There is something about the printed word that appeals to my personality. The feel and smell of paper and ink add a sense of importance to almost any writing. Truth be told, I’m a bit of a Luddite, and have had a hard time adapting to the “new media” practice of reading book-length text on a digital screen, so it speaks to the compelling nature of Mike Baron’s “Skorpio” that I blazed through it over a weekend in October of 2013, reading from the screen of my work-issued Galaxy Note 2.
It is fitting, actually, that I’d prefer to read from a codex, as it helped ingratiate to me the primary protagonist of “Skorpio”; Vaughan Beadles is an anthropology professor of ancient Native-American cultures, a man’s man blessed with good looks, a good reputation, a beautiful wife, and the envy and admiration of his students. He seems, at first blush, to have it all, and exudes the kind of self-deprecating humility that is easy to maintain when one is privileged and looking down from the top. However, when things go south, as they invariably do when dealing with cursed artifacts of questionable origin, Beadles character is revealed to be less than pure. His selflessness turns to selfishness, as he seeks to justify and magnify his standing, and regain the reputation he’s fought hard to maintain, even as we learn part of it was based on a lie.
In fact, all of the characters in “Skorpio” are like broken decorative pots, at once beautiful and flawed, but clearly capable of good if just subjected to a little repair. There is Summer; the stripper with the heart of gold, whose poor choices are quickly catching up to her in the form of Vince; her former boyfriend/pimp whose life is a mess of thuggery and drugs. But still, if only he had been able to break into MMA… Then there is Ninja, the tweaked out hacker whose exterior belies a hidden genius. At various times, I found my sentimentalities both drawn and repulsed by each of these figures, and I appreciated that these juxtapositions kept me questioning each character’s fate, even to the last page. Mike Baron’s strength is certainly in character construction and dialogue, as it is in his comic-book work, and “Skorpio” flows because of it. Even where events seem unbelievable, the characters react believably, which kept me connected to the story as a whole. There are few horror cliché “dumb-ass” moves, and those that exist are punished appropriately.
Make no mistake, this is a ghost story, and terror lurks throughout, though it often bares its claws, or rather stingers, in unusual ways. The title character, and star of the cover art, is exactly what the jacket details – A ghost who only comes out in the sun. The mystery and fear comes from trying to understand the motivations of this ghost, and the source of its power. After an introductory chapter that serves as a demonstration of Skorpio’s methods, the reader is subjected to a kind of slow burn, as we learn the lore of the missing “Anasazi” tribe Professor Beadles is seeking to discover, as well as the circumstances that lead Beadles, Summer, Vince and Ninja into Skorpio’s realm and influence. The payoff is well executed, though with any knowledge comes understanding and even a bit of sympathy. By the time the final confrontation had reached its apex, I wasn’t really sure who I was rooting for. However, I was still satisfied by the denouement, though there is a tonal change presented in the last paragraph which was at once exciting, but also a bit jarring, turning “Skorpio” from a ghost story to a cliffhanger adventure story, with unresolved futures waiting to be explored.
I’ve tried to remain vague on plot points, as the fun of “Skorpio” comes with the shifting changes, like a desert in a windstorm. I do recommend digging in, and not just for the plot twists and surprises. Despite the slow-burn I mentioned, “Skorpio” is gripping and dripping with character. It’s a great choice for a hot day stuck in air-conditioning, or a cold night wishing for a blazing sun – sans ghosts, of course.