Creature from the Black Lagoon: Time’s Black Lagoon

 

Creature from the Black Lagoon: Time’s Black Lagoon

Author: Paul Di Filippo

Publisher: DH Press

Book review by Sean Ledden

1954’s film Creature From The Black Lagoon gave us one of movieland’s truly iconic monsters, and a testament to the Gill-Man’s long-lasting appeal is Paul Di Filippo’s imaginative, if flawed, 2006 novel, Creature from the Black Lagoon: Time’s Black Lagoon. (Yeah, it’s a long title.) Both a sequel to the three movies from the 1950’s, and a backgrounder that fills in the Creature’s origins, Time’s Black Lagoon opens with the desperate flight of “Mudshaper” across a prehistoric landscape as he tries to escape “the Coarsened Ones.” Who is Mudshaper? Let me quote the book, “His orange-freckled green face…was darkened, mottled…The delicate feathery neck flaps concealing his gills pulsed.” That’s right, he’s a Creature, but a gentle and benign one. The monster we’re all familiar with, several of them in fact, are hot in murderous pursuit. “The Coarsened Ones. Brutes, killers…They had usurped the niches once occupied by Mudshaper and his kind. Powerful, armored, speechless shamblers whose very forms mocked Mudshaper’s graceful, gracile people.” And just as they are about to pounce on a seemingly doomed Mudshaper we jump to the year 2015 –which is appropriate for a novel about time travel.

We then follow earnest, young marine biologist Brice Chalefant. With the baleful consequences of global warming becoming all too apparent, Brice gives a talk at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where he teaches. He muses, “If sea levels continue to rise, mankind might face a future as an amphibious creature.” This speculation brings scorn from his audience, but also attracts the attention of the aged and highly respected professor Tarquin Hasselrude. Excited that he has finally found an “heir”, Hasselrude lets Brice in on a dark secret from his past; the long-ago hushed up and forgotten episode of the fabulous and tragic Creature. Looking over the few surviving home movies and related materials, Brice obsesses that the amphibious Creature could hold the keys to mankind’s future. But how to proceed? The only physical trace that’s left is a fossil handprint from the Devonian age. It all appears to be a dead end – until Brice learns that his childhood buddy, and resident genius at Georgia Tech, Web Stemm has invented a time machine.

Going back in time 400 million years to discover the origin of, and to capture, the Creature of the Black Lagoon is my idea of a Ripping Yarn. Literally! (Ha ha, because you see….oh, forget it.) Anyway, Di Filippo’s handling of time paradoxes, and the nature of the time machine itself, is neat and satisfying. (It’s housed in an iPod casing!) But the book has a number of nagging flaws that kept me from fully enjoying the premise.

First are a number of sloppy mistakes made about life in the Devonian. One character mentions how mammals were newly evolved in that era, and when Brice goes back there he walks through “tall exotic grasses.” Well, both mammals and grasses came many millions of years after the Devonian ended, and it’s a shame Di Filippo blows his authority as a story-teller with such basic “Paleontology 101” goofs. Especially after he’s done such a good job with the mechanics of time travel.

Second, and more seriously, is Di Filippo’s way with characterization – exhibit number one being nice, gentle, earnest, self-doubting Brice Chalefant. In this time of toxic machismo I hate to criticize such a benign, well-meaning guy, but Di Filippo goes overboard and turns Brice into a depressive sap that I just can’t buy as the leader of an audacious and dangerous expedition. Worse, he’s surrounded by more competent and adventurous people who constantly talk down to him. Here are some examples:

Cody, Brice’s Amazonian girlfriend and fellow time traveler asks, “Not getting cold feet, are you?”

“No, no, it’s just that the magnitude of what we’re attempting to do has really hit home. I’m just a little nervous.”

“Good. That’s how you stay alive where we’re going.”

When Web talks up what a great success the expedition will be, Brice responds, “If we survive.” To which Web slaps him on the back and chuckles, “No fear on that count, son! I peeked at your armaments already. Mighty impressive. Cody prepared the armaments, by the way. (So it’s not a sexual entendre.)

And when it comes to the technical drudge work involved in searching for the Gill-Man back in the Devonian, “Brice was a little discouraged by the tedious procedure. "This could take forever…"

“Hey, that’s science, plug. Pure drudgery.” Web helpfully explains – to a highly trained marine biologist at a world famous institution.

Web himself, a confident and thoughtlessly condescending Alpha-Male (note how he calls his old high school buddy “son”) is a well-drawn character, but Di Filippo doesn’t really exploit this. Some pallid comedy stands in for dramatic tension because Brice never realizes what an ass Web can be. That’s because Di Filippo never realizes what an ass Web can be. Like Brice he’s completely bowled over by the guy, and expects us to be too.

