Read The Totem 1979 Online

Authors: David Morrell

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The Totem 1979

BOOK: The Totem 1979
4.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The Totem

David Morrell



One of the first things I learned as a writer was when in doubt don’t throw any pages away. That rule has frequently been of help, especially when due to over-familiarity with a manuscript in progress I edited a book too stringently, taking out scenes that shouldn’t have been omitted, needing to go back and reinsert them, grateful that I’d saved the original versions. My filing cabinets became crammed with material that I eliminated from various works. Even after those works were published, I continued to save the files.

As a consequence, this is what you might call a “found book.” In 1991, the British publisher, Headline, decided to reissue my only (to date) out-and-out horror novel, The Totem. It had first been released in hardback by the American publisher, M. Evans, in 1979 and had subsequently been reprinted by Fawcett in paperback one year later. The hardback was eventually discontinued. By the end of the eighties, so was the paperback. My memory of the story dimmed.

Thus when Headline suggested that it might be interesting for me to write an introduction to its new edition, I decided that I’d better reacquaint myself with the text so I’d be accurate about what I was introducing. But when I pulled The Totem off the shelf and studied it, I discovered to my dismay that the book I remembered was

not the book that had been published. So much was different. So much was missing. Where was this scene, and where was that ? I asked myself with increasing shock.

Abruptly a barrier in my memory fractured. I suddenly recalled that when I’d submitted The Totem in the late seventies, my editor had not been pleased. “It’s too big, too sprawling,” he’d said. “Where’s the love interest? How come it takes so long to introduce your main character? Why isn’t this about the military as in First Blood?” Given the ultimatum that if the novel wasn’t changed it wouldn’t be accepted, I reluctantly produced an alternate version of The Totem, half as long, twice as fast, with my main character appearing on the first page, and yes, with a love interest.

Not that I feel uncomfortable about that version. I think it’s effective, and I’m gratified that it has acquired a reputation among horror fans. Critics have described it as one of the best horror novels of the seventies. It’s been cited in Horror: 100 Best Books, and Denver’s Rocky Mountain News in 1989 placed it on that newspaper’s Halloween list of “10 Scariest Books.” But it’s not the book that I wanted published, and after I reread The Totem in preparation for writing the Headline introduction, I couldn’t resist the impulse to search through my files, and with delight, I discovered the original version that the turmoil of my negotiations with the book’s 1979 publisher had forced me to forget.

The manuscript was dusty, dogeared, and yellowed, written on a typewriter, not a word processor. I felt as if I’d opened one of those metal boxes that are sometimes placed in the cornerstones of buildings so that historians from a later age can open them and study the once-contemporary objects sealed within them. I can’t emphasize sufficiently how much I’d repressed my memory of the first version of The Totem. It’s no exaggeration to say that I truly couldn’t remember having written it. As I said, a found book. A time capsule from and about the sixties and the seventies. And having found it, I couldn’t help smiling. There were the scenes that I’d subconsciously been missing. There were the length and scope and texture that I’d wanted. An expansive alternate style. A new beginning. A quite different ending. And as for the middle … well, let’s put it this way: the story is twice as long and two-thirds dissimilar. There isn’t just more plot-the extra material gives the plot a different twist. So what you’re about to read is the intended version of this novel. If you’re familiar with The Totem in its previously published form, you’re about to enter its alternate universe. I think you’ll find some pleasantly scary surprises.

David Morrell Santa Fe, 1994



The power of the moon on animals and people is well known. Passing over the parallel between a woman’s monthly cycle and the phases of the moon, we note the predominance of industrial accidents when the moon is at its fullest, the tendency of dogs and other canine animals to bay at it, of lunatics to do the same. Perpetuating ancient myth, we link the moon with love and with fertility. We speak of harvest moon. We speak of someone’s being moonstruck. The very motion of the earth, its tides and shifting subzones, are related to the moon. We even set aside one day in worship of it, Monday, what in ancient times was Moon day.

Jacob Steiger.




Chapter One.

Potter’s Field

A solitary rider on a ridge. that was the beginning. he’d been out for half a day now, checking the borders of his ranch, and coming from the high ground, he stopped to look down past the pine trees toward the sweeping grassland.

It was something that he never failed to marvel at. Sitting up here at the farthest reach of what he owned, staring down at all that rich wide ground, the abundant grass, the dots of sagebrush, he remembered how his father had used to take him here and point to it and tell him how his father’s father had to fight for it and how the land would one day soon be his. He hadn’t known that his father was then dying. He wasn’t sure that his father even knew. But six months later he had seen his father buried-death had been both quick and painful-and then all the land was his.

That had happened twenty years ago. Now at thirty-eight he still came out here on the anniversary of when his father had died, and looked down at the valley from where his father once had pointed to it, and was proud. Pride of ownership. And something else: of knowing who his father had been. No, not who but what. The kindest, gentlest, and yet strongest man he’d ever met. Still after all these years he loved the man. And loved the land because of him.

He sat there, his reins tight on his horse, and stared out at the pasture stretching off as far as he could see and rubbed his weathered face and shook his head. He knew that he should go. The sun was fierce upon his back, his head protected by his cowman’s hat. The horse would need some water soon; he still had lots of range to check. All the same, he didn’t want to leave. He waited, his boots pressed into the stirrups, leather creaking, admiring the land his father had shown to him, and then the moment passed. He loosened the reins, nudging with his heels, and he was leaving.

The ridge led to a gametrail that wound down through shade beneath the pine trees. There was water at the bottom, and he felt the horse increase its gait, the cool smell evidently reaching it. He held back on the reins, working past a sharp turn in the trail, then easing farther down, the angle so steep now that he was forced to lean back. In the shade, his sweat-soaked shirt was cool against his sticky back. He reached behind to tug at it. Then he was working past another sharp turn, angling farther down, and he could see the stream below him glinting in the sunlight. His horse’s hoofs plodded on the fallen pine needles.

