Friday, November 26, 2021

"Terminus" by Peter Clines--Fiction Review

So Obscurists, this is a big day—yes, I know it’s black Friday—but no, not that. According to my almighty spreadsheet, today is the day I have posted 100 full reviews here on WIO. So that means you could scroll back through this blog, read all of them, get a pretty good gist of them, and then you could claim at, I don’t know, let’s say parties that you’ve read all those books—sorta. Do people still do parties? I’ve not gone outside for a very long time. 

It also means that if you took the time to print out all 100 reviews, spread them out on your floor, and rolled around on them naked—you’re undoubtedly a serial killer. Please stop doing that.

In any case, so what are we going to talk about today? Oh! I know—how about a book? I started this book blog reviewing “14” by Peter Clines, one of my favorite authors, so it only feels right that my 100th review should be one of his books. So today, we’re talking about “Terminus.”




***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***


What I love about this book:

So, “Terminus” is actually book four of Clines’s “Threshold Universe” series, but the nature of this series is such that I don’t feel it’s a big deal to jump ahead to wherever. Normally such a statement from me would be sacrilegious—so you might ask yourself—did I do that? Jump from book two to book four? No, of course not. I’m not a book heretic. So explanation time, Clines writes each of these books as standalone stories, typically with whole new casts of characters, with maybe some cameos from other stories sprinkled in. They all share the same universe, but they’re not really unified narratives like you’d expect with most book series.

What is the actual throughline through these books—and clearly, I find this very clever—are the stories’ antagonists instead of the protagonists. Each book still works in the traditional model of meeting, following, and rooting for the protagonists of each individual book, but they get swapped out each story. Whereas the more monstrous characters are omnipresent in each story. They’re slower to take the stage in the narrative in the first two books but ramp up with each novel, and by the time we get to “Terminus,” shit hits the fan nearly immediately.

There are my usual loves about Clines’s writing present in this book. I love listening to his characters talk and who they are, and of course, I read the audiobook version, which is read by my favorite narrator Ray Porter—and I’m gushing.

Also, there are more direct ties in this book to “14” than any other in the series, and “14” is still my favorite book I’ve read as an adult—maybe ever—it’s hard to say.


What I don’t love about this book:

This book gets very far away from having a central protagonist—or main character, if you will. Typically, that isn’t something that I’d even bring up and doesn’t bother me when other novels do it, but by the end of “14,” I knew its characters very well. I liked them, and I enjoyed listening to them go about their exploration of their building together, and how they deepened their friendships was nice. It made it all the more wrenching when they started dying and getting hurt. A lot of that sense of community and that community suddenly being threatened isn’t present in this book.

The characters are good, don’t get me wrong, it’s just we’re meeting them all for the first time—we don’t spend lots of time with them temporally from their perspective—this story is largely about one really bad day—and they never seem to like each other all that much. So when people start dying, it’s not as impactful. As much as I liked that sailor dude, his shocking death hits like, “oh, well, that sucks.” But not with soul-crushing sadness. Also, calm down. That isn’t a spoiler, there are tons of sailor dudes in this book, and many die. It’s more of a generalized statement about this novel rather than a specific plot point.



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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***


The quick and dirty synopsis:

“Terminus” begins with Murdoch listening to a minister talking to her new congregation—the Family—on a beach. He’d apparently been involved with minister Anne when they were younger. She had recently returned to the faith, having had her faith in the Great Ones confirmed during the events of “The Fold,” the second book in this series. It turns out that the antagonist of “14” was her brother. He had failed to destroy the machine, really the whole building the characters in “14” live in—but Anne has a new plan. One she is sure will destroy the machine keeping the Great Ones from coming through to Earth.

We then meet another new character, Chase, a man who has been wandering the Earth hitching a ride on various boats, typically cargo ships, avoiding some past trauma. Chase and another passenger one day are surprised when the captain of their vessel tells them a storm is coming, it’s unavoidable, and for insurance reasons, he is putting Chase and the other passenger off the boat and onto a nearby island. They are to be taken to the island and looked after by two of the ship’s regular crew.

Meanwhile, Murdoch learns more of Anne’s plan and that it will involve traveling halfway around the world to find the machine—not the machine in Los Angeles, but something else. They will bring along a specialist who it’s strongly hinted isn’t exactly willing.

On the island, things immediately go bad. Chase and the others are attacked by something in the woods. It nearly hits Chase in the head with a spear. They manage to shoot the thing and track it, mostly thanks to one of the sailors, Seth. The dead thing they find has three arms and too many eyes—so a monster. The other sailor with them is soon killed by a carefully laid trap, and they struggle to retrieve his body and return to the beach. Once there, they get to see a Great One with their own eyes—off in the distance—eating everything.

Elsewhere on the island, the Family, led by Anne, arrives with their specialist, who turns out to be Veek, a main character from “14.” They had apparently kidnaped her so that she could lead them to the machine. There, they hope to destroy it. At first, Veek pretends to have no idea what they’re talking about. She also feigns ignorance about why the Family members seem to be wearing Halloween costumes. She actually knows, of course, that these particular cultists, by virtue of who they are, have a little bit of monstrousness in them, even Anne. Some have subtle mutations, but others are more profound, like Murdoch, and could never pass as fully human under close scrutiny.

Veek eventually takes her shot to escape when the group is first confronted by a mysterious old man with a gun and then right after, are attacked by three armed monsters. Murdoch is sent to get her back, but by now, his doubts about the Family’s cause are crescendoing, and he starts to have thoughts about just leaving. Both Veek and Murdoch separately wander through—something—that briefly makes them incredibly nauseated. Murdoch then gets to see a Great One first hand, and he realizes, unlike Anne, that they aren’t gods. They’re just monsters who want to eat everything.

