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I enjoyed D C Farmer’s novel The 400lb Gorilla, because it gave me several hours of fun and unputdownable reading. It’s a fantasy romp in and out of A&E wards and the light industrial backwaters of Oxford, with a swearing vulture and deranged religious fanatics from another dimension. If that won’t take your mind off the smell of ward antiseptic, nothing will.
The hero is hapless, the villains are repulsive and evil and arrogant, and there are many painful jokes using the vocabulary of the body. Matt the hospital porter (it’s nice to read a novel with a hero who isn’t in an irritatingly exclusive profession) is being sought by terrifying monsters, because he is the only one who can close the door against the other world that they come from. It’s a familiar plot in fantasy fiction, but Farmer’s version is fun rather than bitter and portentious. He doesn’t do Neil Gaiman’s chirpy despair so much as exasperated bewilderment. He doesn’t do gripping plotline quite as forcefully as China Miéville, but he puts up a very acceptable offering of demonic monsters and tough women in charge to keep the story charging along at top speed. The Oxford setting recalled Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials rather too closely for me. Maybe those who live there will appreciate the reasons for the author naming this or that street for the hero to run down as if hell were after him (which it was). What did work well were the Men In Black-like disguises that the secret beings have to assume to keep an eye on the world that Matt lives in. I will never walk casually into a hospital ward again. As for Farmer’s jokes, I would give him a B+ for his Extended Comparative Metaphors, but A*s all round for his efforts in Inspired Vulgarity, Applied Scatology, and Innuendo Made Decent.
There were only two slight disappointments in this novel. The first was the title, which is a wasted opportunity, and a distraction I didn’t need. How heavy is 400lb anyway? Looking it up, I see that it means around two hundred bags of sugar, which doesn’t help. Aren’t all gorillas big and heavy? And why a gorilla? There isn’t one in the story until you reach the last fifth of the book, and THEN it’s mentioned … as a one-off squib of a joke that isn’t very funny. As a title, it tells you nothing about the plot or the genre, and feels like something that should have been edited out. The other mild niggle was the nasty characters in the hospital, who are bullying types familiar to anyone who’s worked in the British public services, and perhaps other readers will find their inevitable comeuppances entertaining. Just bring us back the aggressive other-world beings, Mr Farmer, because that’s where the real inventive fun lies.
D C Farmer, The 400lb Gorilla (www.spencecity.com, 2014), ISBN 978-1939-3928-31, $7.95
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