This Book Will Make Your Skin Crawl
Ben Mezrich's new X-Files hardback novel Skin is a compelling read: it took me less than three hours to devour the entire novel. This is good news and bad news, since when one spends nearly $25 on a new book, one rather hopes it will last a bit longer. There are some passages which made my skin crawl for days after reading the new Harper Entertainment release, however, which makes its effects considerably more lasting.
Skin doesn't attempt to delve into the characters of Mulder or Scully to offer new insights about the agents, and virtually none of the usual supporting characters appear. Thus, the book's interest lies primarily in its original characters and plot, which crosses a medical mystery with a horror-movie legend rather like a Robin Cook novel. Fortunately, the hybrid develops very nicely, to an unexpected conclusion - one which I found a bit rushed, but which leaves interesting questions open to the reader.
When two medical students harvest the skin from an incorrectly-labeled donor corpse, a frail professor receives a graft that confers super-human strength...and murderous rage. A chase though subway tunnels ends in the man's death, but that's only the beginning of the criminal investigation into his final days. Scully initially suspects an allergy to a steroid can explain the events, but Mulder believes from the start that the transplanted skin itself somehow transformed the old man.
Since this is The X-Files, Mulder is of course right, but not even he could have imagined the combination of science and Asian mysticism at work on the victims. Set initially in New York City, the story rapidly moves to the other side of the world - the site of an abandoned Vietnam War MASH unit in Thailand, where a mysterious doctor once performed experiments on severely burned napalm victims. Though the doctor reportedly died years earlier, his legacy lives on...through the mysterious biotech company he founded, through burn experiments which don't seem to have ended, and through a mysterious and deadly offspring who protects the work of a lifetime.
Like Kevin Anderson's Antibodies, this novel concentrates heavily on medical espionage, which is wonderful for Scully: we get to see her acting as a doctor, working on mysteries Mulder can't fathom because of his own limited medical training. The chapters told from her point of view convey a stronger sense of horror, since their events seem plausible in the realm of modern medicine. For Scully, the case is ethically complicated but scientifically straightforward: someone may have developed a medical technology with breathtaking potential for healing damaged skin, but with deadly side effects.
Mulder, however, is inclined to pay more credence to the Thai myth of Gin-Korng-Pew, a monster which devours the skin of others to feed its own hunger for immortality. The myth leads to some copycat murders and some gruesome images, but never takes over the story: this is not a monster-of-the-week episode. Although Mulder is not wrong to follow the leads offered by the legend, the novel focuses more heavily on the science than the supernatural, leading to a rushed but exciting climax at a laboratory hidden in the mountains of Thailand.
Mezrich employs some witty, series-appropriate imagery, such as this perspective on a crime scene: "The flash went off like a strobe light, making the scene even more gritty and at the same time surreal, like a Quentin Tarantino movie." One of my favorite observations comes from a New York ambulance driver who asks Mulder if he knows how many people die in car crashes every year: "More than fifty thousand. About the same number as die from AIDS. Funny thing. We're quite willing to give up casual sex. But give up casual driving? No way."
The writer's characterization of Scully in particular is spot-on if not terribly deep; he reflects on her tattoo at one point, observing that "she was a skeptic - but never a conformist," an excellent observation about what makes her an ideal partner for Mulder. Scully does grab her crucifix at one point after witnessing a grisly event, but we get few clues to her inner life; relationship fans looking for romantic innuendo between Mulder and Scully have to settle for minimal flirting and an interrupted shower.
Mulder seems a little wooden - his response to human suffering is too often dismissed for the thrill of the mysterious case - but we've occasionally seen him behave like that on television as well. I was much less fond of the characterization of psychotic killer Quo Tien, an Amerasian hybrid whose erotic pleasure in killing gets more focus than necessary; it's obvious that the man is sick from his initial job to murder a medical student, so when a later killing is described in graphic detail - "As he watched the man die, an incredible heat moved through his groin" - one starts to wonder why the sexual excitement of murder is described so often.
The most interesting characters are the dead and missing - deceased doctor Emile Paladin and his reclusive brother Andrew, who hold the key to the mystery and whose fates are not revealed until the final pages. It's a pity these people were created for a novel rather than an episode because I'd be interested in seeing some of the research hinted at in Skin on the show - one practical application in the mytharc involving the rebel aliens comes to mind immediately. It might be worth waiting for this novel to come out in paperback, but then again, the television season's about to end and we all need some X-Files to get us through the summer. Read slowly.
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