The Shimmer by David Morrell (2009): Technically speaking, Morrell is a Canadian writer, though he hasn’t lived here since he was in his 20’s. Since leaving Canada, he’s managed to become both a university literature professor (now retired) and a best-selling thriller writer. Oh, and he created Rambo in the 1972 thriller First Blood. Quite a resume. Morrell is an almost preternaturally gifted writer of thrillers — his prose is smooth, his characters are sympathetic when they need to be, his plots are tight, his pace relentless without seeming forced, and his research lends both interest and verisimilitude to even his most outrageous scenarios.
Here, Morrell gives us a small Texas town with an open secret: weird lights appear outside the town on a mostly nightly basis, and have been doing so for as long as people have lived in the area. This aspect of the novel is pretty much true — there is a small Texas town outside which weird lights, not yet satisfactorily explained by science, put on a nightly show for residents and tourists alike. Morrell combines elements of the supernatural thriller, the military-operation-gone-wrong and the historical into a pleasing melange. Our protagonists — a nearly burned out LA cop and his wife — are drawn to the town, she by some force emanating from the lights, he in pursuit of her. Others are also drawn there. A secret governmental installation registers an increase in the lights’ energy levels which may portend a disaster on par with previous incidents dotted over the decades, incidents of mass hysteria. Inevitably, all hell breaks loose.
As I noted, Morrell shines when it comes to pace and versimilitude: what happens in The Shimmer is probably hooey, but it’s convincing hooey. There’s even a weird, thinly disguised (really thinly — Morrell explains it all in the afterword) historical section devoted to the filming of the James Dean/Rock Hudson film Giant, though it’s not called that here. But Giant was filmed near ‘our’ world’s version of the lights, and Dean was fascinated by them. Weird stuff indeed. Highly recommended.
The Protector by David Morrell (2004): Don’t call them bodyguards. They’re personal security experts. And one of them is about to lose almost everything while trying to protect a scientist who says he’s fleeing from Colombian drug gangs, but really isn’t. Morrell’s attention to detail drives a lot of the appeal of this book, as he explains (or, for safety’s sake, explains with necessary omissions of detail) the ins and outs of car chases, exploding cars, proper handgun maintenance, surveillance techniques and witness protection over the course of this long but taut thriller. One of the appealing things about Morrell’s tough and competent hero is his care in relation to innocent bystanders — he actually works to avoid getting them hurt in the middle of his own adventures, something a lot of movie and TV heroes no longer seem to find necessary. Highly recommended.
Fireworks by James A. Moore (2001): Moore’s horror-thriller shares certain elements with Stephen King’s later Under the Dome (2009) — the small Georgia town of Collier becomes isolated because of the incursion of an apparently extraterrestrial threat, though in this case a shadowy government agency called ONYX does the isolating after a UFO crashlands in the lake near the town during the fireworks celebration on the evening of July 4. The crash kills hundreds, and ONYX moves in almost before the emergency vehicles have started ferrying casualties to the local hospital. Cut off from the rest of the world, Collier begins to simmer as ONYX suspends basic rights while it tries to dig the UFO out of the lake. Some people behave well; other people behave badly.
And then…well, and then things just sorta sputter out. I don’t know if the lack of a climax came about because of editorial interference or authorial choice (the novel’s structure initially suggests a much longer work, as we spend nearly half the novel focused on Collier’s police chief, move to much shorter sections focused on an abused woman and one of the soldiers with an underwhelming secret, and then shudder to a halt with unlimited 3rd-person narration). In any case, while Moore is a skilled writer of characters, overall the novel seems frustratingly unfinished. Not recommended.
Possessed by James A. Moore (2004): This supernatural thriller seems almost like a structural apology for Fireworks: this novel is almost ALL climax, the last couple of hundred pages spent in an interconnected series of scenes of escape and battle, capture and escape. I enjoyed the vaguely Lovecraftian shenanigans (actually, this is almost H.P. Lovecraft’s The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew in the Mystery of the Magical Necklace, albeit rated PG-13), though I was a tad exhausted by the time things wrapped up in a series of explosions and monsters and baleful extradimensional entities.
The 18-year-old male protagonist’s mother dies at the start of the novel, setting off a wacky chain of events centered around a necklace the mother was hiding from forces serving Something Awful. Hilarity ensues. And indeed certain elements are hilarious, mostly intentionally — the main character takes more physical punishment than Ash in the Evil Dead movies but keeps getting off the mat to Save the Universe. Or something. The whole thing almost seems written with more than one eye on a Hollywood treatment. So it goes. Recommended.