Stop me if you've heard this one. Boy meets girl. Boy tries to collect girl's soul for the Devil. Boy can't collect girl's soul because girl is blindingly pure (and a hottie). Boy chucks his assignment and steals girl away to try to protect her from all the Hell (and Heaven) that's about to break loose.
Yeah, I didn't think so. And I haven't even gotten to the really novel pleasures this book has to offer. Like the slapstick horror potential of a reanimated cadaver trying to escape Bellvue hospital with an unconscious teenager who all but made the Most Wanted list before blacking out. Like pieces of an ubiquitous lucky money cat being wielded as a powerful supernatural weapon. Like a hero who can possess any body he chooses but tends to choose newly dead ones because fighting off the soul of a living body is a huge hassle.
Some of these elements are used to better effect than others, but even if underexploited, they come together into a seamlessly enjoyable whole due to a strong crime noir-flavored plot and a weirdly engaging hero, our man Sam, who was originally an unemployed nebbish on Staten Island in 1944 but who made the wrong deal with the wrong people. His past, alluded to in carefully placed vignettes throughout the story, strongly colors his reactions to his present, as is strikingly reflected in the book's amazing cover art (even if you have your AdBlockers turned on and don't usually see my Amazon Affiliate links that I place at the beginning of these posts, shut 'em off for a second and make with the clicky and bask in the perfection of yet another amazing Angry Robot Books cover design. The book looks just like a mass market paperback did back in Sam's original day, when mass market paperbacks were the new and terrible Thing That Was Going To Destroy Publishing. It's brilliant!), as his mission brings him back to his old original haunts over 60 years since he himself was Collected.
The plot itself is interesting enough, but what I really found fascinating was the way Holm depicts Sam's experiences. A first person narrator, Sam loads his account of himself with sensations as experienced through his varied host bodies, relying on the superb physical fitness and muscle memory of one, on the suave good looks and body language of another. It makes the storytelling quite visceral and alive. I go back and forth on one niggling point, though: how often Sam should have been allowed to get away with calling it his own heartbeat, pulse, breath, blush response, versus calling it that of his host body. Sometimes he does one, sometimes another, and I'm not sure if this is meant to be taken as a way of tracking how deeply he is immersed in the experiences of a body, or if it's just something the narrator-writer slips to out of habit and narrative convention. This distracted me sometimes and yanked me out of that happy reading trance you guys know I like, but at least this time I was being yanked out by something interesting rather than a lot of verbal tics and typos (though I think Sam released a breath he didn't know he was holding a few too many times; ditto with setting fire to a cigarette instead of smoking one...).
At any rate, it was infinitely preferable than, say, Stephen King's version of possession as depicted quite a lot in The Drawing of the Three, in which a host body is pretty much just treated as a robot-cum-walking database after a token brief struggle.
And but so, here's the thing. I was not originally prepared to like this book very much, because it's pretty obvious from the early blurbs that Sam's decision to run away with the girl is likely to trigger all out war between Heaven and Hell, which really hasn't ever been my thing. For example, I only went to see that damned movie Legion because I love Paul Bettany, and boy was that a waste of my ticket money and his talent. Dogma is my least favorite Kevin Smith film. Et cetera. Plus I couldn't figure out the relationship of that neato vintage cover to what was pretty obviously a modern urban fantasy. So yeah, I fully intended to read it at some point, because Angry Robot has yet to truly let me down, but it never, you know, leaped out at me and said Read Me, Read Me Now... until my friend EssJay (yes, I know, we're like brainlocked or something. Hush) got her hands on it and devoured it and flagged down Angry Robot for an advance review copy of its sequel, The Wrong Goodbye, and gushed about that even more. And finally Dead Harvest started doing the Read Me Now Hula.
I'm very glad it did. It's a perfect example of what Angry Robot seems to be better than anybody at finding: a genre fusion that will please fans of any/all of the genres it's mashing up. There's a nice heroic protection/rescue plot (though sometimes it's a real question of who is rescuing/protecting whom; the young girl, Kate, is plenty resourceful and feisty all on her own), with plenty of exciting action scenes*; there are plenty of crime/noir elements; there is the much-mentioned War Between Heaven and Hell. There are shades of what I still consider Piers Anthony's finest book, On a Pale Horse -- but only of the good elements thereof.
It could all have gotten very, very corny, but it didn't. Though sometimes it came close:
He was a mountain of a cop, with dark deep-set eyes peering outward from a fleshy face, the features of which were twisted into an angry frown around a mustache the size of a small woodland creature. His barrel chest strained the button of his uniform blues as he approached, nightstick in hand... When he gave my bum leg a good thwack, I made my move. And by made my move, I mean fell down.
Hee hee. So you can kind of see this is also often a very funny book. But not long after one laughs, one cringes. Sam is as attuned to the moral crises as the physical sensations he and his fellows experience while possessing unwilling "vessels", and Holm makes sure that we feel them, too. Yikes.
At bottom, Dead Harvest is a perfectly fine whodunnit in the classic mode. It's just the howdunnit and whydunnit that are so very, very strange. And I like that.
I'm looking forward to the sequel.
*Especially an OMG sequence on board a hijacked helicopter, which, OMG.