Graham Masterton’s Blind Panic

About a month ago, I picked up the most recent novel by horror author Graham Masterton, Blind Panic (2010):

Buying this novel was a no-brainer for me, because the back cover description completely intrigued me:

It began without warning.  Across the country, people were struck suddenly and totally blind.  At first it was just a few, but gradually more and more fell victim to the spreading darkness. Hospital emergency rooms filled to overflowing as highway pileups and airplane crashes were everywhere.  But now the true horror has arrived.  Silent, spectral hunters have begun to stalk their now-helpless prey.  The blind can only grope in frantic fear as the ghostly marauders prowl the streets, leaving nothing but death in their wake.

Sounds neat, eh?  I’m a very big fan of Graham Masterton’s work, as can be seen from my old “Horror Masters” post about him.  I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything I’ve read of his, and this novel is no exception, though I should point out that the back cover description is a little deceptive!  (Mild spoiler follows.)

The deception is a sin of omission: the villain of the story is once again Masterton’s evil Native American wonder-worker Misquamacus, first featured in Masterton’s debut horror novel, The Manitou (1975) and reintroduced in three earlier sequels.

As I was expecting something new, the revelation that Blind Panic is another Misquamacus story at first felt like going on a blind date and finding out you’ve been fixed up with your ex-girlfriend!  Once I got over the initial shock, however, I really got into the novel and liked it a lot!

For those not familiar with the Misquamacus novels, a little background will be helpful, starting with The Manitou.  The hero of all the novels is Harry Erskine, a second-rate mystic who spends most of his time reading fortunes for wealthy elderly ladies.   Life is good until a young woman named Karen Tandy comes seeking his help.  Karen has found a strange growth on her neck, diagnosed as a tumor, but which turns out to be the embryonic form of the most powerful shaman of all time, Misquamacus, “He who went and came back”.  Misquamacus is being grown and reborn after his original death 100 years earlier, and he has a hatred of the white men who invaded his lands.  Harry finds himself thrust into the middle of a battle between good and evil supernatural forces taking place in Karen’s hospital, and the whole world may in fact be threatened.

The Manitou is one of the best, if not the best, stories of “science vs. magic” that I’ve ever read, and undeniably a classic.  The sequels do not possess quite as much horror kick as the first book, in large part due to the growing familiarity of the villain.  It is similar to the degradation of such horror movie staples as Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger, all of whom started as genuinely frightening and ended as punchlines in really lame jokes.

Misquamacus also loses some of his scare as the novels progress, but he also gains something that more than makes up for it: character.  In the first novel, he is depicted as little more than a monster.  As the novels progress, however, we come to understand his motivations and his anger much more.  Though he is still evil incarnate, we can at least partially sympathize with him about the treatment of his Native American brethren.

Misquamacus’ character is also more fleshed out because of his ongoing feud with Harry Erskine.  The all-powerful shaman’s frustration at being beaten time and again by a white charlatan mystic is almost palpable.  This actually adds to the tension of the later novels: Harry is being singled out for a particularly horrifying fate by the wonder-worker, but in each novel Harry finds himself more vulnerable and defenseless than the last, as allies are stripped away from him or murdered one by one.

In each novel, Misquamacus is defeated, seemingly for good, but by the next novel he manages to find a loophole to allow himself to come back stronger than before.  To Masterton’s credit, these “loopholes” seem superficially plausible in the story’s context, though it does start to feel a little like kids arguing about a make-believe game:

“I’ve defeated you, Misquamacus!”

“You’ve destroyed my body, but not my spirit!”

“Yeah, well now I’ve blocked your spirit from ever entering the real world again!”

“Oh, yeah?  Well, I’ll borrow someone else’s spirit and come back anyway!”

“Wait, what?”

In Blind Panic, the shaman manages to find supernatural allies that strike most U.S. citizens with blindness.  The story is very apocalyptic, and the stakes are very high for Harry and his friends: even the President of the United States is directly threatened, and an ultimatum is delivered to him by Misquamacus personally.  The blindness is bad enough, but Misquamacus threatens a more physical form of destruction upon the white invaders, though the nature of that threat does not become clear until late in the novel.

One thing that I like about the story is that it puts a surprising new spin on the relationship between Harry and the evil shaman; this spin practically cries out that there will be another “Manitou” book in the series.  As I’ve enjoyed them all so far, including this one, I can’t say that I’m upset by the possibility.

If you are considering reading Blind Panic, my only recommendation is that you first read the original The Manitou, to introduce the basic characters and storyline.  Blind Panic is a worthy successor to the “Manitou” books that came before it.

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