Grandmother Spider, by James D. Doss
Sometimes Adolescence Should Be Arrested

The puff quote on the cover of the paperback edition of Grandmother Spider describes it as a hybrid of Tony Hillerman and Carl Hiaasen.

Hillerman hybrid? See for yourself. Read Skinwalkers.

If this were true, it would be a great argument against same-sex marriages.
Sick Puppy

For Hiaasen, try Sick Puppy. Aptly named.

In fact, comparisons to Hiaasen, who is genuinely funny if more than a bit edgy sometimes, are as invidious as comparisons to Tony Hillerman's books, which have no more in common with "the Shaman series" than French wine does with cherry Kool-aid.

The appalling awfulness of these books is not the most amazing thing about them. Their popularity gets that superlative. People read these books, and even look forward to more. It's a bit like the addiction to Twinkies and Steve Seagal movies. Either you got it or you don't. Personally, I'd rather do laundry than watch a Seagal movie, and I wouldn't eat a Twinkie for less than five bucks. But, go figure, I vow to stop, and still I keep buying these Doss books in secondhand paperback and reading them. Why? Because I love the Ignacio area where they are set, on the border of my beloved Southwest. Because they are popular American Indian mysteries and I have to "keep up." And because I continue to hope, against all reason, that eventually he'll turn some sort of corner and the bloody things will become readable.

True folly. Doss has a money-generating franchise here and limited but not inconsiderable fame. What possible impulse could drive him to write a good book? More to the point, there's no reason to believe that he is capable of writing a good book, or that anyone at his publishing house would be interested if he did. Nobody could write this badly on purpose, and a competent, intelligent novel could jeopardize his popularity (i.e., sales). So the real onus lies on the heads of the people who read him.

Surely I am exaggerating. No writer could be utterly awful and maintain a loyal following. Hmmm. Heard of Patricia Cornwell? Rod McKuen? Piers Anthony? Gertrude Stein? Doss is certainly not the worst mystery writer out there collecting royalties. There are vastly less successful hacks, like the Thurlos and the aptly named Micah Hackler and any number of purveyors of Grub Street 2002 junk. So again, the extraordinary thing is not how bad the books are, but how popular they are.

Let's get down to specifics. I've avoided Grandmother Spider since it came out, more actively than I failed to purchase The Night Visitor and White Shell Woman, the two "Shaman" novels that frame Grandmother Spider like a couple of slices of white sandwich bread on either side of a slab of baloney. The reason is that the plot synopsis sounded so utterly disrespectful of basic American Indian religious beliefs that I turned away in disgust. Doss borrows the Southwestern equivalent of the Virgin Mary, Spider Woman, and makes her over into a sort of Disney cartoon Shelob, and he implicates his "Indian" characters in this repulsive, irresponsible sacrilege.
A Canticle for Leibowitz St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman

Raging Virgins?
That premise reminds me of a perennial favorite writer who mixes religion and humor wonderfully, Walter M. Miller, Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a truly zany post-apocalyptic novel full of black humor that glitters like polished obsidian knives. The sequel, St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, is not quite up to the first, but very funny and worth the read.

This is a bit like writing a novel in which devout Spanish Catholics are not at all taken aback that the Blessed Virgin has begun ripping the heads off random victims in fits of beatific PMS. Mother of God, sure; but you know women....

The synopsis of the novel, involving the appearance of a spider the size of a small office building, was not, shall we say, encouraging. But I had some credit at a local used book store and managed to turn up, in a single swoop, four bundles of brain candy—Robert Westbrook's latest "Howie Moon Deer" novel (a series that may achieve merit someday), two Micah Hacklers (previously known only in synopses that defied parody), and one of the three Shaman novels that I haven't read. My essay on American Indian mystery novels has created a sense of obligation of the sort that drives proctologists. It isn't a matter of liking every aspect of my job. For every Thomas Perry, there are a handful of less than stellar other books. I read them all—the worst of it, that others may be spared. So here I am, fresh from reading the predictably awful Grandmother Spider.

The first two pages are a kind of set piece, setting the mood with pieces of cliché. In the first paragraph, we get "iridescent" and "opalescent" (rainbow and clouds, respectively), along with "blushing flowers," escaped fetters ("of the world"), and a breeze that "whispers sweetly." (The rainbow, not to be outdone, "arches shimmeringly.") In about 200 words, we get two whispers, a pair of blushes, some "flinty fields" populated by "sheep of the flock," perfume, a masquerade, fiery omens, a dancing darkling (that would be a young dark), cloven flesh, dusk's "tremulous sighs" (the sun "blushes scarlet"), and "the misty breath of twilight." But here, look for yourself:

Most of the text on the first page of
Grandmother Spider.

