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Book Review

Spotlight on: The Dawning by Hugh B. Cave

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Buy The Dawning by Hugh B. Cave Hugh B. Cave, The Dawning

Author Hugh B. Cave, English-born but raised in the United States, first made his name in the pulps. Later "graduating" to the more "respectable" slicks, he eventually published over 1000 short stories during his 90+ years. He also wrote dozens of novels and a good deal of acclaimed non-fiction, using a lot of material gained while working as a war correspondent stationed in the South Pacific. He has also owned a coffee plantation. In fact, Cave's life challenges his fiction as to which is the more compelling, making a recent biography, Cave of a Thousand Tales, an appealing prospect for purchase.

Except for a single short story published in an anthology, The Dawning was my introduction to Horror Grandmaster (and multiple lifetime-achievement-award winner) Cave's work. The plot is minimal, but the characterization is so compelling, it's easy to keep on reading. Cave delves deeply into each individual (and they are individuals), creating a cast of very different people through his focusing on details of their personalities and their relationships (both growing and breaking) with each other.

In the not-too-distant future, the United States has become overrun with pollution, with water unsafe to drink, and the population interested only in a drug called Halleluja ("Hal") and the crime necessarily committed to get it. A small cadre of outsiders, led by Professor Theron Varga, have banded together to abandon their homeland and go off somewhere safer, away from "civilization" to the wilds of Canada. The most outdoorsy of them, Gene Cuyler, recommends they bring only what they need in a twenty-pound backpack. Prepared for the worst, they say good-bye to all that is familiar and head off into the unknown.

Unfortunately, though ostensibly the most knowledgable about surviving in the wilderness, Cuyler is also the rudest and instantly gets on the rest of the group's bad side with his belligerence and unashamed abuse of his wife, Rowena, one of Professor Varga's most devoted followers. But jealousy and anger is the least of this group's problems. Also, his outdoor knowledge does not translate into respect for nature. The earth has been changed by all the pollution forced onto it by its residents, and it is ready to take revenge in every manner available to it, especially on humans who mistreat it like Cuyler does. (The final straw is more metaphorical than anything else, and I don't imagine this kind of "eco-horror" to really catch on.)

Cave's skill at making fictional characters real more than makes up for The Dawning's passive writing style ("he began to run" instead of "he ran") that tells more than it shows (especially when concerned with one character's feelings about another). Also the use of journal entries to further the plot more often ends up reiterating events that have already unfolded. The plot never really speeds up to a breakneck pace, but Cave keeps things interesting by not completely letting on what is really going on until near the end. The suspense quotient is high because every character is a possible victim, leaving the survivors dwindling when they need safety in numbers. Cave's writing speaks of his practice in the pulps, as it feels not quite so polished as other novels, as if his first draft was good enough. It's not the best novel I've read lately, but it has intrigued me enough to find out more about Cave's other works, most likely something along the lines of Long Live the Dead: Tales from Black Mask.

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