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Up until I had read Matt Warner's THE ORGAN DONOR, my experience with his writing was limited to the flame's he'd posted at various message boards. Being no fan of flames (FAN! FLAMES! Fan flames! HA! Oh well.) I was not overtly impressed with his work.
THE ORGAN DONOR is another story (HA! Another story! It's a novel ! It's a... forget it). Matt starts off with the modern, though worn, plot of transplanted organs being haunted by their source. It's an easy plot device and is featured in many stories, books, and even a few movies.
But never with this much depth.
And certainly never with such a rich mythology behind it.
Matt starts us off in China, where political prisoners are executed for no honest reason but to harvest their organs. It's expedient, it wastes little (this in a country where, despite a booming economy supported largely by the despised West, still charges the family of the executed the cost of the bullet it took to kill them), and it both adds to the economy and works as a political networking tool among the world's rich and powerful. What's not to like? - if you are an inhuman brutal pig.
Dr. Li Jun of the Department of Burn and Plastic Surgery is a man who hates his job, which requires him to prepare living people for organ and tissue extraction. He preps them while they are fully conscious, aware of what he is doing, and looking straight at him with eyes that may, in a few hours, belong to someone else.
His latest cadaver in waiting is a Falun Gong Holy man. His name is Shen
While Jun's job makes him uneasy, his brief time with Shen unnerves him. When he goes to leave Shen's cell, he experiences a quick but incredibly painful "grip" in his abdomen. As he stands, bent over, and recovering from the unexpected pain, he glances over to Shen, who seems to be smiling as if he knows exactly what happened.
Shen is executed with one bullet to the heart. Later, as the harvesters go to remove his flesh and organs, one notices that, though Shen's heart is still, his eyes still react to light. The bubbles of blood slowly forming at his mouth suggest that, though seemingly unconscious, he's still breathing. Still, he's been declared officially dead and the harvesters quickly go about their business.
We soon learn that via a twist through old corridors of espionage and politics, Shen's kidneys, flesh, bone, and one cornea are removed to be transplanted into two Americans. One, Tim, is there under fraudulent reasons: he needs a kidney transplant. The other is a tourist and brother to Tim. Paul didn't come to China needing a transplant, but was severely injured in the terrorist bombing of a market.
The tale soon brings us to the U.S., where the two young men are trying to recover from their operations. Both are having a difficult time of it and though the complications don't seem - at first - to be out of the ordinary, Merry Mishaps occur.
For the blue-eyed Mister Shen was far more than a Falun Gong Holy Man. He is not what he seems, he is not dead, and he wants back what belonged to him.
So the stage is set within the frame of a low grade Horror story. Yet Matt Warner's descriptive narrative of locals and locales elevates THE ORGAN DONOR far above the "norm" of what I've come to regard as common writing techniques - and I mean VERY far above it.
From the start in the sophisticated Chinese city of Jianshi to the story's main background in Virginia, the details of the life and lifestyles as well as the physical make-up of the areas are presented fully without grinding into pieces of useless minutia. Matt seems to have a canny knack of knowing how far to take a description before the reader's imagination can fill in the blanks.
Paul took care of his younger, adult brother for years, while Tim waited for a transplant. As such, he put his life on hold, and the odd intimacy he grew into concerning his younger brother's needs regarding urination, is strange enough to keep us fascinated in their day to day lives. Matt never bothers with the easy escape of cheap shot gross out punch lines. The interactions of Paul and Matt, and their Mother, feel real.
But the engine of the story is the something that is coming for them. In my opinion this device in past stories of this sub-sub-genre have never been well thought out. All the easiest Ghost story tropes, the obvious clichés and hack cut and paste scenarios have brought themselves to the fore of the story whenever other writers have tried their hand at this. It's a shame to see it because, as a reader, whenever you are getting into a story or novel that involves some style of cutting edge or unfamiliar technological advance, the last thing you want is for the writer to take all that's fresh and possible and then resort to the same old tripe of a ghost or corpse returning for the family heirloom or other such dross ("Where's my cake, Bedelia?").
From the get go, we know that Shen will return from the grave - that's a given. We know that from the abysmally crappy clip-art book cover art*. But his motivations are the areas we wish to explore and Matt Warner brings such an original twist to this novel that I'm tempted to use the "C" word.
That C-word being Classic. And any long time visitors of this site know that I don't banter that term about lightly. After reading Warner's book, I couldn't believe how good it was. So impressed was I that I thought I must have been reading far too many novels and short stories from fledgling writers. The lack of actual literature in my recent reading material may have sapped my judgment.
So I turned to Clive Barker's THE DAMNATION GAME, Marc Laidlaw's THE 37th MANDALA, and Dean Koontz DEMON SEED. Once fortified, I returned and reread Matt's book with an evermore critical eye. I found some things to criticize, but at the end of the novel I still come away impressed and remain convinced that Warner has written a classic of modern horror literature. I've read it 3 times now.
Sure, the story has been told before. Before DRACULA there were countless other vampire stories. Stoker certainly didn't invent the idea of a vampire any more than Shelly invented the idea of returning the dead to life or bringing to life an artificial man. These had existed for nearly one thousand years in various forms of myth, stories, and plays. What Stoker, Shelly, and Matt have done is bring an old myth into focus.
The idea of organ transplants bringing back the ghosts or the donors returned from the grave has always been tiresome. Perhaps because the Horror started out with an original idea and then sunk right back into familiar territory, as I alluded to earlier.
But Matt Warner took the used up idea and sowed a story full of old myths born anew. Old ideas wove into a modern world; and has created a world that doesn't end with THE ORGAN DONOR, but creates something both complete within itself, and a launch pad for so many tales to come, whether by Warner or others.
In short, like vampires, werewolves, and zombies, Matt Warner has created an entirely new species of monster that breathes the possibility of endless creations and variations. The blood of Matt's novel is fresh and capable of running through many veins.
Though it has a few flaws, most notably where Paul reads a tabloid article that just runs on for far too long, this doesn't distract from my giving - for the first time in Story Time - all 5 BookWyrms for a novel. THE ORGAN DONOR is a straight on modern classic of Horror.
This review copyright 2003 E.C.McMullen Jr.
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