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The Day They H-Bombed Los Angeles

The Day They H-Bombed Los Angeles by Robert Moore WilliamsThe Day They H-Bombed Los Angeles
Ace Books, 1961
Price I paid: none

A Hollywood star, a housewife, a nurse…A doctor, a G-man, an engineer…They were among the pitiful handful of survivors who faced starvation, disease, and something infinitely worse—the terror that roamed the ruins! The horde of monsters had once been men and women, but now wre transformed into something never before seen on Earth!

I think this book has the best title of anything ever. It really tells you all you need to know. And whoever put together the cover did a fantastic job. It’s simple and it’s effective. Good job, uncredited cover-putter-togetherer.

I’m a bit torn on the contents. I’m having a hard time telling if I was actually entertained or not. It’s weird. There was a lot to not like about this book, but it was still somehow engrossing. This is a phenomenon I’ve noted several times, I suppose, and I think there needs to be a name for it.

The very best thing is how quickly the story got rolling. I fully expected the first thirty pages or so to detail some guy’s family life, or maybe his job, all in the lead up to the titular day. Perhaps we’d follow several people and get to know them before they were all brought together by disaster. That would be the usual way to do this kind of story.

But nope! We meet our main character, Tom Watkins, mere minutes before his world explodes on page one. That is fantastic.

Tom is an ex-sergeant with the Marines. He’s pulling into a parking lot and waiting for the attendant to stamp his ticket when everything just goes BOOOOM. Actually the flash happens first, as you’d probably expect, and then we get a bit of time where the attendant, who was looking directly at the blast when it happened, goes blind. Pretty dark.

The book had some flaws, but wasting time was not one of them. This was an efficient book. Tom goes straight from that parking lot to the nearest bomb shelter. He knows what’s going on. He’s been dreading it for some time, as have most of the people in the book, because Cold War.

On his way to the shelter, Tom meets a young woman and basically has to force her to come with him. She’s an assistant to some doctor and insists she needs to get back to him to help with what will no doubt be a busy day. Tom tells her that her doctor is probably dead and she reluctantly comes to the shelter with him, where we meet all the other people.

It’s a pretty big cast of minor characters. They were hard to keep straight but it did at least lend itself an air of realism. Many of the characters are strictly in the background adding a soundtrack of moaning and praying and weeping. Tom immediately sets himself up as the leader of this ragtag group of survivors, which actually made sense as he’s got the backstory for it. Lots of novels don’t prepare their characters quite as well.

So the group of named characters seems to include Tom; Cissie, the woman he saved earlier; Ted Kissel, an FBI agent; Eric Bloor, a guy Tom knew in school and who has a name that’s really close to a friend of mine’s; and Rena, the movie star. The professor comes later. There is no Mary Ann. Maybe Cissie is the Mary Ann? Gotta think on that one.

The author does a decent job of depicting people under a great amount of stress. To wit, everybody goes insane. Apart from the incessant crying and praying in the background, there’s Rena, who is convinced that nothing has happened and wants to go back outside. Several people act like that, actually, but Rena, being a well-known actress and, well, stacked, attempts to use her womanly wiles to get what she wants. She doesn’t succeed, mainly because Tom states that anybody who touches any of the women will be dealt with harshly. I guess he figures that repopulating the human species will come at a later date.

Actually, it turns out that the nuclear attack is a localized one. It also turns out that it wasn’t an attack by the Soviets at all. Once radio contact is established with the outside world, it becomes clear that something a lot more sinister is going on. Ted, the G-man (why don’t we call federal agents G-men anymore? Or do we and I’m just out of the loop? I suppose G-person is a bit more inclusive, but it lacks a certain panache) turns out to know a lot more than he initially let on. He lets Tom (and us) know what’s up.

It turns out that something in the Los Angeles basin, Ted doesn’t actually know what it’s supposed to be, has been determined to be a threat to the United States. Possibly the world. Ted was on a mission to find it, as was pretty much every other federal agent as well as a few military groups. These investigators were taking samples of things and sending them to important scientists in the hopes of determining just what they’re looking for.

It’s never stated how the government knew to send people to LA and have them look for this mysterious something. If they didn’t know what they were looking for, how did they know to look for it? I’m confused and a bit annoyed. To be fair, I guess, we only know what this guy knows, so maybe the government was way ahead of the game for the first time ever.

So because Ted and his cronies didn’t isolate the whatever soon enough, the American government decided that the only course of action was to detonate several nuclear bombs over one of its most populous cities. It’s the only way to be sure.