And then there’s Cody, the perfect Amazon-girlfriend. And I do mean perfect. She’s hot. She tolerates Brice’s moodiness and klutziness. She loves his parents. She gets along famously with all of his friends, including Web. (Yeah, right.) She volunteers to risk her life in a prehistoric journey because it’s important to him. She then organizes and equips the expedition, for him – even going so far as hammering out a “mission statement.” That’s important because “mission creep is where the possibility for trouble always arises.” I guess “mission creep,” like science, is something a marine biologist wouldn’t know anything about – them being so helpless and all. But one thing Brice does know is that this “two-lover mission” will let them be the first people to have sex 400 million years before they were even born… Mission creep indeed!

In Cody, Di Filippo overplays his hand, and what was intended as a gracious tribute to female empowerment comes off as a role-reversed wallow in gender stereotypes. It used to be that he was the competent one while she fussed with her hair and makeup. Now she’s the competent one while he daydreams about sex. That is, when he’s not a little nervous about the danger, or a little discouraged about all of the hard work involved. – Why is Mr. Drip the center of everything? Why isn’t Cody the hero of this book? (Pssst – it’s because she can’t act as Di Filippo’s alter-ego.)

When we finally get back to the Devonian the mixed bag continues. On the good side, the menace of the “Coarsened Ones” is nicely drawn, and when we enter a village of benign, non-coarsened Gill-Men we arrive at that hallowed destination, the sci-fi utopia. Sea-going hunter/gatherers living a plentiful and peaceable life in eco-friendly villages, they present a pleasing tableau for the imagination to dwell in. But again, it’s all just too perfect. Possessed of telepathy, several sorts of unexplained, and therefore magical powers, as well as the wisdom of the ages, they instantly bond with Brice and Cody. And they say things like this:

“No, the event that demanded my intervention was not “wrong,” but supremely “right,” insofar as it forms a part of the natural course of the universe. But it was sad nonetheless. We have had a death among us. So tonight we must put aside our normal joyous singing and story-telling to conduct a more somber departure service for our friend.”

Reading this, my mind drifts way back to 1928 and Constant Reader (a.k.a. Dorothy Parker’s) response to the book The House at Pooh Corner – “That’s when Tonstant Weader frowed up.” (By the way, a Gill-Man funeral service is more somber than the usual joyous singing and story-telling?)

Di Filippo’s heart is in the right place, but he’s a victim of a kind of lazy, clichéd sentimentality. Not only does it hurt his writing, it means that he gives us conventional soap-opera in place of sharp, mind-opening science fiction. For while he often mentions the “otherness” of these amphibious Gill-Men, they act and sound like all of the other Tibetan sages, Jedi masters, and wise-old Native American chieftains we’ve met before. And open-minded New Age guy that he seems to be, Di Filippo’s cultural provincialism extends to sex as well.

Take this example: Brice and Cody learn that the Gill-People reproduce when the female lays her eggs in the water, which are then fertilized by a male. Neat! But after giving us this truly alien trait Di Filippo refuses to follow through. You’d think that this radically different sexuality would play out in all sorts of interesting ways when it comes to relationships between the Gill-People – after all, a mature male’s sex life would culminate in jacking off over a clutch of eggs. And the females, do they even experience orgasm? We don’t know because Di Filippo is too polite to bring it up. Anyways, the babies themselves are “nearly self-sufficient” from birth. – Despite all this, the Gill-People form nuclear families around long-term heterosexual couples that spend a long time rearing and teaching the young – just like contemporary heterosexual Americans! And just like Brice and Cody, we’re told the Gill-People spend a lot of time in recreational mating. Huh? How would that work?

And in a related matter, I find the complete lack of any gay characters enraging in a book which so evidently prides itself on its social enlightenment.

Well, I’ve just spent a lot of time bashing what is at heart a good-natured puppy dog of a sci-fi, fantasy adventure. That’s because its nifty take on an old classic is so nearly genuinely good. I’d be less angry if it just sucked from the start. Still, if you want to know if Mudshaper escapes from the Coarsened Ones, and if the threat they pose breaks out into the 21st century, go ahead and read the book. You could do worse on a hot summer’s day at the beach.

Sean Ledden (July, 2008)

Afterthoughts

ART NOTE:

There is one thing that is absolutely perfect about this book: the super cool cover painting by Stephen Youll.

MOVIE TRIVIA:

In the book professor Tarquin Hasselrude was the young nephew and assistant of Dr. William Barton, the mad doctor played by Jeff Morrow in 1956’s The Creature Walks Among Us. I never saw this last installment in the Creature trilogy, because the capture and surgical alterations performed on the Creature just seemed too awful to contemplate. Yet in doing research on the movie I could find no mention of a Tarquin Hasselrude. The character might have been invented by Di Filippo, and that’s OK – only now I’ll probably have to watch the movie just to fine out!

Buy the book at Amazon

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>