Clamp: There’s Something in the Water
For all my blather about Guy N. Smith and the immortal one-novel wonder Pierce Nace, the true wellspring for Peter K.K. Williams‘s novel Clamp is clearly John Sayles‘ Piranha (1978).
I’m talking here about the Sayles novelization of Sayles‘s screenplay for Joe Dante Jr.‘s solo directorial debut. Like Piranha — the novel and the film (also 1978) — Clamp is a labor of love. Monster love. Gory monster novel love.
Like Joseph A. Citro‘s Lake Monsters (originally published as Dark Twilight, 1991; republished under Joe‘s preferred original title Lake Monsters in 2001), Clamp begins with an apparent focus on Champ — the Lake Champlain Monster.
But as it was for Joe‘s novel, this is a whopper red herring: Williams has something more insidious in mind and at hand than a mere lake monster.
Peter‘s critters are pluralized — with a vengeance.
Whatever you can imagine a plesiosaur-like throwback doing to you pales in comparison with the triple-threat of paralysis-inducing venom, saw-like teeth (capable of cutting through wood or fiberglass, so flesh and bone are easy pickings) and sabre-sharp tongues making short work of you in or out of the water. These little suckers travel in slithering packs, swarming in lake waters, slithering up toilet bowls and even filling decks, rooms and entire houses (evoking some prime gory monster movie real estate pioneered in Jeff Lieberman‘s carnivorous-worm gem Squirm, 1977, not to mention Frank Herbert, Shaun Hutson, Guy N. Smith and John Brosnan/Harry Adam Knight‘s nastiest invertebrate feeding frenzies).
Per all gory monster novels and movies, the science is nonsensical. Lamprey are nasty-looking parasites, but despite their looks, occasional infestations and unpleasant feeding habits (piercing and partially digesting their prey’s internal organs, so they can drink ‘em up), they’re also essential to the fesh-water ecology.
That said, they’re also long overdue their gory monster novel debut, and I can’t imagine Clamp pushing lamprey to the brink of extinction any further than they already are — so spare me your bleeding-heart ‘animal rights’ pleas for fair and accurate characterization of lampreys in gory monster novels. They aren’t treated any shoddier than the bipeds that inhabit Williams‘s novel, and unlike the humans they even get to savor some shuddery massive-lamprey-orgy sexual escapades, so load up your plate and dig in.
We’re plopped down into “the little town of Krampton… on a stretch of the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, midway along its 110-mile length at a point where the lake attains its maximum width of five miles.” This allows Williams to cannily juxtapose real and invented landmarks and waterways, and he does a deft job of sketching out the particulars of Krampton Kountry and its community, from its most powerful matriarch (Elsbeth J. Hawthorne, thank you very much) to its most flamboyant eccentric (Tom Snee, homeless brain-scrambled embittered artist).
Betwixt those poles Williams populates the novel with a heady stew of locals and flatlanders, sketchily delineated in broad strokes in part because more than half of ‘em are so much gory monster novel chum. This makes for thin characterization, as it always has in the works of James Herbert, Shaun Hutson, Guy Smith et al, but it’s a tried-and-true strategy, so don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Williams knows his genre and what makes it tick, and he keeps the Clamp pot boiling at a steady pace until he’s good and ready to let it boil over and scorch the stovetop.
This conceit successfully keeps the reader off-balance as to who best to attach one’s sympathies to: will State Police Sgt. Paul Edwards be around long enough to care about? Is it safe to give a hoot about visiting cryptozoologist Roland Humphrey and his granddaughter Jade, or will they be fish and chips for the ravenous infestation they stumble upon? Will local yokels Hank and Zeke score in the annual fishing contest, or just prove to be so much bait themselves? Should my immediate appreciation of autocratic UVM Professor Stanley Stryker‘s classroom methodology of dealing with stupid questions about Creationism and Intelligent Design prompt identification, or am I just being set up for another mutant eel/lamprey feast entree?
You get the picture. Any one of ‘em could and some do become monster chow in a heartbeat, and none of those who succumb to the jaws of the monstrous lamprey-things do so without considerable agony.
I felt reasonably secure empathizing briefly with the state pathologist Hendrik, but even then — well, you never know if one of the writhing little fuckers making such a meal of Krampton‘s citizenry might make its way alive and hungry to the coronor’s slab, curled up inside a corpse.
Now, that’s keeping a gory monster novel reader on their toes, so kudos to Williams in that department.
Clamp fires on almost every cylinder — almost. The action kicks in with the first chapter and escalates with every setpiece; there’s enough likable characters to break a few hearts and raise a few pulses as the lampreys have their way or are momentarily held at bay; and Williams avoids physical descriptions of his characters (a particular weakness in first novels), so my own mental portraits of each of ‘em were modified but never spoiled as I got to spend whatever time was allotted with each of ‘em. Clamp is heartless enough to be fun, but heartfelt enough to be even more fun than it should be.
