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  • Writer's pictureLinda Thackeray

Book Review: The Relic by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

During the Christmas break, I decided to treat myself to a monster movie marathon.

I started with Guillermo del Toro's Mimic. Then I followed it up with the cult-classic Tremors, which showed us Steven Keaton of Family Ties could be a badass survivalist. The Blob (the 1988 version with Kevin Dillon) came next. Purists can argue Dreamscape is not technically a monster movie but it does have a 'snake man' that meets the criteria and a pre-Inner Space Dennis Quaid.

The last film on my list was The Relic.

Now I'm one of those who scour Wikipedia to see a film's history after viewing, and I did just that with The Relic. I was curious to learn whatever became of Penelope Anne Miller, an actress who seemed to be a staple of '90s cinema but faded away with the new century. To my surprise, I came away from this bit of web surfing not only appraised on the doings of Ms Miller but discovering The Relic was based on a book.

Thus with more than ten days remaining in my lockdown vacation, I chose to use my Audible credits to download and listen to the unabridged audiobook version of The Relic written by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.

True to the movie version, the basic plot involves a famous metropolitan museum being menaced by a prehistoric monster. However, in experiencing the audiobook, I was dismayed to see the best elements of the tale gutted, no doubt for Hollywood expediency. While I credit Peter Hyam's production, removing key aspects of the novel denies the audience a far more thrilling and complex story than what appeared onscreen.

The Relic begins in the South American jungle with Doctor Julian Whittlesey embarking on an ill-fated mission whose tragic outcome is not fully realised until the last act. The mystery unfolds throughout the book like Japanese origami, with the level of horror escalating with each bit of exposition. If I had to make a comparison, Whittlesey's expedition reminds me of the ill-fated Demeter from Bram Stoker's seminal Dracula.

Playing as large a part in the story as the creature called Mbwun, is the New York Metropolitan Museum. The institution is painted with such vivid imagery it's an exercise in world-building, from its catacombs of forgotten artifacts to the stygian tunnels connecting it to the rest of New York's underground world. The result is a gothic, atmospheric labyrinth that provides plenty of room for Mbwun to roam its dark corridors and do its worst.

The biggest surprise for someone who discovered the film before the book, is the absence of key characters. While Dr Margot Green and Lt. Vincent D'Agosta exists in the cinematic version, I can't imagine who thought it was a good idea to excise one Special Agent Pendergast. Fortunately, the film was produced in 1997 because the level of fan outrage at the omission of this character would have been all over social media if released today.

Picture the movie adaptation of Thomas Harris's Red Dragon with the character of Will Graham being discarded. This is the level of disservice the film does to the book by removing Pendergast from the narrative. He arrives midway in the story but is so pivotal to the plot of The Relic, I will never be able to watch the film without missing his presence.

Aside from introducing one of the most intriguing fictional characters I've had the pleasure of discovering in recent years, the novel is a thrill ride from start to finish. The authors make no effort to pad the horror, although they exercise some restraint by taking some of the deaths off-page. Furthermore, it would be a mistake to think this is just another creature feature, it isn't. The book's science is reminiscent of Michael Crichton's work, with efforts to make the fantastic seemed entirely plausible.

The final twist about the creature is hardly given any real attention in the film, but the book takes pains to reveal a picture of horrific tragedy and one cannot help but feel some sympathy for Mbwun when its all said and done. If you're looking for a tense, exciting read with colourful characters and an atmospheric backdrop, The Relic will definitely satisfy.

Like Mbwun, you never know quite what you're dealing with until it has you in its grip.

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