By Rex Miller (Pocket; 1992)
During the late eighties-early nineties period the late Rex Miller was one of America’s finest writers of horror/suspense fiction. Possessing a uniquely hyperbolic voice and narrative skills that can safely be described as masterful, Miller turned out several unforgettable novels. CHAINGANG, alas, is not among them.
Daniel “Chaingang” Bunkowski, the title character of Miller’s stunning 1987 debut novel SLOB, is a 500-pound maniac with an off-the-charts IQ and over 300 confirmed kills to his credit. Chaingang got offed at the end of SLOB, but was of course resurrected for 1990’s SLICE, a lean ‘n nasty piece of work nearly as potent as SLOB. CHAINGANG then was the third time around for the big guy, and represents a huge step down. It’s the only one of the three books lacking Detective Jack Eichord, the detective protagonist of nearly all Miller’s previous novels, which turns out to be a major fumble; in Eichord’s absence Chaingang has no credible nemesis.
A bigger problem is the fact that with this book Miller had started down the bumpy route the makers of the Godzilla and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET flicks had already trod: he was turning Chaingang into a good guy. Miller furthered this tendency in his subsequent novels SAVANT (in which Chaingang confronts his abusive mother, who according the back cover “made him what he is today. Now he’s going to make her wish she had never been born…”) and BUTCHER (Chaingang takes on an ex-Nazi doctor), as well as the short-lived CHAINGANG comic series (one issue has you-know-who going after the corrupt overseers of an animal experimentation lab). I’m all for wish fulfillment fantasies, but Chaingang started out as an amoral psychopath and is at his best in the shadows. This book proves that fact.
CHAINGANG’S set-up is a compelling one: this sick fuck is released from a maximum security nut house as part of a covert military training exercise in a small Missouri town, where a specialized branch of assassins are being drilled in a structure misleadingly dubbed Ecoworld. The locals quickly grow suspicious, and so much of the novel is taken up with several not-very-interesting characters trying to figure out what we already know.
Offsetting them is Chaingang, who’s as dangerous as ever. He finds several creative ways to dispatch his victims (i.e. slowly drowning a man by shoving his head into a partially-filled bathtub) and often gives ‘em a whiff of his hideously bad breath before doing so.
However, most of Chaingang’s dispatchees are assholes in one way or another–animal abusers, drug dealers and corrupt government officials, all conveniently ensconced in this small Missouri town–while after a while the Ecoworld structure comes to seem like the Impregnable Fortress manned by many James Bond movie villains, and is dealt with in the manner you’d expect (spoiler: it gets blown up).
CHAINGANG for some reason received many rave reviews from established horror/suspense writers upon its release. Perhaps those reviewers were thinking of SLOB or SLICE, or even one of Miller’s non-Chaingang tomes like PROFANE MEN or ICEMAN, which showcase Chaingang and his creator at their best. Still, Miller maniacs (and I know there are many of you out there) will undoubtedly want to check out CHAINGANG, crummy novel or not. Everyone else should stay away.