The only caveat I have, really, is with the satiric purple prose and occasional boners. Since Williams stressed to me personally that he intended Clamp to be humorous, too, I took and take him at his word and can roll with most of the risible flourishes.
When his main villain recites the names of his favorite movie monsters to justify the title — savoring a rogue’s gallery from Kong to Rodan to conclude, “…and now… Clamp!” — I can enjoy a hearty chuckle at the sheer bravado, silly as it reads (especially given the circumstances of the scene). Snee‘s insane blather is occasionally overdone, too, but again, I can work with it (“Chump’s humps flackering in the ovoids!”). Given Williams‘s background in the New England music scene, I’ve no reason to doubt he hasn’t dealt directly with musicians and artists whose tongue-wagging didn’t outstrip Snee‘s; for all I know, every word of Snee‘s dialogue may be quoted verbatim from life.
But I choked more than once on the overwritten mise-en-scène, caked with cloying similes and metaphors (“Rosy-fingered clouds reached across the morning sky, as they did when Odysseus embarked upon his fateful voyage long ago…”) and out-and-out boners like “The nub of a turtle’s head poked above the lake’s surface… The amphibian scrutinized the world…” (turtles are reptiles, natch). Since many chapters open with such bon mots, it would be hard to argue that they’re all intentional confections rather than symptoms of maladroit writing. If Peter could temper those excesses, I for one would be thankful. Understand, though, this is far more tolerable than Guy N. Smith‘s habitual abuse of the language or Pierce Nace‘s bruising prose — and that’s part of the fun, too.
Gorehounds, rest assured the appropriate excesses are indulged each and every time the lamprey tie on the feedbag and take out another victim or two or nine. Though Clamp doesn’t wallow in the brain-melting depravity of Pierce Nace‘s Eat Them Alive, he holds his own in the splatterpunk school of gory monster novels (e.g., Herbert, Hutson, Smith, etc.). While often gracefully underplaying the atrocities for effect when its appropo, Williams doesn’t flinch when it comes time to “deliver the grosseries,” as my late pal Chas Balun used to say.
“Hell offers no greater epicurean delights than those enjoyed by the lampreys as they feasted on her liquified muscle tissue…” is one of the classier passages, setting up one of Peter‘s grosser frissons (which I won’t give away here). More typical are descriptions of the insatiable parasites slicing “into… flesh with the ease of a shiny new razor blade hewing cheese,” or the sensory overload of “pain receptors suddenly blared… warm blood filled the lamprey’s oral hood…corrosive enzymes bathed the wound as repeated thrusts of a blade-tipped tongue cut deeper into —-’s living tissue… eleven hungry lampreys attacked.” (No, I won’t give the victim’s name away; fair is fair, and I’m not going to provide any spoilers.)
You can see now why Clamp reminds me more of Piranha than any of its other precursors. These swarming lamprey are worse than piranhas once they get going, but the whole is structured quite consciously as a Green Mountain reboot of Sayles and Dante‘s gem. Like Piranha, Clamp is a terrific little monster movie in summer novel form: humble in scope but lethal in its direct, no-nonsense targeting of our basest fears of what might malinger in the water.
And like Piranha, Clamp pays homage to Peter Benchley‘s Jaws with its narrative template — rural niche utterly dependent upon vacation tourist dollars ignores all dire warnings of bloody, horrible, nasty death because the July 4th festivities must go on –hitting all the archetypal touchstones.
But like Sayles and Dante‘s Piranha, Williams places at the center of its carnivorous apocalypse that classic archetype, the Mad Scientist.
Unlike the Sayles/Dante mad scientist (who bred fresh-water piranha to sow the waters of Vietnam with a biological weapon the Pentagon never wielded), Peter‘s mad scientist (like John Brosnan/Harry Adam Knight‘s mad scientist in Carnosaur) has an axe to grind with the entire human species.
I’ve already said too much, but I hope this places Peter‘s stem on the proper branch of the family tree for the gory monster novels.
I’ve yet to read Peter‘s other book, Gigs: An American Rock ‘n Roll Odyssey (2006), but I intend to soon. He told me he’s working on a sequel to Clamp, and I hope that’s true — I’d sure welcome a followup.
It’s not often we get our own Vermonster version of Piranha unreeling on the shores of Lake Champlain, and we need more unrepentantly malicious gory monster novels to balance out the real-life horrors of the 21st Century.
Since the little boogers are definitely breeding upstream, here’s hoping Clamp‘s sequel is among the summer novels I’ll be savoring in 2010 or 2011 — but that means you’ve got to be checking out Clamp yourself, if only to ensure Williams having an audience for the next fearful feeding frenzy.
Some helpful links:
Options for ordering Clamp:
Guy N. Smith resources:
T-t-t-that’s all, folks!