Ted reckons that maybe it wasn’t the government after all, though. His figuring is that there is some kind of alien life and its decided to make itself at home. He draws an analogy to swamps and frogs. Cities are like swamps in this metaphor and people are the frogs. The aliens don’t like the cities so they “drain the swamps.” Ted brings this up several times, to the point where it gets a bit exasperating. He keeps calling people frogs, for instance. Just over and over again. Sometimes he gets a bit preachy and says things like “even frogs don’t kill and eat other frogs,” which turns out to be as appropriate as it is accurate. I’m sure plenty of frogs eat other frogs is what I’m saying.

The survivalism part of the book goes on for a while. You know the bit: raiding grocery stores and warehouses for food and supplies. We’re all very familiar with it. At one point, though, things almost go wrong when it turns out that there’s somebody in the grocery store. It turns out to be a pair of people from Tennessee, which was surprising to me because what self-respecting Tennessean would find themselves in LA? Especially when it turns out that they’re from East Tennessee, which is where I’m from, although no further details were given. If these folks were Knoxvillians I would have gone as crazy as Rena.

A kid is found, Teeny, who turns out to be the heart and soul of the book. Sort of. She’s basically there to teach us that Tom is not some kind of robot and that he does, in fact, have feelings and stuff. Teeny adopts Tom as her daddy and it’s all very sweet.

Enter Drs. Smith and Murk. They’ve been working on figuring out what’s going on here in the LA Basin since before the bombs hit. Dr. Smith was onto something based on some samples sent to him by Ted. We finally get an explanation for what’s doing all this, and it’s not aliens, it’s something far more dumb.

It’s a molecule. Seriously, that’s what they keep calling it. Specifically a molecule gone mad. What does that even mean? They could have called it a DNA molecule or something and that would have made more sense, but the three most famous letters in science were never mentioned. The thing about this molecule is that it’s smart. Not smart on its own, but once they start joining together they get really smart. Somehow. What the crap?

Of course, the molecule is theorized to have been created because of nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean. Just so you know that it’s all tied into current events.

The place these things like to join together most is in the human nervous system. It turns people into zombies.

Did I mention the zombies? I think I forgot to mention the zombies. They’re pretty different from Romero zombies, which are the ones I consider canonical zombies, so the term was confusing to me. They’re pretty much regular people except that their minds have been taken over by the molecule. Whatever that means.

These zombies are differentiated from normal people in two ways. First, for a while they walk around all hunched over like they have a stomachache. This eventually goes away and the second thing, a complete lack of fear and pain, kicks in. Apart from that they’re indistinguishable from humanity.

I think we all know where this is going.

The ragtag survival group has moved to a warehouse where Dr. Smith’s lab is. Zombies keep trying to break it down. They also do some clever things like setting traps made of sexy women. Lure some of the menfolk in with damsels in distress and then attack them. The zombies are somewhat akin to feral humans, although they’re also frequently described in terms of feral cats. Pretty weird.

We find out that, of course, at least two of the people in the group have been infected since even before the bombs hit. One of them is Eric Bloor, who has been a source of amazement throughout the book due to his uncommon bravery. As soon as the “no fear” thing was mentioned it became pretty obvious that something was up with that guy, because Tom kept going on and on about how fearful Eric was back when they were in school and kept wondering about what changed.

The other guy is Dr. Murk, Dr. Smith’s assistant.

Through their actions, it turns out that Cissie, Rena, and Teeny get infected too. Here comes the tears factory.

See, zombie stories are supposed to have that scene where somebody gets infected and their loved one has to shoot them. It’s a standard part of the narrative. The whole “He’s not your dad anymore, Jerry” type of thing.

Note to self: write a zombie movie in which Jerry O’Connell plays himself until he is replaced by his character from Sliders.

Sliders was such a good show.

Sorry, digression. The point is that I fully expected Tom to have to shoot either Cissie, because they’d been getting a little bit close to each other in an early sixties kind of way, or Teeny, because that would be really heartbreaking and a ballsy move for this book to make. So who got it? Maybe it was a cop-out and Rena had to get the bullet? Could that be it?

NOPE

Nobody gets shot or anything because right at the last minute Dr. Smith comes up with an antidote to the molecule. We get several pages worth of “Is it working? Yes? No? Oh no! Hooray!” until it finally works. In the meantime Tom tells Cissie, while in the throes of the molecule, that if they manage to escape this mess he’ll marry her and they’ll adopt Teena and live in a cabin in the woods and be happy forever.

That’s sweet except for the part where they’ve just met. I mean, he’s barely even looked at this woman for most of the book, and there’s been very little to indicate that she was interested in him. It’s just a matter of “Well, we’re both here, we’re both of marriageable age, and we’re both single. I guess that means we have to get married eventually.” Gods that is lazy storytelling. Thing is, it’s also so rooted in that late-fifties/early-sixties romantic zeitgeist that it just gives me chills.

