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Published: 2011/11/15
by Brian Robbins

Brian Keene & Nick Mamatas
The Damned Highway – Fear And Loathing In Arkham

Dark Horse Books

Five years ago author Nick Mamatas released his first full-length novel, Move Under Ground. And it took some serious guts to do it.

Move Under Ground put an older, trying-to-sober-up Jack Kerouac back out on the road with Neal Cassady at the wheel to save the world from the evil cult of Cthulhu. Along the way, they’re joined by a junk-shooting, gun-toting, snarling and mumbling William Burroughs and cross paths with a mad, sewer-dwelling Allen Ginsberg.

Not only did Mamatas do as he saw fit with these late heroes of the Beat movement, but he chose to narrate his H.P. Lovecraft-style cosmic horror story in Kerouac’s voice, as well.

It could have been nothing more than a sacrilegious, disjointed, ghoulish mess. Instead, it was a good read – Mamatas set his characters and himself up with a bunch of weird parameters and wrote his/their way out of it.

The Damned Highway – Fear And Loathing In Arkham finds Mamatas joining forces with co-author Brian Keene to pit another literary hero against Cthulhu. The setting is January of 1972, with the presidential primaries just getting rolling. And the central figure is Hunter S. Thompson.

Once again, the danger of blasphemy hangs in the air. The idea of a horror novel written in classic gonzo-speak (complete with a paragraph of Thompson-style notes to introduce each chapter) is one that, admittedly, sounds like it could easily fall down over the stairs backwards before it even gets over the threshold. But damned if Mamatas and Keene don’t pull it off and pull it off well.

Sensing that he needs to hit the road on a mission to expose sitting president Richard Nixon as the representative of the dark side of the American Nightmare (“The American Dream is dead”), Thompson pulls out of Woody Creek in the middle of the night during a snowstorm: “… alone and traveling light, armed with only my wits, my tape recorder, batteries, Moleskine notebook, pens, pencils, a gun, extra ammunition, a canister of mace, my Mojo Wire, two ripe grapefruit, some cocaine and marijuana, three tabs of blotter acid with colorful Jack Kirby characters emblazoned on them, four packs of cigarettes, a cigarette filter, and two pints of bourbon, all of which can fit into my brown leather kit bag.”

The road ahead is full of strange characters, both of the other-worldly and typical bus station variety. There are cameos by many political figures along the way – and there are plenty of how-is-he-gonna-get-out-of-this-one moments. The going gets weird as politics and unspeakable cults meld into one big mish-mash – raising the question of just how much of a reach is some of Keene and Mamatas’ story?

The worst that may happen is that younger readers may want to do a little research on the real-life characters Thompson crosses paths with. (Hint: when Googling Senator Thomas Eagleton, don’t bother to type in the words “spread-eagled,” “naked,” or “electrode torture by The Committee to Re-elect the President” – just “Thomas Eagleton” will get you there.) Of course, if you didn’t believe Richard Nixon to be fundamentally evil, then you’re going to have a problem with The Damned Highway and shouldn’t read it. The again, the Hunter Thompson part would have already put you off, so there’s probably no danger there.

All told, Keene and Mamatas have written a very readable tale – one that will not only entertain, but make you remember how much you miss ol’ HST, as well. Nicely done, men.

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