with Strasberg, he was terrible. Awkward, dull, lifeless. If he hadn't been so good-looking, he probably would never have been hired.
"Finally he became so discouraged that he gave up and drove his motorcycle across the country. That was in the summer of '56. By the fall, he was back in New York, where he managed to persuade a casting director to give him a small part in a Broadway play. Suddenly he was acting so brilliantly that a Hollywood talent scout gave him a screen test for a small part in The Prodigal Son. The test was so spectacular that the director asked for a second one and then gave Deacon the starring role. According to the DVD of the movie, that's one of the great success stories in Hollywood history. What do you sup- pose made the difference?"
Page shrugged. "I guess the motorcycle trip gave him a chance to get focused."
"Or maybe he had help," Harriett said.
"That summer, Deacon was on his way from El Paso to Big Bend National Park. That's southeast of here. He happened to drive into Rostov."
Tori stepped forward. "He saw the lights?"
"He spent most of August and all of September here. Every night, he drove out to the observation area, which wasn't even a parking lot back then. And every night, he stayed until dawn. Then he drove back into town and slept in a tent he'd put up in the park. Late afternoons, he went around town and made friends. He was so good-looking, I don't imagine that was difficult. Then one day he was gone, returning to New York and his big break."
Page frowned. "You're saying the lights had something to do with it?"
"They were the only thing that was different in his life," Harriett replied. "I can imagine him staring at the lights for all those weeks. Night after night. Spellbound. In Deacon's earlier roles, his eyes are dull. In his last three films, they glow. When he was hired to be one of the stars in Birthright, he told the film's director about Rostov and how the area around here would be perfect for location shooting. He was so persuasive that the director came out to take a look and instantly decided to build the ranch house-right here." She gestured at the ruined structure. "Seems awfully coincidental that we're ten miles from the section of road where Deacon first saw the lights."
"Did the director see the lights, too?" Page asked.
"No. Local people who worked on the movie remember that Deacon went there every night and dragged Pageant, Rivers, and the director with him several times. They had no idea what he was talking about. The crew members didn't get it, either, and finally Deacon was the only one who went out there."
Harriett drew a breath.
"He didn't need makeup to look older," she finally said.
Despite the heat, Page felt a cold ripple on his skin. "What do you mean?"
"The director shot the movie in sequence. As Deacon was supposed to look older, he actually did look older. The rumor on the set was that he was drinking and taking drugs every night instead of watching the lights, as he claimed. He began to look so wasted that the director begged him to stop abusing himself. There was talk of shutting down the picture and sending Deacon to a hospital to dry out. But every evening, when the town gathered to watch scenes from a few days earlier, Deacon looked so perfectly in character, so real in the part, that the director kept filming. The makeup people needed to use all their talents to get Pageant and Rivers to look as believably older as Deacon did."
Standing in the shadow of the ranch house's ruin, Tori asked, "What made that happen?"
"All I can tell you is that when Deacon finished his last scene and drove away on his motorcycle, people say he looked sixty years old," Harriett answered. "Five days later, he was killed driving his sports car to a race in northern California near where he'd filmed The Prodigal Son. He was going a hundred miles an hour when a pickup truck pulled onto the road. A witness saw sunlight glinting off the truck's windshield. The theory was that the glint blinded Deacon and kept him from being able to steer around the truck."
Page stared at the splintered boards lying on the ground. "Why hasn't any of this been talked about?"
"Deacon's death really traumatized everyone associated with the movie. They didn't claim to understand him, but they respected his brilliance, and they didn't want to tarnish his legacy by claiming that he was wasted on booze and drugs. They certainly weren't going to make him sound like a nutcase by mentioning the lights, which no- body believed in anyhow."
Harriett lapsed into silence. In the hot sun, the only sounds were cattle lowing in the distance and a breeze scraping blades of scrub grass.
"So the lights inspired Deacon, and then he became so obsessed by them that he was destroyed?" Tori asked.
"It depends on what you mean by destroyed. That final performance bordered on greatness," Harriett answered.
"But the bottom line is, he died," Tori emphasized.
"It could be that's what Deacon wanted. Maybe he'd lived so in- tensely during the previous year that he couldn't bear it any longer."
"The glint on the windshield of the truck he hit. Maybe he was so burned out that he decided to drive into the light."
The breeze faded, everything becoming still.
"Yesterday you told us how blessed the people in town feel because they've seen the lights," Page said.
"That was my experience."
"But not everybody's experience," Page added. "Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? In town, I heard a store clerk say that when she was young, she used to go out to see the lights, but now she never does. Yesterday you said you stopped going out to see them, also."
Harriett looked pointedly at Tori. "When Chief Costigan phoned yesterday to say you were coming to see me, he explained how fixated you are on the lights. I brought you here to try to make you under- stand that, yes, it's possible to have too much of a good thing."