Ray GARTON: Shackled (1997)
Review by Michael Edwards
This novel is a real shocker which dives deep into the very bowels of evil, and it is completely devastating in its effect on the reader.
The story is set in California, and concerns a shadowy conspiracy of Satanists, paedophiles, and child pornographers who kidnap children and imprison and brainwash them to serve as sexual slaves, act in snuff movies, and so on. The story centres around several characters who are investigating this sick, sordid affair, and they turn out to be very likeable characters you care about, so that it hurts all the more when nasty things happen to them.
The primary one of these is a tabloid reporter called Bentley Noble, who has got into a career of reporting on really sleazy stories for a disreputable rag he works for; but, in spite of his cynicism, he is really beginning to question this sort of career, and seems to be wanting to do something better with his life. He is assigned by his newspaper to report on the disappearance of the 7-year-old son of a kindly black pastor called Ethan Walker. The pastor is initially sceptical of Noble, but Noble gains his confidence, and the two become quite close to each other.
There is also Stephen Colloway, a true-crime writer who is a friend of Noble's, and who also helps in the investigation; Lewis Garner, a wheelchair-bound researcher Colloway knows, who can apparently put his finger on almost any possible fact instantly amongst the mountains of books he keeps; and young Rob Henson, a brilliant, nerdy, socially inept but likeable computer hacker who works with Garner, to whom it is a breeze to break into even the most securely-guarded computer systems, or to trace any phone call to its source, or to bug anyone's telephone. Together these people are trying to find out what happened to young Samuel Walker, and they are going to need all these skills they have at their disposal.
From time to time throughout the book, the reader is given glimpses of what actually is happening to Samuel Walker and to another girl who had disappeared; and the physical, psychological, and sexual abuse they are subjected to, in some deep, underground complex lit luridly with red and purple light, is truly heart-wrenching. And you can see that the treatment, and the various trappings in their surroundings, are all part of a sophisticated brainwashing, mind-control regime. It appears to be based on the premise that total fear, and the ability to inflict physical pain, can give one complete control over another human being. This is just my own inference - but it reminds me of something similar that was said in George Orwell's 1984, in which pain and fear are the primary tools for controlling an entire population.
As Bentley Noble and his friends investigate, what they find out is appalling beyond imagining, and it is surprising what individuals they find out to be covertly involved in this horrible conspiracy, this trade in human flesh and misery (the children they buy and sell like cattle being referred to as "merchandise", little boys as "pups"). After reading this novel, next time you see a glamorous centrefold girl in a men's magazine, or beautiful girls flirting with the rich and famous, you will wonder whether they are doing it entirely of their own free-will, and what really goes on behind the scenes.
And where it really starts getting scary is when things suddenly go dreadfully wrong, and Noble and Colloway come to the attention of the conspirators: their response to being uncovered is one of the nastiest episodes I've ever read in any fiction, and you know that falling into the hands of these people will be a fate far worse than death; and it quickly became apparent to me that torture scenes inevitably lay ahead - because of course the conspirators needed to find out how much they knew, and who was helping them, and whom they had told things to; and the unfortunate victims who do fall into the Satanists' hands were faced with the choice between betraying their friends into certain death or torture, or else suffering unending torture themselves right up to death - torture scenes such that, once I reached the very start of them, I really felt quite scared to continue.
At this point, I was overpowered by a chill, shaking fear: a feeling of utter, impending dread of unspeakable and irreversible things I knew were about to happen - and there was no-one who could stop them from happening - and I knew the perpetrators had no mercy or compassion whatever, nor even, apparently, any recognizable human feeling at all. I almost couldn't bear to continue; but the story was so gripping I knew I would have to. However, I couldn't face it straight away, and had to sleep first - and my sleep on that occasion was quite disturbed, and I kept waking up all the time. There are few books that have ever had that effect on me.
On the new day, I continued reading, completely hooked, and finished the book. And the scenes I dreaded were even worse than I could have imagined, and Garton seems to have a no-holds-barred way of writing that goes straight for the jugular. The ringleaders in the conspiracy, especially Rex Calisto and Dr. Corbus, are amongst the darkest, most ruthless villains I've ever found in any novel: they seem to embody the very essence of pure evil, and they don't mess around with trivialities when anyone crosses them, but do the very things you dread most of all, that you hope against hope they won't sink to - and they do it in spades. And you end up hating Calisto and Corbus (who appear quite early, so naming them is not a give-away), and just wishing, hoping that they come to a nasty end. But they are remarkably skillful at evading anyone who wants to capture them.
By the time all these terrifying scenes are under way, there are still about 150 pages left in the 550-page novel - what more can the author do that won't be a let-down after all this? Already, it is so frightening that it doesn't seem there is any further way for the story to intensify. Well, the author can deliver; and, far from being a let-down, the finale is virtuosic, and the plot twists up more and more, exponentially so, to a climax which is nothing short of vertiginous, as all that is noble in humanity does battle with the supreme manifestation of pure evil - there is a huge amount at stake for both sides of this. And you don't know which side will triumph, and you get the feeling that Garton is a writer who could make it tip either way.
Whatever you may think of novels like this (which could admittedly be seen by some as cheap and sensationalist, even exploitative of the worst impulses in humanity), Garton is a skilled writer who draws you into his story, depicts characters well, and describes actions - and especially sensations - with a blinding vividness that can't help propelling you along at breakneck pace. (Reading torture scenes written by someone with such descriptive powers is a very uncomfortable experience indeed.) He evokes evil well - and also shows considerable sensitivity, too, as some of the human issues and feelings behind the events are highlighted with some tenderness. The implacable evil contrasts starkly with the gentleness, kindness, and compassion of Pastor Walker, who struggles to retain his faith in the face of a violent world almost beyond his comprehension, who wants to help the other unfortunate victims caught up in this horrible affair that he can't in fact help - even if it puts his own life at risk.
Shackled is one of those books that might make one feel voyeuristic and perverted for even reading it - and I'm sure many people would find it quite sick. While it is one of the most exciting, gripping stories I've ever read, I might perhaps warn away from it those who are disturbed by the depiction of Satanic mockeries of Christian ritual and symbology, severe abuse of and cruelty to children, explicit and unorthodox sexuality, or extreme violence and torture.
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Original text copyright (C) 2002, by Michael Edwards.
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last modified on Sunday, 3 November, 2002.