Chase and his group, who are stunned on the beach, are brought out of it by a mysterious young man named Koturovich, who seems to be studying the Great One. He tells them to head back toward the island’s center, where they will be safe—relatively. They eventually heed his advice and head back that way, with Koturovich stating he’ll meet up with them soon. Chase and company run into Veek, who is still handcuffed because of the Family. After initial suspicion, Seth reveals he used to be a cop and gets her out of them.

They find a building at the center of the island, which looks like the apartment building in “14.” Koturovich eventually reunites with the group. He reveals that he’s actually the original creator of the machine, which was built over a century ago. The thorny issue of how he is still alive then comes up. He’s a clone of himself who has—like a horrible sci-fi lich—been raising young clones of himself to an acceptable age and erasing their consciousness so he can transfer his original consciousness into their bodies. Also, the building on the island is a duplicate and an opposite pole to the one in Los Angeles. The fact that the Great Ones are here means that the building there has to have been destroyed. This hits Veek really hard because that’s her home and where all of her friends live.

In the end, there is another showdown with Anne and the Family—and the Great Ones with their monster foot soldiers. A lot more people die, but it’s revealed that Veek is actually from a different parallel universe where the Great Ones haven’t come through yet. That is why Anne was still looking for the machine. Veek had crossed over to the universe where Chase and Seth are from when she passed through that invisible field on the island that made her sick. The survivors use the machine in the dying universe—which is being consumed by the Great Ones—to escape to Veek’s universe, traping Anne with her gods.


Analysis:

In this book, we get to see the alpha predators at their absolute worst. All the other books tell us they destroy the Earth if they make it through into our dimension—this book shows it. So the existential dread in this one is through the roof because what they do is eat everything. They’re like Lovecraftian versions of Galactus.

One of the details I really love about this and the previous books is how Clines realizes a recurring theme about Lovecraft’s monsters. Lovecraft’s giant terrible beasts were known for driving people insane when they saw them, but he was awfully light on the details of how or why this happened. Well, other than that, it’s really scary. Clines’s monsters are precisely explained, and it’s their very impossible size, which is what is the most frightening thing about them. He describes it as your eyes can see it, but your brain can’t accept it, so it causes abnormal effects. Oh, and there’s their telepathy that breaks people’s minds.

Normally, I like my villains to have understandable motivations—but there is one exception to that rule for me. Things that are monstrously alien work for me as friendly or uncomprehensible nightmare creatures equally as well because alien motivations—in my opinion—should be just that—alien. By definition, why they do or don’t do something should be hard to understand from a story perspective. Incomprehensible motivations in human or human-like characters don’t tend to make them mysterious to me, just less real.

The cultists in this book—another Lovecraft trope—for as outlandish as they are, feel distressingly real to me, especially in this era of fringe conspiracy theories. I love how Clines makes them equal parts nightmarish and petty small-minded jerks. I’ve lost count of how many people in the real world I’ve met like this—sans scales, claws, and flippers—probably, you never know what’s under those hoodies and hats. Anyway, they’re the kind of people who rarely read anything but are confident they and their super awesome special group are somehow on the inside track of how everything works.

In any case, the character that best represents my point about the antagonists being omnipresent in this series rather than the protagonists is the minister herself, Anne. She was there in “14” and “The Fold,” and it broke my heart when I realized that she was the villain of this story. That isn’t a bad thing—by any means. It’s an incredible effect. Helpful, pretty, charming, and slyly funny Anne, who was always there—mind you, I’d read these books multiple times before starting “Terminus,” was always part of the Family, and I never saw it coming. I re-read both books, and the subtle hints are there, especially in “The Fold.” Her scenes read completely different and menacing when the monsters come out in that story.


Parting thoughts:

So it’s hard not to be reflective after completing such a milestone as one hundred anythings—let alone books read and reviewed. I think about all the stories I’ve read and all the things I’ve learned. It’s been a hell of a journey so far—I’ve read things that have made me laugh, cry, disagreed with, was interested in, unexpectantly became interested in, but most of all, what books have done for me is I’ve gone to mental vistas I’d never dreamt of before.

I’ve always been a curious person. My cornerstone has always been that I want to know how something works. But the thing that surprised me the most is the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know—or will ever know. Yes, I know that’s a cliché, and I was certainly aware that was something people say before I ever felt that way. But I say this a lot about experience in general—it’s one thing to know something intellectually, but it’s quite another thing to know it viscerally. Someone who has been struck by lightning can explain the experience in exquisite detail, and there is value in that, but it still isn’t like knowing what it is to be struck by lightning at that deep in the bones level.

What’s always surprised me is how bluntly incurious most people are about things. We live in the golden era of information, yet many of us spend our time creating and spreading petty vicious falsehoods. It’s supremely disappointing to me how many seemingly intelligent people I’ve known doing their level best to avoid facing reality. Furthermore, they’re so content with living in their bizarre fantasy worlds—often involving JFK for some reason—no matter how ridiculous they become, simply because they prefer them to the real world.

In the real world, things are coming to a head. Our problems are numerous and complex. The planet is warming, wealth is stratifying with fewer and fewer oligarchs, food and water sources are becoming threatened, and apparently millions of people can die of a virus worldwide—and still we’re dithering over the details.

The longer we dither over shit that doesn’t matter, the longer it takes us to face the real problems we collectively face. It’s time to put aside the childish things about secret societies, lizardmen, demons, and anything where the phrase false flag is used. Maybe then we can address the fact that the western side of the United States catches fire every year in statewide swaths, and in the east, more and more hurricanes wash whole communities away—and these are just the problems close at hand to me personally. It isn’t hyperbole to say that the future of the world as we know it is still undecided.

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