Skorpio by Mike Baron: A Sunstroke of Brilliance

Vaughan Beadles is not the nicest guy in the world. He has a sleazy side to him, he rationalizes things, he’s a bit too comfortable and a bit too sure of his own worth in the scheme of things. Like Indiana Jones, he’s a professor of archaeology. Unlike Jones, he’s likely to put things in his pocket that he isn’t supposed to and he’s certainly a few miles south of being a hero. When we meet him, we aren’t a hundred percent sure whether or not we like him. When the troubles that drive the plot of this action/thriller come crashing down on top of him, they are as much of his own creation as they are the result of supernatural curses and the machinations of his enemies in academia.

To put it another way, he’s interesting. Skorpio is at its heart a hero’s journey tale, taking our man from a corrupted state of too much comfort and security to a place where he is forced to confront both the consequences of his own greed and apathy and a terrifying supernatural being. And about that being…Skorpio is a ghost that only exists in the noonday sun. With Midsommar gathering raves, it is worth noting that Baron brought horror into the daylight with this novel in 2013. The inversion of the “thing-that-goes-bump-in-the-night” is interesting, and pays off well when we hit the climax and the fearsome revenant is at last fully revealed.

But this story isn’t focused on horror, it’s an action piece. Beadles winds up divorced, homeless, unemployed, and on the road. He’s clutching at a single straw, proving that a previously-undiscovered tribe of Indians exists. If he can find the proof behind the legends, he can redeem his career. If he can’t, he dies broke. He also winds up entwined with Summer, a stripper on the run from her abusive ex-boyfriend and pimp, Vince. Vince is a small time thug, former cage fighter, dope dealer, pimp, thief, and murderer. He’s right on the edge of his big-time break when Summer slips him some roofies and takes off with his car. And of course, the maguffin of the tale is in the trunk, the map that leads directly to the center of the Azuma civilization.

Beadles and Summer are running from the past, running from Vince, and running toward something even more horrific than either. Baron’s knack for punchy and economic storytelling serves to propel the book from beginning to end, and the heat of the desert becomes a character in the same way cold becomes one in London’s To Build A Fire.  Since our protagonists are so flawed, there is some real suspense at the end when they are finally driven into the corner and the worst of the worst is moving in. We all know that Indiana Jones isn’t going to die and rot in the middle of the desert for a hundred years and be forgotten. But this could happen to Vaughan and Summer.

The book does gets the job done. Skorpio grabs you up by the collar, sweeps you along, and takes you on a white-knuckle ride to a genuinely terrifying conclusion. The combination of desert heat, flawed heroes, greasy villains, and supernatural terror draws comparison to the kind of material Robert E. Howard used to write.

 

Worth your time.

 

Reviewed from the personal copy I purchased.

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