By now it's a given that the original GODZILLA (or GOJIRA in its native Japan) film is, besides a monster movie, a commentary on the dropping of the Atomic Bomb as well as a warning on the general danger of nuclear threats. Countless sequels, cartoons, and remakes have diluted that message so much it was going to take a string hand to lift it out again and return the story of the hulking lizard back to the land of allegory where it belongs.
James Morrow, celebrated author of the Godhead Trilogy (one of my personal favorite series in any genre) manages to do just that, in a short novella no less. Shambling Towards Hiroshima is a love-letter to the crazy Hollywood "monster" films of the 40s and 50s, an alternate history for the genesis of Gojira as a result of WWI military planning, and a search for some fundamental truths behind the destruction and fallout in Hiroshima. The story moves quickly in pacing and in styles, going from comical to seriousness, from Hollywood to Baltimore, and from farce to dangerously serious anti-war matter, never once feeling forced or contrived, a credit that applies to all of Morrow's works.
The basic plot revolves around Syms Thorley, an actor molded after Boris Karloff or Lon Chaney, best known for his monster work in such films as the Corpuscula series. He's contacted by the military to take part in a top-secret experiment nick-named the Knickerbocker project. The purpose of the project is to convince Japan to surrender the war. The deterrent? Genetically engineered, gigantic fire-breathing lizards that will be released along the Japanese coasts to wreak havoc. Due to the enormous collateral damage, the US wants to stage a demonstration for the Japanese emissaries, using a mock-up of Tokyo and, you guessed it: a man dressed up in a suit that replicates the hideous real-life monsters created by the government. Thorley's the perfect candidate: a lifetime of mummy and Frankenstein roles has perfect his "shambling" technique, and the money's too good to pass up.
Morrow weaves in a fantastic cast of real life film people to assist in the military project, including James Whale, director of FRANKENSTEIN and Willis O'Brien, who brought the original '33 KING KONG to life. But the real meat of the novella resides in the present life of Syms Thorley, locked in his Baltimore hotel and contemplating suicide for reasons that the novel makes clear.
Shambling Towards Hiroshima is fast, fun, but ultimately more serious than you would first think. If you want to hear more about it straight from the horse's mouth, Morrow was recently featured on John Scalzi's ongoing "The Big Idea" feature. You can check it out here.