I was digging through my collection of horror novels and came across an excellent but mostly forgotten classic: Graham Masterton’s The Manitou. The 1975 book was Masterton’s first novel, and launched a prolific and ongoing career in horror writing. Nowadays, you will almost certainly find his works on the shelves of your local bookstore, but The Manitou itself is not usually among them. This is a shame, because it is a lovely, creepy novel and a great example of the often-mentioned but rarely-done-well ‘science vs. sorcery’ subgenre.
The story, told from the point of view of a second-rate mystic who get involved in the mess, centers upon a woman who finds a large growth on her neck, which moves. It is gradually discovered that the growth is actually an ancient Native American shaman who is reincarnating himself by growing himself a new body on the poor woman. Furthermore, this shaman is really pissed off at the white man for invading his homeland. Our second-rate mystic seeks the help of a genuine Native American mystic to save the poor woman and fend off the angry shaman, and a battle of science (and a little sorcery) vs. pure sorcery is launched.
Masterton does an excellent job of gradually and constantly building up the tension, at first with the imminent arrival of the shaman, and then with the shaman’s summoning of increasingly more powerful and hostile spirits. The science versus sorcery angle is extremely well done, with the main characters discussing and attempting a number of plans to defeat Misquamacas.
The Manitou was made into a 1978 movie starring Tony Curtis as struggling mystic Harry Erskine. For the most part, it follows faithfully the plot of the novel, except in the climactic scene, at which point the screenwriters seem to have made a conscious effort to ‘jump the shark’ (two words: space boobs). The early scenes with Misquamacas being ‘born’ and growing in power are quite nice and effective. Reading the book, I was struck by how much better and more topical a movie version made today would be, especially keeping the original climax. Read the book and see if you see what I think could be altered for contemporary society!
Masterton wrote two sequels to The Manitou, Revenge of the Manitou (1978) and Burial (1992). I’m thinking of picking them up to see what sort of mischief Misquamacas wrought after his first appearance!
My favorite anecdote about the film comes from the first time I saw it (h/t to Critter and Personal Demon for showing it to me). Personal Demon made the comment that he likes the story because “it’s based on something in real-life.” We all knew what he was talking about (cancer) but chose to pretend we didn’t, resulting in such retorts as: “Really? How many Native American shamans have you seen growing like a tumor in somebody?”