Really. Reproduced photographically. Honest.

Note: More blushes on next page.

Grandmother Spider, by James D. Doss

With no irony, but some sadness, I must say, "It doesn't get better than this."

Having experienced foreshadowing, irony and dread for what may already seem hours, glorious or not, we are set up, in the next few paragraphs, for our first injection of Doss humor. To wit: A little girl is reading about spiders on the floor of Daisy Perika's trailer. Suddenly, without warning, Doss springs the surprise that alert readers might have expected from the headnote—which was a quotation, in full, of "Little Miss Muffet." Rather than paraphrase, I will quote the novel: "At this very moment, across the cracked linoleum... along came a spider. And sat down. Besider." I assume Doss changes "beside her" to "besider" to enforce the subtle rhyme, lest we miss it. I suppose he knows his audience. And they, no doubt, have less trouble than I visualizing a "sitting" spider.

The little girl smashes the spider (her strings are being pulled by a white man, remember), and then kindly old grandma Daisy proceeds to tell her a hideously gruesome bit of folklore about "Grandmother Spider," who avenges the deaths of her children by waking up, prowling about, and ripping heads off all and sundry. (This monster also accomplishes the biologically and physiologically impossible by wrapping horses in web so tight "they can't move a whisker." Or perhaps Daisy is not aware that horses don't technically have whiskers....) Daisy concludes by assuring the child that she has probably awakened Grandmother Spider.

Events that transpire in the next dozen or so pages would lead most children to assume that the folklore was true and that by killing the spider they had personally unleashed a monster which they actually saw carry off a man to kill him. Does anyone, even the little girl, bring this up, once the apparent monster spider begins rampaging through the woods, waving a screaming victim in Daisy and her ward's faces? Nah. Reality has no more to do with a Doss novel than with a Hanna-Barbara cartoon. Scare, terrorize, psychologically abuse, and traumatize a nine-year-old? Hey, why not? It's just a novel.

Five pages into the book, and I'm wishing I had somewhere to go. The dentist. Afghanistan.

There's humor all through the book. Parris and Moon never tire of making bets after cheating and counter-cheating to ensure that the bettor wins. You will... tire of it, I mean. At least once per page, italics signal little asides and thought amendments to conversations. They should raise a chuckle, those glimpses into the real mind. They don't. (For an example, try this conversation between gorgeous LA blonde rich lady with career Camilla Willow and Charlie Moon. They are meeting again a few hours after having a passionate hamburger. Charlie says, "So. How've you been?" and she replies, "Well enough" and thinks He's awfully cute. And before you can recover from that one, this exchange a dozen lines further into the courtship: "Well, see you later." To which Camilla does not reply, but thinks I hope so. Mating rituals in Dossland are covered below.)

Doss' notion of humor is, shall we, say, unique. He seems to have discovered that Carl Hiaasen is getting great laughs from the macabre (who can forget the hitman who spends half a Hiaasen novel with a pit bull head chomped onto his arm?) so he takes a shot at it. But apparently he has failed to notice that it isn't the macabre but the humor that makes Hiaasen's stuff work. So we get a paragraph about a reasonably competent military SWAT team we are encouraged to believe is government-sponsored, in which one of the soldiers muses over an unfortunate accident the previous summer when they kidnapped and executed a Belgian tourist, thinking he is a Serbian military criminal. It seems the guy looked like the intended victim and had just checked into the hotel room the Serbian vacated. One is uncertain if the subtext here is "What a coincidence!" or "Well, you know, those Europeans all look alike."

A few pages later the most educated of the soldiers encounters an old prospector who cons him into believing there is a plutonium mine in the area and then pulls a knife on this Special Forces genius and forces him to stand on tiptoe by pressing it against his groin. That bit of business, the knife/tiptoe gag, gets repeated at least once more later with two other characters, in case it wasn't funny enough the first time. These are the jokes, folks.

The world of a Doss novel is so unrelievedly preadolescent nerdly that I am at a loss to explain his appeal. Hiaasen's humor is occasionally horrifyingly tasteless, as in the unhumorous feeding of an obnoxious old woman to an alligator, with her obnoxious foo-foo poodle for apertif. Doss' humor is just, well, stupid, like the witticisms of pre-teen boys: "I know you are but what am I?" "Hey Scott, is that a Twinkie in your hand or are you just happy to see me?" "Beam me up Stocky, there's no intelligent life here." He handles other normal human emotions with similar sensitivity. I won't linger over this broad, perhaps inexhaustible topic; I have a lawn to fertilize. Let's take the big one of the human feelings, "Luv."

