Every now and again, you have to take some time to process a novel once you’ve read it, and that’s especially true if you’re going to attempt to review it. As it happens, I read two books instead of one: Jack Finny’s The Body Snatchers and Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. So, I guess there was double the process time needed before sitting down to write this review. But I was inspired by posts on the Horror Drive-In forum, posts that talked a little bit about these two books, so, my goal here is to do a little homage to some great stories—and maybe I will entice those reading this review to go back and enjoy a couple oldies, but goodies.
The Body Snatchers, published in 1955 (but first serialized in 1954), involves seed pods that land on Earth to do what seed pods do best—multiply. But the thing of it is, these seed pods aren’t looking to grow into anything other than copies of the people that live in the town they’ve set to invade. It is up to the main characters, who come to realize this threat, to see that the body snatchers are thwarted.
The Puppet Masters, published in 1951 (also serialized in a magazine), has visitors from outer space too, but these are a little different than those in The Body Snatchers. These are highly intelligent aliens, beings that intend to use human bodies for hosts—they look sort of like the nastiest version of slugs you can think of—maybe a cross between a slug and a leech and a snake, who knows—and those slugs, called ‘The Masters’ by the hero of this novel, want one thing only: world domination. It is up to a few special agents that are a part of an off-the-books agency to stop the invasion.
The books are similar as they both deal with hostile beings from outer space, intent on doing what the do best: kill off and/or take over humanity. Both deal with ‘the other’; that is to say, both deal with showing what is weird in contrast to what we all are, which is (supposedly) normal. They both say, “If you don’t watch out, you’ll be watching your own body eating your T.V. dinners and sitting next to your wife who isn’t really your wife anymore.” But, social and intellectual warnings aside, they books hold your attention as they are both action packed, especially Heinlein’s novel—if it were printed today, I daresay that it would be tagged with that insidious Thriller Novel label.
I think an important last point is that both deal with the specific instance of invasion (not a dystopian environment), and shows how humanity might react. Jack Finny’s writing from the perspective of the small town doctor, while Heinlein is showing us how a government that spends $100 on a toilet seat and $300 on a traffic cone might go about dealing with a superior nemesis. In either instance, I think the best and the worst of humanity is accurately portrayed. That’s a big deal for novels that were written some seventy years ago now. That they’re still relevant says much more than I ever could.
All of this is great, but how is it horror? Though I do understand why these books are classified as Science Fiction, I do also think there is an argument to be made in regards to their being functioning works of Horror Fiction as well. The narratives strike a deep sense of fear in the reader, fear of ‘the other’, but it is more than that, too. Both novels create a fear of being made into the ‘the other’ and the process that entails. In The Body Snatchers that seems to mean certain death. In The Puppet Masters that seems to mean something worse than death; possession. It is through these two fears—the fear caused by death, and the fear caused by possession—that both authors twist our feeling of suspense and dread. This is classic horror in its best emanations.
I enjoyed both of these novels. I recommend you read them, if you haven’t. For me, The Body Snatchers was the book I enjoyed more out of the two, but that is because I fear death much more than I fear being possessed (even if it is by a slug). Which of the two fates do you fear most?
Review by David M. Wilson