He looked and saw another carcass, this one wedged between two trees. Another deer. Or possibly an antelope. From this far away, he couldn’t tell. He likely couldn’t tell regardless. The winter had been so severe, the snow so deep, the storms so frequent and intense, that many animals who normally survived up in the mountains had come down here for food. But the winter had been just as bad down here, so they had wandered, becoming thin and weak and cold until they dropped and maybe tried to stand up once or twice and dropped again and died. Sometimes scavengers would find them and, when finished, would leave only bits of bone and skin. Other times, like this, the carcass hadn’t been discovered; it had dried and shrunk till just the empty hulk remained. The positions they assumed were on occasion fascinating. Like this one that was wedged between the two trees. An outsider might think that it had tried to squeeze between the trees, had gotten stuck, and there had died. But then of course the ground had not been visible in the winter. The animal had walked upon a floor of ice-impacted snow. The snow had been quite deep, at least ten feet and likely more. The two trees veered apart at that height. The animal had lots of room. It walked between, and died, and with the thaw, it settled toward the ground and wedged.

He rode down near it, passing it, and he was right. Deer or antelope. He couldn’t tell. It was the fifth such carcass he had seen today, and he was sure that if he looked around more intently, he’d find several others. He couldn’t take the time. It didn’t matter anyhow. He wasn’t out here just to admire the land, to commemorate an anniversary; he was checking on his stock. He heard the low of cattle off to his right now, and he stopped beside the stream, sunlight angling through the trees and glinting off it, long enough to let the horse lean its head down and take a drink. Just enough to give it strength, but not enough to make it sick. Then he was pulling on the reins and angling off, emerging from the trees to the grassland, turning right.

The low of cattle was much louder now. He guessed that they were just below the coming rise. He reached the top and saw them spread out across from him, a gully between, and he was riding toward the gully, looking for an easy place to dip down, up, and then across to them. At first he thought the carcass in the gully was another deer. It had the same tawny color. But then he saw that it was one of his stock, and frowning, he was pulling up and getting off. He looked around to tie the horse but couldn’t find a place, holding tightly to its reins as he walked slowly down among the open earth and rocks. The steer was lying on an angle with the slope, its back to him, and he was thinking that it had fallen and snapped its neck. But coming toward it, he saw nothing strange about the neck, and none of the legs looked broken, and he was thinking, afraid now, of disease. He shifted toward its head, peering at its mouth, but there wasn’t any froth on its lips, and he was thinking of a dozen diseases that could kill a steer and leave no trace when suddenly he came around and saw its midriff and was nearly sick. He stumbled back and dropped the reins. The horse began to bolt.

Chapter Two.

The old man in the chair was tired. He’d been out and making rounds all day, from just after dawn till well past suppertime, checking on some newborn calves, giving shots, a dozen other things, once even coming on a case of founder. Odd how people who had worked with horses all their lives could still forget the basic rules and get their stock in trouble. He had needed just one look to know that the case was classic. Take a hot day and a tired, hungry, thirsty horse. Give it too much grain and water. Something happened to the horse’s blood. The veins within the hoofs swelled. The horse went lame. He’d helped to get the horse to stand in water. That would cool the veins and possibly reduce the swelling. But not much. The horse would never be the same. The swelling would leave scars and, more, would change the horse’s gait. He’d cut away part of the outside crusted nails, had given purgatives to get the horse’s stomach and its bloodstream back to normal. But he didn’t have much confidence. Most cases like this ended with the horse dead on its own or else destroyed. On rare occasions when the horse recovered, it almost never worked well after that and ended as a family pet. If the rancher had the tolerance. Livestock out here was a business after all, and anything that didn’t earn its way was hardly welcome.

The old man sat in the rocking chair and glanced out at the setting sun. Its stark, red, swollen disc was very close now to the mountains. Shortly it would touch and disappear behind them. From the kitchen he heard cupboards being opened, dishes rattled, knives and forks selected. Supper had been heated and reheated, he’d been told. His wife had been mad about it. Not because she’d had to do more work. God knows, she never let that bother her. But she’d been mad that he had let himself go on so long. A man his age should be retired. At the very least he ought to cut back on his hours. But at a time when he should take things easy, he was working more than ever, more than any other vet in town, and she was angry, claiming that his system couldn’t take it.

“I’m a doctor. I know what I’m doing.”

“Sure. Of animals. Not people.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Don’t be smart,” she said. “A doctor doesn’t treat himself.”

“You’ve got me there. I’d best sit down and take it easy.”

He’d smiled then as he left her in the kitchen, sitting, glancing out the window, hearing pot lids being lifted and replaced. No point in telling her that she had not slowed down much either, going out to see the sick, the orphaned, and the poor, cooking for them, mending clothes or making them. There was a phrase they used to have for that. What was it called? The corporal works of mercy. The truth was that he was more tired than she guessed, short of breath and feeling dizzy. There had been a time when he would come in after making rounds all day and smoke and make a drink and sip it, eat, and go out with her for a walk or maybe to a movie. Then he’d read till one or two o’clock. Now he couldn’t stay awake. The cigarettes and whisky were long gone. The walk was too much, the movie something on the TV while he slept. It was more than feeling tired. He was feeling sick. His appetite was less each day, his stomach faintly queasy. He told himself it was the heat, but he knew better. It was something with his heart. No pains yet in his chest or down his arm. Just a vague discomfort that would shortly be much worse.

BOOK: The Totem 1979
4.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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