Reflections on Horror Literature: Relic

I’m going to make a claim of something very out of character, given the nature of much of what I write.

There is such a thing as too much research.

Relic, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, is a horror novel suffering under the weight of its own research. The monster is half-glimpsed, tangential, and less fully realized than the catacombs of the museum sub-basement or the DNA computer program some characters use to identify the creature. In a book that could have made its central monster a metaphor for evolutionary biology, the AIDS crisis, cultural appropriation and exploitation, environmentalism, or any number of other exciting hot-button issues, it instead ignores this potential by focusing on trying to make its setting more realistic.

I now know more about the politics behind the hierarchical staff structure in Preston and Child’s fictionalized Museum of Natural History than I do how anthropologist John Whittlesey turned into the cannibalistic Mbwun creature. I have more information about blueprints, night watchman rounds, Smithback’s book and Margo’s doctoral thesis than I do about the look and killing methods of Mbwun. And even through shoot-outs and terrifying treks through flooded catacombs, I felt no sense of urgency or action or even real threat or dread. The characters casually reveal important things—Mbwun’s existence in the museum for years, the method of killing the creature—as almost offhand things, barely worth mentioning, let alone showing center stage.

Now, if Preston and Child’s goal was to make a scary monster story, the above are all reasons why it failed to frighten or build suspense. However, if the authors’ goal was to write about the banality of evil and show how administrative red tape can be just as dangerous as a post-human lizard man who needs to eat part of people’s brains for its own survival, then they did a good job there.

Administrators are shown as craven publicity hounds who will cover up murder if it means not giving the museum a bad reputation. Academics like Kawakita are willing to throw away years of dedication to science in order to make a quick buck, even if it means endangering society. The only heroic characters are the naïve and the damaged, but the epilogue’s nihilistic (and sequel-friendly) coda seems to undo all the heroics they managed. It’s all ultimately pessimistic and highlights the worst in humanity, particularly amongst fame- and funding-hungry scientists.

Academics and non-profiteers are the real monsters here, and though that’s an interesting target, it makes for a dull read.

There’s a reason why certain genres are popular and others relatively non-existent. There’s no market for academic thrillers, as opposed to crime and horror. People want to read about cops and lawyers and doctors because they’re in the trenches of crime and problem solving. Reading about Margo typing things into a DNA sequencing computer is boring. It’s real, sure, and it’s exciting if you’re the one doing the science, but it’s a boring read. Monsters trudging around basements and sewers could be exciting…but not so much when they’re pitted against anthropologists, botanists, and biologists.

I think I would have liked this book a lot better if Pendergast had been the protagonist, rather than just a supporting character. Because as much as I like scientists in real life, they make for deadly boring monster fighters.


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3 responses to “Reflections on Horror Literature: Relic

  1. I agree that the details made the story lag in some places. There was one line where Pendergast describes their plan as “deceptively simple, like a zurbaran still life or a Bruckner symphony.” I had to put the book down so I could roll my eyes.

  2. I have a problem with People-want and People-don’t-want generalities. RELIC made the N.Y. times Bestseller list, is still in print (actual print, not only electronic form) eight years after publication, and is the first book of what is now a twelve book series. *Somebody* wanted to read it. I enjoyed it. So many of the books we’ve covered, especially the recent ones, feel like the same story with slightly different characters. The monster shows up early and the rest of the story is spent blowing things up (either literally or metaphorically). I enjoyed reading a story as much about the discovery as the battle.

  3. Samantha Lienhard

    Aw, I’m sad you didn’t like this one as much as I did. I thought the corrupt administrators were a bit overdone at times, but I was willing to overlook that because of how much I enjoyed the mystery of Mbwun and everything else. I thought the part with the computer was interesting… Maybe I’m part of the market for academic thrillers. XD

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