Doss men are helpless in the throes of sexless, adenoidal love on and off throughout every novel. My favorite example of this is still the kitsch from The Shaman Laughs, when Charlie Moon finds out that a woman he had shown only marginal awareness of, even when they were in high school together, has been killed (for no reason particularly relevant to the plot). He wanders through his newly-constructed house which, he muses tearfully, "he built for her!" Now mind, he never even tried to date this woman in ten-plus years, and wasn't aware that she had gone away to college. And come back graduated. He weeps, he grieves. But he recovers. Two pages later he is making drooly eyes at a widow like a used car salesman doing his great imitation of Jim Carrey in The Mask at an office party. But that's another novel.

In Grandmother Spider we are spared new developments in the romance of white police officer and former Marine Scott Parris. The closest we get is the clever exchange that occurs between Charlie Moon and Parris when Charlie reveals that he's going to be best man for the marriage of a man he just met who is marrying the waitress he met while they were getting acquainted (don't worry; it's explained below). Parris says, indignantly, "But you promised to be my best man!" Apparently in Dossland, bestmanity is like virginity....

But about the waitress. People fall deeply, madly in love for a few minutes all through the book (and elsewhere in Dossland). Charlie takes the visiting brother-in-law of a spider victim to lunch. He arranges for the waitress to "be nice" to him (this is apparently necessary in Dossland for some reason, although waitresses seem to be spontaneously nice most of the time there). He has no reason to do this that anyone can identify, except his own vague general niceness (which does not require prompting).

And boy does it backfire. The waitress, who is the most gorgeous waitress in Southern Colorado, falls madly in love with the visitor the moment she sees him, even though, or perhaps because "the old man is kind of cute, in a sad basset-hound sort of way" (her "thinking"). "Cute," in Dossland, is often the basis for a long-term relationship. Note Camilla's infatuation, above.

Fortunately the feeling in mutual; the visitor looks at her for the first time, and says, "My God in heaven." And since gorgeousness in women is an unfailing stimulus for love, usually requited if the man is "cute" (perhaps because gorgeous women in Southern Colorado are used to being ignored by the adult men who prefer to stand around telling elephant jokes and elbowing each other), the next day the waitress has skipped town with the visitor, and a few pages later they are betrothen. Whatever.

The prize love story of the novel, however, is that of Camilla the career lady, wealthy ranchowner and all-around woman of the world from Los Angeles, who falls instantly in love with Charlie Moon (when she sees him the first time, she expresses her affection by "staring openly" at Charlie, causing him to become "frozen" and Parris to ache with jealousy, and she thinks, while regarding this block of human ice, Here I am, big man.) but plays hard to get (after a lunch filled with trivial innuendo, they met again. Charlie asks her how she is and she, manipulative vixen, doesn't ask how he is back!). Out of deference of any reader that might actually still be planning to read this book, I won't reveal how this all ends up; let's just say the domestic plots of playing house with my sister when I was nine were more credible.

Credibility is not a strong suit in Doss novels. Again, to avoid plot spoilers, I will simply let you know that what the "giant spider" turns out to be is so utterly stupid, so vacuously dumb that you may commit an act of violence against the book when you learn the truth. And as if the "murder" incredibilities were not enough, we get the firing of Charlie under circumstances that defy logic, followed immediately (same page, I think) by the deft theft of a plot element from Michael McGarrity's Hermit's Peak (Doss is not a hybrid of Michael McGarrity, crossed with anybody) to put the old nugee-nugee double-reverse Indian burn on Charlie's career. Suffice it to say that what McGarrity handles as a wonderful but explicable accident, Doss renders as an illogical, sanity-testing bit of ridiculousness.

There are bad writers in every genre. Most genre writers don't handle broad humor very well, either. In the mystery writers guild, only Sharon McCrumb and Carl Hiaasen generally pull it off, and Le Sprague de Camp and Walter Miller are the only writers I know of whose sci-fi "humor" isn't embarrassing. I would say, rhetorically, "Who reads this Doss stuff?" but I'm embarrassed to say I know some people, otherwise quite sane and rational, who do. They are normal people in every way, with a fatal weakness less damaging to the body than a fixation on Twinkies, but possibly dangerous to the mind. Pray for them.

If you are interested in mystery fiction with an American Indian slant, my annotated booklist, "American Indian Mysteries," offers lots of choices and some frank opinions.

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