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April 9, 2009

Book Notes - James Morrow ("Shambling Towards Hiroshima")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books.

James Morrow's novel Shambling Towards Hiroshima accomplishes many things in its 170 pages. In this homage to 1940's horror films, social and political satire permeate the darkly comic novel where giant mutant lizards replace the atomic bomb as an option for the Allies to end World War II. Reading this book, it was easy to see why the Washington Post has called Morrow, "the most provocative satiric voice in science fiction."

The Montreal Gazette wrote of the book:

“Morrow is careful never to trivialize the horrors suffered by the Japanese — in fact, especially in the concluding chapter, this suffering is made viscerally explicit. What is most impressive is the author’s deftness in juggling comedy and horror and in making each play off and enhance the other. Throughout, the story displays unremitting empathy for human suffering.”

In his own words, here is James Morrow's Book Notes essay for his novel, Shambling Towards Hiroshima:

Shambling Towards Hiroshima is a short book, and my discussion of its musical correlatives will be correspondingly brief. The novella is set in 1945, shortly after V-E Day. Syms Thorley, a legendary Hollywood horror actor, is dragooned by the U.S. government for a most unusual assignment. It seems that the Navy has succeeded in creating a unique variety of biological weapon — giant mutant fire-breathing bipedal amphibious iguanas — but has qualms about unleashing the behemoths on Tokyo or Kyoto without first offering the enemy the opportunity to surrender. And so our hero must don a rubber lizard suit and destroy a scale model of Shirazuka, a hypothetical Japanese city, before the eyes of an enemy delegation.

The stakes could not be higher. If Syms Thorley manages to shamble through Shirazuka with convincing ferocity, the Pacific War could conceivably end without further bloodshed. If Syms fails to stage a sufficiently vivid demonstration, Harry Truman will be forced to order a behemoth attack on the Japanese mainland. In short, our hero must give the performance of his life.

Akira Ifukube
Godzilla: 50th Anniversary Edition Soundtrack CD
Produced in Association with Toho Studios

Shambling Towards Hiroshima is obviously an homage to the Godzilla phenomenon. This CD is the original soundtrack for the 1954 Gojira, the primordial Japanese monster movie, featuring a pounding, driving main theme that manages to be at once unnerving and uplifting. Not to be confused with the dubious 1956 re-edit starring Raymond Burr, Gojira emerges as one of the most potent anti-war films of the fifties, despite its modest ambitions and low budget. The scenes set in hospital wards following the radioactive monster's rampage through Tokyo are clearly intended to evoke documentary footage showing the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki raids.

Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner
Monster Music: Son of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man Returns, The Wolf Man
Moscow Symphony Orchestra
Marco Polo DDD

Hans J. Salter and Paul Dessau
House of Frankenstein
Complete Film Score

Moscow Symphony Orchestra
Marco Polo DDD

My portrait of Syms Thorley draws upon the acting careers of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Lorre, but the character is based primarily on Lon Chaney, Jr., featured in The Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, and perhaps a dozen other Universal Studios classics. Like Chaney, Jr., Syms has played, or intends to play, every conceivable movie monster — a mummy called Kha-Ton-Ra, a Frankenstein-like creature called Corpuscula, a werewolf named Baron Ordlust. My research for Shambling Towards Hiroshima obliged me to delve deeply into horror film lore. The music of Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner, and Paul Dessau, who scored most of the Chaney, Jr. vehicles, provided the perfect accompaniment to my attempt to capture in prose the universe of low-budget Hollywood filmmaking, circa 1945.

Franz Waxman
The Bride Of Frankenstein
1993 Rerecording of the 1935 Film Score

The Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra

In preparing for his grand demonstration of the giant mutant lizards, Syms Thorley receives crucial assistance from the legendary Hollywood horror director James Whale, as well as the brilliant film composer Franz Waxman. In reality, Whale and Waxman had already collaborated on what many fans regard as the greatest of all the classic monster movies, The Bride of Frankenstein.

David Buttolph
Music from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
More Monstrous Movie Music
Radio Symphony Orchestra of Cracow

Shambling Towards Hiroshima includes a framing story in which Syms Thorley, now seventy years old and at the end of his tether, languishes in a sterile hotel room. His mood is despondent, even though he has just received the Raydo Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Baltimore Imagi-Movies Society. The statuette is named not only for the monstrous rhedosaurus featured in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, but also for the two Rays without whom the movie would not exist — Ray Harryhausen, who created the stop-motion special effects, and Ray Bradbury, who wrote the original story.

James Morrow and Shambling Towards Hiroshima links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
the author's blog
video trailer for the book

Adventures in Reading review
The Agony Column review
Bookgasm review
Bookmarks review
Denver Post review
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review review
Guardian review
io9 review
Montreal Gazette review
National Post review
Planet Blog review
SCI FI Wire review
SciFiDimensions review
SF Signal
The SF Site review
Strange Horizons review
Time Out Chicago review
Unbound! review

The Agony Column interview with the author
Berlow's Freak Show interview with the author
Futurismic essay by the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes music playlist by the author for The Philosopher's Apprentice
Whatever essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2009 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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