Graham Masterton is relatively unknown in the United States except among the horror cognoscenti. Although he’s written or edited more than 20 books, he is mostly known in his native England. He can write a slick little work of horror like House of Bones and make it haunt you no matter where you live, though; there’s something about the idea of being pulled right through the walls or floor of your home that can make anyone shudder. It would be nice if he were better known in these parts.
Basilisk is not the place to start reading Masterton, however. One big problem is that, for reasons known only to himself, Masterton chose to set Basilisk primarily in Philadelphia. It’s hard for a writer in Britain to get American idioms right, and vice versa. Language errors, even very small ones, and geographic anomalies can pull an American reader out of the story. Masterton doesn’t have America down cold, and it hurts his book.
The problems don’t end there. True, there is an interesting concept behind this book. Nathan Underhill is a zoologist who is convinced that creatures like gryphons, sphinxes and basilisks really existed in prehistoric times. He wants to breed them again now, because he believes they will be a source for embryonic stem cells he can use to cure diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. But if there is any explanation for why mythological creatures would be a good source for such cells, I missed it. The implication is that a creature that is a mixture of, say, reptile and mammal has more cells capable of differentiating into any other type of cell than does an animal of a single biological class, but this is never spelled out.
Unfortunately, despite having spent nearly three million dollars on research, Nathan’s most recent attempt to breed a gryphon has failed; it decomposed in its shell and was born with most of its body already necrotized. Nathan’s program at the Philadelphia Zoo will therefore be dismantled and he will have to either give up his dream or find someone new to fund it.
He learns, however, of another researcher who may have actually bred a basilisk. This researcher is the mysterious and unconventional Dr. Christian Zauber, the owner of a local nursing home. Nathan and his wife, Grace, break into the nursing home at night to find the basilisk – and it does indeed exist, as Grace learns the hard way. While the basilisk does not kill her with its gaze, as legend would have it, it does manage to put her into a deep coma. Zauber agrees to tell Nathan how to revive Grace, but only at a price: Nathan must assist Zauber in his experiments. Between Zauber’s use of magic and Nathan’s knowledge of biology, Zauber reasons, they should be able to create a fully functional creature. But there is a high price to such creation: a sacrifice is required. And Nathan is not prepared to become a murderer, even to achieve his life’s dream – or to save his wife’s life.
The plot moves inexorably from science to magic as it moves from West to East. In Poland, where Nathan follows Zauber to attempt to extract from him the secret to saving his wife’s life, Zauber’s abilities switch from those of a scientist to those of a magician. He can, for instance, move with uncanny speed, now here, now across the room. And he is not the only one who deals with ancient magic; Nathan is assisted by a znakharka, a sort of Polish witch, who gives him a charm bag that might keep him safe from Zauber’s magic.
This strange mixture of science and magic, of biology and myth, seems to careen out of control as the book nears its conclusion. If you cannot swallow the initial conceit that mythological creatures might have once existed and could exist again, if we could but figure out the science of selectively breeding them, you will most certainly not tolerate the notion that magic is necessary to the brew. Horror readers will find better chills and thrills elsewhere.