I decided to read a book gathering dust on my shelf in preparation for my Hawaii trip with Firecracker this week. About 8 years ago a friend read this book called Fires of Eden, a horror novel, and gave the paperback to me. He liked the bits about young Mark Twain in it. So I picked up Twain’s Letters from Hawaii, which is what the book bases the Twain parts on. That also sat gathering dust for years.
Anyone who knows me well has seen my towering Steelcase bookshelves stacked three deep with collected books that I’ve yet to read. I love reading, but I love books more. I estimate I’ve read 15% of the books I own, which would be great if I were trapped on a deserted island, or Burgess Meredith after nuclear apocalypse, (*crunch* My glasses! Oh the irony!) but I have a million other distractions keeping me from reading, like horrible 80’s movies, beer fests, Firecracker’s social engagements, and a stack of magazines by the crapper that keeps me from reading fine literature in there.
Fires of Eden was a bit of a letdown after 10 years of waiting, but it’s a serviceable thriller and quite intriguing if you’re at all interested in Hawaiian mythology and history. The story involves billionaire developer Byron Trumbo, a Trump-alike trying to unload a super-luxury resort on the south Kona coast of Hawaii to Japanese investors to recharge his crumbling empire. He’s irascible and oily, and is a lot of fun if you imagine him played by J.K. Simmons in his Jonah Jameson role from the Spider-Man movies.
Douchey developer, cliché villain #92
Thankfully there are other characters, like spunky Eleanor Perry, an Illinois schoolteacher visiting the area because she’s digging through her aunt’s diary from 1860, when Aunt Kidder met Mark Twain (then Samuel Clemens) on an adventure to the islands. And Cordie Stumpf, a role Kathy Bates was born to play- the wife of a garbage magnate who won a trip there and has a lot of tricks up her sleeve next to the arm flab. She’s got the best lines and is full of surprises.
Scarier than anything in the book
From page one, we are introduced to the creepy gods and spirits of the Hawaiians, like the dog Kū, who has human teeth, and Kamapua’a the rapacious hog. My fave was the son of Ukupanipo, the shark god, who had a hump on his back that opens into a shark mouth. The goddess Pele, controller of fire who lives within the volcano with her name, and other spirits like the Marchers of the Night, the spirits of Hawaiian warriors who walk through the jungle, are also mentioned.
The story bounces back and forth from the diary, where Mark Twain and Aunt Kidder explore the island of Hawai’i and encounter these same hungry spirits, and the modern day, where the Mauna Pele resort has disturbed the old gods. Simmons doesn’t go for the old “Indian burial ground” plot device, and Cordie Stumpf even mentions that she saw that in Poltergeist. The gods have their own agendas, and they might take a bite out of you if you get in their way.
The story is leavened with good humor thanks to Cordie and Trumbo. It actually doesn’t have enough modern-day horror to keep a solid grip of suspense, though. The old story with Mark Twain and Aunt Kidder is much more interesting, and the tension there is palpable. In the modern-day parts, you can pick the victims easily and you never really feel that anyone you like is in real danger, except for one part where they encounter the shark god while on a kayak. On the other hand, it’s a quick and amusing read that informs you well about Hawaiian history and mythology.
Unfortunately some of the cool stuff Dan Simmons mentions, such as the rocks on Oahu that are believed to be the corpse of the dog Kū, are unknown to Google. The footprints of Koeau’s soldiers left in the volcanic mud after they were killed by poison gases off Mount Pele, are in the park near where we’ll be staying on the big island. So maybe we’ll go see them. And try not to be devoured by humpbacked sharkmen.