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Breaking the boundaries of genre fiction; Usher's Passing, by Robert R. McCammon. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 401 pp. $14.95.

By Sam CornishSam Cornish teaches writing at Boston's Emerson College. These new novels of science fiction, horror, and fantasy demonstrate three writers' attempts to exceed the confines of genre fiction. The novels are seriously concerned with such institutions as marriage, the church, and the munitions industry, and their writers have provided thoughtful speculations on both the religious and scientific aspects of these issues. Usher's Passing takes its plot and characters from Edgar Allan Poe's ''The Fall of the House of Usher,'' beginning with speculation on what might have happened had a member of the Usher family survived. The novel therefore brings Poe's material into a more contemporary setting. Its protagonist, Rix Usher, is an antiwar activist, a promising but failed writer, and child of the 1960s. With the death of his father, he inherits the Usher fortune. ''Usher's Passing,'' a tale set in North Carolina, spans the generations of a family. It is filled with literary references and clues. It is also, however, filled with the legendary stuff of classic horror fiction, even though it deals nominally with politics. McCammon's vision of horror incorporates such elements as New York street gangs and a dying Edgar Allan Poe, who, crouched over his sherry, must face death without fame. ''Usher's Passing'' is the most original story of its kind since Peter Straub's ''Floating Dragon.'' In Job: A Comedy of Justice, Robert Heinlein, the dean of science fiction, has written his best book in years. The plot involves time travel and parallel universes. The protagonist, one Alexander Hergensheimer, finds himself suddenly transformed from a fundamentalist minister to an international businessman of dubious morality, acquiring along the way a Scandinavian paramour and a mysterious million dollars. Just as Alex begins to adapt to this new identity, an iceberg appears from nowhere to sink his cruise ship, thrusting him into yet another world, similar but unfamiliar. Each time he attempts to uncover the mystery behind these transformations, he is swept into yet another dimension and, like his biblical namesake, loses whatever possessions he has acquired. Without complex atmosphere or imagery, but with a great deal of humor and insight, Heinlein tells the story through dialogue. In past novels, he has employed imagery and pacing to move forward his plots, but here he is more interested in his characters' responses to their situations and in presenting various views of religion and culture. ''Job'' incorporates Heinlein's views on everything from manifestations of prejudice to the use of genre fiction as a forum for ideas. The novel is filled with philosophizing. Frank DeFelitta's Golgotha Falls, a novel of atmospheric horror, involves a Jesuit priest and two scientists who await the Day of Judgment in the Church of Eternal Sorrows, a cursed and unholy place. The image of a natural world gone wild is both pervasive and horrifying - as chaotic as the biblical apocalypse. But the horror is predominantly philosophical, as DeFelitta's characters, priest and scientists alike, find that their institutions have a common purpose and problem: to seek confrontation with the agents of apocalypse. This is a novel of religious experience within the conventions of genre fiction, and its horror has roots more in the realization of religious and scientific speculation than in explicit depiction of violence. For those unacquainted with but curious about the current popularity of science and fantasy fiction, these three novels constitute a fairly sophisticated introduction. For readers of the genre, they are among the best fiction of the season. / December 10, 1984



Job: A Comedy of Justice, by Robert Heinlein. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine. 376 pp. $16.95.

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Golgotha Falls, by Frank DeFelitta. New York: Simon & Schuster. 319 pp. $15. 95.