A novel about an archaeologist digging up 2000 year-old bog bodies in the UK that have been mauled by some mysterious ancient creature? A supernatural creature that is awakened by the excavations and begins to stalk and kill again? Yes, please.
Since starting to publish 20th century authors, Valancourt Books has been on an incredible roll, and they’ve released so many forgotten gems that I’ve had a hard time keeping up with them. Last month, I finished reading The Bog (1986), by Michael Talbot.
Talbot was not a terribly prolific fiction writer, only publishing 3 novels during his lifetime. In fact, his is known much better for his books on mysticism and science, of which I will say more later. Nevertheless, his novels are clever and well-written, and one of them — The Delicate Dependency — is widely regarded as a classic of horror.
The novel starts as archaeologist David Macauley’s hunch pays off big time. Long fascinated with bog bodies, the scientist has set up a dig site in Hovern Bog, near the small village of Fenchurch St. Jude. When his assistant Brad calls him with news of a discovery at the bog, David immediately drives up from Oxford. They have found the 2000 year-old body of a young woman: like many bog bodies, she is in a state of near perfect preservation. Unlike most bog bodies, however, her still-preserved face displays a look of frozen terror. Furthermore, her cause of death is mysterious: she appears to have been mauled by an instrument or creature of unknown origin. Adding to the mystery — the woman, though clearly local, is found with a fancy Roman comb, something unprecedented in bog archaeology.
David quickly moves to relocate his family — his wife and son — to the small village. However, he finds that the locals are unfriendly, and even fearful of the excavations he is doing. Soon, more bodies are uncovered, mauled in the same manner as the first and also with looks of terror. But then new victims start to suffer the same fate — first animals, then people. It isn’t long before David starts to fear for the lives of his family, but has he waited to long to escape — and survive?
The Bog is, overall, a solid horror novel. From its rather simplistic setup, it takes a number of surprising twists, and there is definitely more going on than can be seen at first. A number of well-placed flashbacks to ancient times reveal the backstory, piece by piece, and the novel works almost as well as a mystery as it does horror.
It is wonderful to see a story set around the real phenomenon of bog bodies, which have been found in a number of places in Northern Europe, with dates of entombment ranging from 8000 BCE to World War II. Mummification occurs due to the high acidity, low temperature, and low oxygen content of the bogs, which tans the skin and prohibits decay from microorganisms. One of the most famous examples of this process is Tollund Man, who was excavated in a bog in Denmark. Tollund Man lived in the 4th century BCE, and died by hanging. His features, which can be seen in this photo from Wikipedia, were so well-preserved that he was at first thought to be a recent murder victim. The earliest body discovered was found in the 1700s, and many have been found since then.
Returning back to the novel, the only quibble I had with it was with some of the dialogue. Somehow, and this was a vague feeling, the conversations sometimes just felt a little awkward and unnatural. It didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the story, but just caught my attention a little when I read it.
I noted that Talbot is better known for his “scientific mysticism,” and it is worth saying a few words about that. Like many people in the 1970s and 80s, he seems to have become fascinated by supposed similarities between Eastern mysticism and quantum mechanics, and saw in these similarities a new way to look at spirituality and reality. His most famous work, and one that is still in print today, is The Holographic Universe (1991), which postulates that the observable universe is simply a projection of a higher-dimensional reality.
The idea that our universe is in some way related to holography is not a new one, and the notion of a holographic universe has found renewed interest among cosmologists; however, it should be noted that the modern science is a far cry from Talbot’s vision. To quote from the introduction of Talbot’s book, he suggested that holography could explain some pretty odd things:
In 1980 University of Connecticut psychologist Dr. Kenneth fling proposed that near-death experiences could be explained by the holographic model. Ring, who is president of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, believes such experiences, as well as death itself, are really nothing more than the shifting of a person’s consciousness from one level of the hologram of reality to another.
In 1985 Dr. Stanistav Grof, chief of psychiatric research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, published a book in which he concluded that existing neurophysiological models of the brain are inadequate and only a holographic model can explain such things as archetypal experiences, encounters with the collective unconscious, and other unusual phenomena experienced during altered states of consciousness.
The entire book can be read for free on archive.org, for those interested. I must admit that I don’t find Talbot’s holographic theory of everything to be particularly compelling; however, his horror fiction certainly is and I look forward to reading his other two novels.