So recently I was going through one of my favorite monster stories. It’s called Relic and it’s by the thriller genre’s very own dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.
Going back through the years, I’ve probably read the thing half a dozen times. What can I say? I was one of those kids raised on Godzilla, Jurassic Park, and any other abnormally sized or scaly monstrosities put to film. Novels are a great time sink for kids who can’t get enough of the stuff. Actually, it was probably that Jurassic Park benchmark blurb of Booklist’s on Relic’s cover that hooked me in the first place.
I would literally read the thing summer after summer. There was a large swath of my young life dedicated to these books. If it wasn’t Crichton’s two stories, it was Relic. The book is insanely readable, so it isn’t a surprise that after catching a viewing of the movie adaptation on Netflix (I’ll just hurry past that subject for now…), I found myself refreshing my familiarity with the novelization. (I needed to get the taste of the movie out of my mouth! …Moving on…) Once I peered in, there was no going back. It turns out those old shackles that held me so firmly back in ’96 were still in place.
I couldn’t put it down.
It’s always fun to see what you remember, or just let that nostalgic wave wash over you. You can usually get more out of a book you’ve read as a kid by reading it again. I did all of those things. I devoured the thing in three or four days, and I found myself coming away with something I didn’t expect. Warning: Here there be spoilers.
Whittlesey, the novel’s main antagonist, is a complete and total fuck. If you haven’t read the story (how dare you) seen the film (can’t blame you) and decided to plow through my meager warning above (can’t blame you there either), let me explain. In the story, Whittlesey’s an anthropologist with the single minded drive to discover a South American tribe that was thought to be extinct called the Kothoga. As you might imagine, he was dead right, and the Kothoga aren’t really up on public relations with the outside. I’ll brush over the particulars and tell you that Whittlesey ends up getting captured after attempting to rescue one of his colleagues. Well, the rescue plan was secondary. The man’s a jerk, remember?
So Whittlesey ends up being transformed into a bloodthirsty beast after being fed this virus-laden genetics-mutating lily pad plant. The infamous mbwun monster is born! The reasoning behind this is left mostly in the dark, but wherein the mystery lies the heart of the book’s coolness factor.
Whittlesey/mbwun becomes a super huge, super strong gorilla/lizard/bear on crank. We’re talking about a very strong addiction. One that impels him to commit hideous acts when his fix is taken away. He needs the plant fibers to produce the necessary hormones to keep his diabolical internal workings humming. If he can’t have it, his only substitute is lodged securely within the craniums of many would be victims.
It would be a bad day to meet this dude in a dark alley. Don’t even bring up cold turkey..
But! It turns out his first murders weren’t even brought on by his junkie’s relapse from hell. The mbwun’s first victim is early on in the book. A poor chump whose alias is Ven. Poor Ven. Ven is a thief who decides to tag a shipment of archeological discoveries bound for the Museum of Natural History in New York. This displays some very poor judgment on Ven’s part. It turns out that the bulk of the stuff in the crate trace back to Whittlesey’s expedition. And Whittlesey isn’t happy to let his blood, sweat, tears, and humanity all go to waste. And sadly for Ven, Whittlesey never strays far from that crate. I’m sure we’re clear about what happened to Ven.
Some might argue that Whittlesey was protecting his last supply of the plant. I call bull. If Whittlesey wasn’t jonesing for the green stuff at the time of Ven’s untimely end, I’ll call him on the evil shit that he does.
Our favorite anthropologist mutant goes on to kill a bunch of sailors in New Orleans, an old colleague of his that (once again) got too close to his ‘precious’, a couple kids, some security guards, some members of a SWAT team, his former boss, and a whole mess of party-goers.
I know I know, you think I’m giving the dude too much credit. He is, after all, just a monster. Why do I condemn a beast who probably doesn’t know any better?
Here’s my case. Whittlesey shows plenty of pre-meditated behavior throughout the entire tale. He builds on previous murders. He gets bolder; maybe even a little drunk on his animalistic rage. He lets some people live (case in point, his once-friend, Dr. Cuthbert), while apparently going out of his way to kill others ( the museum’s Director, Winston Wright) when he clearly doesn’t need to.
Be it revenge, spite, self-pity, or whatever, Whittlesey goes on a rampage. And the thing that makes it memorable and endlessly entertaining, is the fact that the monster was once one of us. Just some dude with goals an foibles. Friends and shit bosses.
At one point after escaping a close shave with death, Ian Cuthbert relays a chilling message. He’s miraculously avoided getting his brain scooped out the back of his head and is barely holding onto his sanity. He rattles on about how “It knows,” and that “It hates us.” The most telling part for me was when he mentions its eyes. About how they showed “infinite sadness.”
It’s creepy, chilling, and great. It’s the many layered aspect of the museum beast that really stays with me. And has so for years. While I want to punch him in his grotesque face (for the love of god, he ate a damn puppy!), there’s an almost pitiable side to his character as well.
Although his isotopes have been twisted and he’s expressing WAY too many latent or alien genes, Whittlesey is still just a twisted reflection of ourselves.
It’s always terrifying to know just how far we can fall. Given the same circumstances, could anyone do any better?
Here’s several other douchey monsters that were human once:
The Pak Protectors in Larry Niven’s Known Space series of books. If you hate pretentious supergeniuses with narrow aspirations, these guys should be at the top of your list.
Frankenstein’s monster from Mary Shelley’s timeless novel. Kind of obvious, I know. There are so many great versions, but a recent play production by Danny Boyle has Benedict Cumberbatch as the creature. This here is the granddaddy of monster pity/hate. Bring a tissue… or a punching bag.