Sunday, October 01, 2006


I don’t know how much time David Morrell has actually spent sneaking around in abandoned luxury hotels in Asbury Park, New Jersey, but when he describes a floor collapsing under a young teacher named Vinnie (“The sound was like wet cardboard being torn. As Vinnie fell, his arms shot up, his flashlight flipping away. He screamed. Something crashed below him”) he certainly made a believer out of me.

Morrell is the author of dozens of thrillers, including the one which is probably Sylvester Stallone’s favorite – First Blood, wherein he introduced a rogue soldier called John Rambo. He has written expertly about war, organized crime and other staples of the genre. But Creepers is something unusual: a serious, even literary urban nightmare about a decaying civilization and some adventurers who deliberately make it a part of their lives.

Creepers – some of the more socially conscious prefer to call themselves “urban explorers” – are people who pay tribute to the architectural artifacts of the recent past by taking extreme risks to search through buildings and other structures which have been closed off and abandoned. Walt Whitman was one of them: he slogged through an ancient New York subway tunnel when he was a newspaper reporter. As he says in an author’s note, Morrell began his own creeping career as an unhappy boy in Kitchener, Ontario, going through apartment buildings abandoned but not worth being leveled by builders.

The five people who start their exploration of the Paragon Hotel in Asbury Park – a popular resort city in the early 1900s which turned into a documentary for social, racial and economic upheaval in the 1960s – include a 60-year-old college professor risking tenure and his fragile health; a married couple who are his students; the floor-crashing Vinnie; and Frank Balenger, supposedly a magazine writer doing a story but really (as it soon becomes obvious) a troubled ex-soldier carrying a lot of emotional baggage and a loaded pistol.

The Paragon itself is a major character, built in 1901 by a hemophiliac millionaire with a twisted psyche who included secret passages, hidden vaults and exotic touches like gold-plated eating utensils. Several violent deaths and mysterious disappearances have taken place within its walls, and now that it’s finally about to be torn down the urban explorers want to spend a night digging through its darkest secrets.

Morrell knows how to build suspense to an almost unbearable level without slipping over the edge into foolishness. Pursued by mutant wildlife, plants gone mad and some other very real super-creepers with night vision goggles and a thirst for blood and gold, his crew convinces us early on of their high intentions – to show their respect for an increasingly disposable culture.