The Thunder Child

Science Fiction and Fantasy
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Vol 1, Issue #3
"Stand By For Mars!"
March 2006

Fiction Book Reviews
by Caroline Miniscule

The Island of the Skull
by Matthew Costello
Pocket Star Books

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Caroline Miniscule has traveled around the world. She now stays in one place and reads science fiction. She is a graduate of D'Illyria University (the university of the mind).

The Island of the Skull is the official prequel novel to Peter Jackson's version of King Kong. Author Matthew Costello's last published novel was Missing Monday (2004). His novel Beneath Still Waters was turned into a movie by Lions Gate and Filmax and will be released in 2006. He's also scripted several games including "The 7th Guest" and "Doom 3."

Two books have recently been written that attempt to tell the story of "what went before," in the Kong saga. Obviously they each tell a different story of what went before, but what's really interesting is the focus of the story each one tells.

Kong: King of Skull Island (2004), by Joe DeVito and Brad Strickland, focuses on the backstory of the civilization on Skull Island, and is not affiliated with Jackson's movie in any way. (DeVito and Strickland have also written an updated version of the novelization of the original movie.)

The Island of the Skull, on the other hand is the official prequel novel for the Jackson movie and gives the a sense...of Carl Denham, Ann Darrow...and a character who will not make it into the Jackson movie...hardhat diver Sam Kelly.

Matthew Costello tells these three stories simultaneously, with alternating chapters for each character.

Ann Darrow is a struggling actress who, in order to keep body and soul together, accepts a job at the Steel Pier in New Jersey. Only it doesn't turn out as well as she'd hoped...

Carl Denham is a movie producer who'd chartered the Venture to go in search of a famous killer whale (something along the lines of Moby Dick, presumably). He hasn't been able to find his quarry and he knows his backers in New York will not be pleased with him. He's desperate to find something to film.

Meanwhile, hard hat diver Sam Kelly has just been mustered out of the Navy with scant ceremony, and is desperate for money. He and neophyte diver Tommy Hautala accept jobs as pearl divers on a ship soon to sail...little realizing that they are bound for the unknown...

The opening paragraphs of Chapter One:

Book One: Before the Voyage 1932
Fortieth Street and Eighth Avenue, New York City
Ann Darrow sat on the hard wood chair?one of three?that faced the secretary's desk. The woman opposite her turned the pages of the Daily News while she chewed and popped her gum.

It was odd?as if Ann weren't even here. The wooden blinds sent slices of brilliant sun into the room and, at this angle, she could see thousands of tiny dust motes floating in the air.

Floating, she thought, like me...loose, no direction.

Chapter 2 introduces Sam Kelly, hard hat diver. He's on shore, watching the air hose while a neophyte diver named Tommy Hautala goes through his paces on the bottom. But there's a problem...Tommy isn't coming up, so Kelly gets into his diving suit and goes down to see what's wrong.

In Chapter 3, Carl Denham is on the Venture, complete with Captain Englehorn and black first mate Hayes, as they wallow in the seas off the coast of Baffin Island. Englehorn promises Denham to find somewhere placid where they can heave to, to avoid the winds of a rising storm.

And then we go to Chapter 5 and back to Sam Kelly, who deduces Tommy has entered a wreck and become trapped there, then to Chapter 6 and Denham on the Venture finding a sheltered bay...still in Chapter 6 and Kelly is trying to lift some pipes off the trapped Tommy...then to Chapter 7 and it's a day later for Ann Darrow, who has arrived in Atlantic City...then to Chapter 8 and Sam Kelly again, back in time, presumably, because he's still trying to get the pipes off Tommy...and Chapter 9 is back to Ann in Atlantic City, but then Chapter 10 is back to Denham in that placid bay in Baffin Island...and its Chapter 11 before Sam Kelly and Tommy rise to the surface.

Many years ago, when I first discovered the Tarzan of the Apes books, I didn't care for Edgar Rice Burrough's process of alternating chapters between characters, leaving each one in a 'cliffhanger' type of situation before moving on to the next. I didn't like being kept in suspense, so I'd flip ahead to that character's next chapter and read it, and go on to the next, and so on.

With Island of the Skull, I didn't feel the need to do that. The individual stories simply weren't that engrossing.

I liked Ann Darrow's character. She was appealing and 'spunky.' We meet her mentor Manny, very briefly (he will have a slightly larger but still small role in the movie), then she goes to Atlantic City to be a rider on one of the 'famous diving horses of the Steel Pier'. It's the height of the Depression and she has little money, so its perfectly plausible that she'll take a Greyhound bus to that city...less plausible that she'd take a taxi to the pier. People who have to watch every penny do not take taxis...

But that's a minor quibble. Costello evokes the plight of women in Depression-era America quite effectively. Ann's entire story takes place in Atlantic City, and we get a view of the attractions of the Steel Pier, and nightclubs, and Prohibition, and gangsters.

Sam Kelly is the man whom, we just know, is going to eventually be the 'sailor' who is found floating in a lifeboat with the map to Skull Island on his person. Intertwined with his story (later on) is the story of a young girl on Skull Island who has the wherewithal to escape her bonds and flee from her prospective gigantic husband. Again, the history of the civilization that built the city is not ventured into, only the natives as they exist at this time. Kong is never seen, but there are plenty of other exotic creatures.

The adventures of Carl Denham are more problematic. His search for a specific 'killer whale' is too similar to his later search for Kong. We're introduced to his friend Jack Driscoll, who is indeed a playwright in this book and in the later movie, not the first mate of the Venture as in movies past.

But Denham's character is in no way similar to Jack Black's Denham of the movie. He is joined on his journey on Baffin Island by Preston (played in the movie by Colin Hanks, son of Tom). Their cameraman loses a leg while trying to get some good footage of sea lions...or leopard seals. [The author never seems to be quite sure what the animals are, he calls them sea lions in one paragraph and leopard seals in another], and Denham is willing to postpone his own efforts to make a movie to be at Herb's hospital bedside...which is quite at odds with his behavior in Jackson's movie.

Also, Denham and Hayes have a history (Hayes saves Herb's life)...yet in the movie this does not seem to be the's like they're meeting for the first time. There's no mention by Hayes of the "half-feral" sailor Jimmy (of the Jackson movie), and considering all the other extraneous characters Costello brings into this book, it's rather surprising that Jimmy isn't here as well.

In any event, it's in the last chapter that Carl enters a bar in New York City and meets the Captain of a Norwegian freighter, who tells him about the rescue of Sam Kelly who before he died handed over a map - with latitude and longitude - of Skull Island.

This is a valiant effort to tie together many story strands into one coherent whole. But the stories are not 'original.' Ann develops an attachment to the horse she rides, who trusts her in return...but 'unfeeling man' makes her ride it while it is ill and it ends up breaking its leg and so must be shot. Denham attempts to find that one 'killer' whale, which echoes his attempt to find Kong. These echoes of things to come are a conceit that doesn't really work.

Costello's prose isn't that absorbing, either. One is never really drawn into the story, but always aware that one is reading.

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