Anyway, everybody recovers except for Dr. Murk, who gets shot or something, and Eric, who in his final moments reveals that he’s been infected for a while but that death shook the molecule loose or something and now he gets to die as himself. I think that was supposed to be touching and/or chilling but it really didn’t feel that way to me.

The book is breaking down at this point, right as its about to end. That saddened me. It was doing so well! There’s even the standard “last stand” type scene where all the zombies are amassing and it looks like that cabin in the woods is just going to be a bygone dream after all.

Until the Marines show up in helicopters, reveal that Dr. Smith’s cure managed to get out (there was a radio), and that the cure will be distributed promptly. The Marines fly out all our survivors and the book ends.

BLEEGH

That’s a pretty common ending in these types of situations, I guess, but I still hate it. It turns out that what saves our protagonists has nothing to do with anything they managed to do, it’s just a deus ex machina. I guess this one is a bit lighter on that than some narratives, since Dr. Smith got to the radio and started sending out information to the other biochemists in the nation, but still, it’s not satisfying in the least. I’ve never enjoyed the “hold out until the cavalry arrives” storyline.

There’s also the fact that I am good and sick and tired of zombies. Even if they’re not really zombies so much as people with molecules in their heads (to distinguish them from all the rest of us who are happily molecule-free). I feel like there are maybe three kinds of stories you can tell with zombies and all of them are overplayed and trite.

I am, of course, being unfair to this book that was written a full seven years before the release of Night of the Living Dead. At least in that respect, anyway. I can’t fault it for having a plotline that, for all I know, was bold and original in 1961.

Still, the book had some really hokey dialogue and the narration was just all over the place. Totally unbefitting a book with such a fantastic title.

Of course, that reminds me that the nuclear bombs part was pretty understated. Yeah, they kicked off the story, but afterward nobody considered such problems as fallout or nuclear winter or any of those sorts of things. Of course, I don’t think anyone had considered the possibility of nuclear winter at this point in our nuclear history, but still, the bombs themselves only led to the commonplace problems. I was surprised when I learned that they didn’t actually make the zombies too, much less douse our heroes with fatal radiation.

The back of the book says that it all happens over the course of 24 hours. I have a tough time believing that, but if it’s true, it really does compound the whole romance angle in this book. It’s also described as A REAL SHOCKER! in a font that I don’t recognize but I’m calling it a precursor to Comic Sans. It has the same sense of gravitas.

I think a much better book would have involved the government h-bombing Los Angeles just because the rest of us were sick of it, and then we get to watch a bunch of celebrities try to survive. This would make a pretty good reality show. Get on that, somebody.

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2 Comments

  1. Joseph Nebus says:

    1961’s definitely too early for anyone to think of nuclear winter. The idea of a … molecule, then … taking over and directing people’s actions is surprisingly prescient of the discovery of that Toxo virus that makes people compulsively collect cats, at least in kind.

    Like

  2. Thingmaker says:

    Y’know, I really like this book. I guess I got inoculated with it at an early age and it has just stayed with me. It’s a sort of prototype of the modern zombie movie but filtered through 1950s sensibilities. The whole – scientist concocts a sciency solution on the spot in 24 hours – scenario reeks of ’50s SF movies. The ignoring of fallout effects – if inconvenient to plot – is also characteristic. (A couple of big-ass, like 10megaton+, airbursts , might lead to only a deferred and distant fallout effect with the bulk of the nasty stuff going into the stratosphere – the worst of it decaying before it actually falls out).
    Robert Moore Williams seems to have written a lot of:
    Very late pulp crap… E.G. The “Zanthar” books from the LATE ’60s, which seem ( Even I can’t face them) to be written with a 1930s sensibility – Villain = Fu Cong – stories sound like planetary romance crossed with Fu-Manchu and fragments of EE “Doc” Smith.
    Knockoff pulp crap… E.G. The “Jongor” books from the ’40s which are entertaining (To me anyway) if perfunctory Tarzan imitations.
    Mediocre to good SF like the Curtis Books collection “When Two Worlds Meet” , which contains several quasi-liked Mars stories from the ’40s and ’50s, which I have described as his “Martian Chronicles”.
    At worst I suppose Williams might be an American version of Lionel Fanthorpe. I’ve started a number of his books to be put off by meandering, flakey plots and clumsy prose… But some of his books are decently written and fun to read – usually due to a simple pulpish storyline.

    Liked by 1 person

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