The Surgeon’s Curse by Douglas Volk

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Douglas Volk’s exciting paranormal crime thriller, The Surgeon’s Curse (DanJon Press, 471 pp. $14.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), is the second book in his The Morpheus series. As such, it creates some difficulties for a reviewer because you do not want to ruin the reading experience for anyone who has not read the first one, The Morpheus Conspiracy—one of my favorite reads of 2019.

That book centers on a curse that was picked up by an American soldier in Vietnam while in the midst of a performing an inappropriate act. The curse continues into this book. There’s very little mention of the Vietnam War this time, but it’s significant that the evil that runs throughout the story originated there—at least as far as this story is concerned. In reality, this specific evil has probably existed since the beginning of time.

Twelve years have elapsed as this book begins, so the year is 1986. Dr. Alix Cassidy returns, still carrying out research on nightmares and their possible link to mental illness. She specials in the controversial field of Somnambulistic Telepathy, which makes it possible for some sleeping people to control another person’s nightmares. In the previous book the main character has the ability to step into people’s nightmares, doing them harm or even killing them. That ability is now carried out by a different character.

The killings in this story are extremely brutal, though Volk does not linger over them voyeuristically. There is a serial killer afoot who calls himself The Surgeon for some pretty nasty reasons. He’s a dream-traveler being pursued by detectives using traditional means, but before long they turn to the sleep scientists for help. Eventually, most of those bearing down on the bad guy begin suffering hellish nightmares.

Things get even more interesting with the introduction of quantum physics, more specifically the concept of quantum entanglement. That, as we all know (cough-cough), is the discovery that two nuclear particles millions of light years apart can interact with each other. Mix that with some good old Cajun voodoo and stir well.

More than just a casual read, this book suggests that this curse may be a form of energy created by unknown forces from the unseen space-time world. Pretty serious stuff. A Nightmare Team is created to confront the bad guy in the most efficient manner, in a dream.

Douglas Volk is a marvelous storyteller and excels at writing realistic dialogue. That’s not an easy thing to do when you’re dealing with his subject matter. So, buckle up for a fast-moving tale that plays out in a “Devil’s Quadrangle” of Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, and northern Maine.

Part-horror, part-police procedural, it’s every bit as good as the earlier book in this series.  It might scare the hell out of you.

–Bill McCloud

The Morpheus Conspiracy by Douglas Volk

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Douglas Volk’s novel, The Morpheus Conspiracy (DanJon Publications, 470 pp. $14.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), is a great work of terrifying horror and unrelenting suspense. As I read it, I kept waiting to see if the story was going to fall apart. It never did.

The book begins with a mysterious incident that takes place in South Vietnam in late 1970. The story then moves to Atlanta and Boston during the months of the Watergate scandal.

After coming home, the main character David Collier literally wears his Vietnam War experience on his face. Massively disfigured in a fire during the war, he grows his hair long to conceal that part of his face, except for times when he chooses to reveal it. With an eye that never closes because the lid was burned away, he is reminded of what he went through every time he looks in a mirror. And he becomes driven by feelings of betrayal.

Collier believes he was betrayed by the Army, by his nation, and by his girlfriend who ended their relationship when he came home from Vietnam. Laura Resnick has her own reasons for splitting from him, but Collier is sure it’s because of what happened to his face.

Collier dreams about getting back at her, and it turns out that he seems to have the ability to cause her to have horrendous nightmares. And not just her, because he can also enter the dreams of other people he believes have offended him and bring harm to them.

Other characters include a VA doctor and a scientist with an interest in sleep disorders. They are ultimately brought together with Collier and Resnick in a story written in such a way that you can almost see and feel four solid walls closing in on them. Though much of the story takes place in a broad and wide dreamscape, it’s ultimately a very claustrophobic tale.

Frequently while reading. I found myself picturing the text in images like you would see in a graphic novel. I mean it as a compliment when I say this book would make a great graphic novel.

The Morpheus Conspiracy can be read on a few different levels: as entertainment, as psychological drama, and as an example—though greatly exaggerated—of what the Vietnam War did to the nation and to many of us who served in it.

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Douglas Volk

My favorite quote from the book is when Collier recalls a buddy who died in front of him: “He was history. He was the history of the Vietnam War.” What a great way to commemorate each death in that war. And those deaths are horror enough for this world.

This is a thrilling read and one of my favorite books of the year.

The author’s website is www.themorpheusseries.com

–Bill McCloud

Editor’s note: Douglas Volk, who served in the U.S. Army Reserves from 1970-76, is an life member of the Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America. He is donating one dollar from the sale of each book to VVA.

Of Bone and Thunder by Chris Evans

Chris Evans is the author of the nonfiction book, Bloody Jungle: The War in Vietnam. He is a military historian and was born in Canada. Of Bone and Thunder (Gallery Books, 496 pp., $26.99, hardcover; $9.90, paper) is a fantasy novel based on the Vietnam War.

The cover shows—not a helicopter hovering over dense green jungle—but a dragon flying over triple canopy jungle. We are told that Evans has given us a “brilliant, ground-breaking new epic, a unique and penetrating vision channeling the cultural upheaval, racial animus and wholesale destruction of the Vietnam War.”

The book is dedicated to “all the Vietnam War veterans” the author “had the great fortune to know. You inspired me with your service and honor me with your friendship.”

The giant dragons, called “rags,” transport soldiers around and function as gunships. There is an enormous amount of information in the book about the care and feeding of the dragons and about the dangers of working with them. As unsafe as the helicopters in Vietnam were, this book made me realize that flying dragons would have been a lot worse.

There are many familiar Vietnam War elements in this fantasy novel, including elephant grass, bamboo, and the overemphasis on body counts. The enemy, known as the Forest Collective, wears the same peasant garb as the villagers, so there is no way to know who is who. Disgust is shown for an enemy “who showed little desire to engage in a sustained battle.”

Evans does a great job presenting a large cast of familiar characters: a grizzled old sergeant; war-weary enlisted men who want nothing more than to go home; newbies who don’t know which end is up; and officers so out of touch that their commands are worse than worthless.

The book also deals with the issues of women serving in combat and the resistance of the old soldiers to the introduction of new methods of warfare. All of this is served up in fantasy trappings with the usual odd names and strange titles and exotic animals that seem impossible to pronounce.

Author Chris Evans

Underneath these trappings is a robust tale of warfare and adventure in a strange land dominated by a strange people called Slyts. They pour endlessly out of the jungle, killing the king’s forces effortlessly without being seen. The dragons fly in with new troops, their wings going, “whup, whup,” just like the helicopters did in Vietnam.

One character says that the word “Slyt,”  is “an ugly, ugly word. Why men had to be so crude and so cruel, she didn’t understand.” I’ve read similar comments about infantrymen’s tendency to call the enemy in Vietnam gooks, slopes and worse. It’s about dehumanizing the enemy.

The men who fight the Slyts have grudging respect for them: One calls them “about the cunningest, meanest little fucker[s] you ever want to tangle with, and that’s no lie.” It’s proposed that the entire country be burned to the ground so they can start over.

Once I grew accustomed to the conventions of the fantasy novel and got involved in the story and the military cock-ups that were familiar to me from the Vietnam War, I quite enjoyed this novel. I also found myself hoping that there would be a sequel so I could find out how the few characters who survived might do in their next war adventures.

Those who would like to read more novels of the Vietnam War in fantasy guise should look at books written by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, a Vietnam veteran, and by the late Lucius Shephard, who was not, but who was often mistaken for one.

The author’s website is www.chrisevasnsauthor.com

—David Willson