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"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer

The Totem

By David Morrell
Fawcett Crest, 255 pp, 1979

Like many good horror novels, the premise for this one is very simple. A virus is unleashed in a small town. It is spread through bites by infected individuals. Dogs, cats, and humans are the most affected. The virus, similar to rabies but different, turns the victim into a raving, slobbering, violent, lunatic. Domestic dogs and cats become killers.

That's the story. Morrell then throws in some believable and sympathetic characters and lets 'er rip. There's the sheriff who moved there from Detroit several years before. There's a down-on-his-luck star journalist who got his first big break in the town several years ago and is back to reclaim lost glory. There's the coroner who discovers the virus. The vet who helps him research it. There's the mayor who fights against the sheriff for his own political reasons. There's members of the sheriff's force.

There are a lot of characters, and that is the book's main flaw. Morrell could have cut a few and gotten deeper into the main ones. Worse, Morrell implies that the sheriff and coroner had some sort of breakdown that prompted them to move the small town, but never fully explains what caused the breakdown. A major oversight.

But the writing is good, the suspense is great and the pace is crisp. It's also a literary statement on human nature and the thin line that prevents us from devolving into our base animal natures. Or original sin, if you prefer (as I do).

Overall, a fine book and enjoyable read.

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