James Morrow, Shambling Towards Hiroshima (Tachyon Publications, 2009)

In Shambling Towards Hiroshima satirist James Morrow deftly combines humor, pathos, rubber-suited monsters and the absurdity and horrors of war into a compact novel that elicits laughter and tears in equal measure. Readers will never think of Godzilla -- or any other B-movie monster, really -- in quite the same way, that's guaranteed.

The novel is presented as a memoir by one Syms Thorley, a B-movie star best known for a succession of costumed monster roles. Syms, having just finished a stint as guest of honor at a Baltimore sci fi convention, has sequestered himself in his hotel room, determined to get something off his chest before killing himself. That something turns out to be his participation in a secret World War II war effort: the Knickerbocker Project, a Naval alternative to the atomic bomb.

The key to the Knickerbocker Project? Think mountain-sized, fire-breathing lizards, Godzilla brought to life from a line of specially bred iguanas. A brilliant, absolutely terrifying secret weapon, no? Inspired, yes, but imperfect: the adult monsters were impossible to control unless heavily sedated, and the babies too sweet-tempered to attack anything. Cue Syms, who'd already made a name for himself shambling about on sound stages in costume. He's recruited to maneuver an artificial terror lizard through a live demonstration (the utter destruction of a to-scale Japanese model city) for Japanese officials, in the hopes they would be convinced to concede defeat and thus prevent the unleashing of either the real lizards or the atomic bomb.

Chapters alternate between the present and events in the memoir,with the narrative following Syms through his grueling training and magnificent and highly disturbing performance. Alas for all involved, history ultimately unfolds just as it did in real life, and two hydrogen bombs fall on Japan, resulting in horrific loss of life. Syms and everyone associated with the project are left to wonder if setting the lizards free would have been better -- or only just as tragic. Or if they could have done something different to prevent the horror. That Syms has been battered emotionally by guilt is obvious; the same seems true of everyone involved, military and civilian alike.

Despite the serious nature of the story, Morrow packs a lot of humor into the narrative, preventing characters and readers both from emotional meltdowns. For example, despite the lizards’ deadly nature, it's difficult not to chuckle at their funny book names -- Dagwood, Blondie and Mr. Dithers for the adults; Huey, Dewey and Louie for the young ones (it's also hard not to be sad at the latter's untimely passing). Morrow's dialogue is sharp and witty -- it's a shame Syms was relegated to shambling about in his movies; he certainly had a certain comic flair before Knickerbocker.

In Shambling Towards Hiroshima, Morrow has delivered a stinging indictment against Truman's actions to end World War II, while leavening that horror with an homage to the joy of schlocky monster movies. (Corpuscula, Gorgantis and Kha-Ton-Ra indeed!) No mean feat, and one he should be lauded for.

James Morrow can be found online here.

[April Gutierrez ]