After nearly closing their doors a couple years ago, Necro Press and founder David Barnett have rebounded nicely, with 11 titles published by my count since their rebirth. One of those new titles is the debut novel from John Leahy, the somewhat-awkwardly titled CROGIAN.
In the spirit of Stephen King’s “The Mist” and countless other tales, CROGIAN is based on an ever-reliable source of horror — namely, a military experiment gone very, very wrong. The story begins with a very engaging premise — the discovery of an alien artifact by a reclusive loner living outside the small town of Goodman, Alaska. The top of the artifact turns out to almost literally be the tip of the iceberg, and soon word of the bizarre find reaches the military, who move in to take ownership. A short bit of aggressive experimentation later, it turns out that the artifact is a portal to another dimension… A few more years later, and an automated expedition is dispatched, ultimately returning with video of a strange planet of gigantic flora and fauna, and soil samples containing molecules that could revolutionize the agriculture and food industries. But of course the military is far more interested in weaponizing the discovery, so that an enemy’s own environment could be turned against it.
The remainder of the tales is set in 2017, where the military has relocated the project to an abandoned chemical facility in Texas. (CROGIAN is actually the code name for the military’s experiment, standing for CReator Of GIANts.) Rancher Ken Forde and his family live adjacent to the facility, which turns out to be a very bad zip code to be in when a disaster causes the CROGIAN formula to leak out into the local environment, resulting in exactly the sort of massive growth spurts the military had hoped for — but in their own backyard, rather than in some foreign “axis of evil” country.
Early on, the mutations seem relatively harmless, in some cases just freaks to be abused by the cruel and the clueless:
Ken had seen some of the clips. They had ranged from the disgusting to the psychotic: two smiling men holding up a section of an earthworm so thick that their hands couldn’t close around its body; a woman standing by an enormous spider-web who, when she touched it with a long stick, brought a huge black and yellow spider scampering from under a shed eave; two teenage boys kicking a soccer-ball as hard as possible against the shell of a colossal snail ascending a wall, the ball bouncing back each time from the shell the size of a bass-drum, the boys deciding to change to baseball, one of them throwing the ball to his buddy holding a bat, the buddy connecting perfectly with it, sending the ball smashing through the snail’s shell, both kids throwing their hands in the air and cheering.
But as time goes on, the mutations keep growing… and growing… and growing, leading to a “nature run amok” tale that’s something like an updated and more hardcore version of The Land of the Giants — for those who remember that late ‘60s TV show — although the mutations in CROGIAN are localized to a large swath of Texas and seem to be limited to plants, insects, reptiles, and fish, and (thankfully) not mammals or birds, for unknown reasons.
The remainder of the novel is taken up by the struggles of Ken and his family — and others they encounter along the way — to escape the contaminated zone and reach a safe harbor. Their journey begins with tense, suspenseful scenes but unfortunately the repeated close encounters and narrow escapes soon start to feel repetitious. Additionally, the interesting characters found in the early stages of CROGIAN are replaced in latter sections by far more stereotypical characters, especially some of the military villains portrayed, and there are some awkwardly-written passages to further weigh things down.
In sum, CROGIAN has a great germ of a plot, and is nicely-paced for the most part, but I ultimately wanted to like it a lot more than I did. The novel does, however, qualify as a good summer “beach read” — meaning that, as long as you don’t focus too closely on the details, or think too much about the science or logic, it’ll keep you entertained as the tide rolls in.