Wednesday, October 31, 2012

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL: For Fear of Little Men

Ex-Nazis, terrorism via biologic tampering, Celtic folklore and legends, reincarnation, mind control, immortal beings -- all this in one book? All this and more, my friends! General Charles Kirk, Marcus Levin and his wife Tania (whose previous adventures are reviewed here and here) are all on hand once again battling possible supernatural beings and investigating microbiological terrors in John Blackburn's unique genre-blending thriller For Fear of Little Men (1972). The little men of the title come from an oft heard Celtic verse:
Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen.
We dare not go a-hunting
For fear of little men.
There are no little men per se to fear in the context of the story. Professor Rushton, an archaeologist digging in the mountains of Wales, lectures the characters on local folklore and legends and alludes to that verse. He is hoping to unearth proof of the existence of an pre-Celtic race who were the forbearers of the fairies, leprechauns, pixies, and what have you of Irish and Scottish mythology. He proposes his theory that the "little people" are the genetically mutated descendants of a powerful superhuman race who had arcane powers connected to Earth's natural forces. Rushton's lecture though it appears early in the book will have startling ramifications as the story progresses.

Kirk has been enlisted by the government to investigate possible terrorist activity in the form of toxic pollution being purposely emptied into the water supply on the Welsh coast. The pollution has been traced to D.R. Products, an aerodynamic manufacturing company. On their staff is Hans Graebe, a known high ranking ex-Nazi who escaped punishment through a technicality during the war crimes trials. Kirk and his Home Office associates believe that Graebe is perhaps in league with a foreign government and has hatched an insidious plot to poison the marine life and kill the population dependent on the fishing industry in that part of the UK. Kirk sends Levin, a trained microbiologist, to gather samples of waste, run tests looking for identifiable toxins, and question Daniel Ryder, the head of D.R. Products, about the dangerous effluent being discharged in the waste water at his factory.

As in The Young Man from Lima there is a substantial portion of the story devoted to a scientific explanation for the poison that has been tainting locally fished shellfish. Levin runs a series of experiments and discovers that the toxic waste, rather than being created or biologically engineered contains an accidentally mutated bacillus that seems to have evolved from the polluted waste water. Interspersed with this scientific thriller plot we get a variety of intriguing incidents like the archeology project in the mountains determined to reveal the existence of the mythic home of Daran, legendary immortal leader of a Celtic race; the mysterious death by falling of Daniel Ryder, an expert mountaineer; and the frequent test flights of a newly designed airplane threatening havoc.

And what of those hippies Ryder invited to camp out on his land? Why are they still there after his horrible death? Do they figure in the story at all? Frequent references to them seem arbitrary. Yet nothing in this story that seems to be made up of haphazard incidents is ever random or inconsequential. All the seemingly unconnected threads will all tie together to form the fabric of a wicked plot. The eyebrow raising finale is suitably nightmarish enough for a Hammer horror movie.

Blackburn was perhaps the earliest genre writer who saw the nightmarish possibilities of eco-terrors. He was joined by John Creasey, whose Dr. Palfrey novels also mined this area. Together they were true pioneers in the burgeoning, yet to be formulaic, techno-thriller we have today. The X-Files, The Andromeda Strain, and other similar thrillers dealing with biological horrors owe a lot, whether conscious or not, to Blackburn.

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