Shambling Towards Hiroshima is a brisk and inventive novel that incorporates elements of science fiction, humor, historical fiction, and moody introspection. James Morrow utilizes these disparate narrative modes in order to portray the life story of a B-movie actor named Syms Thorley. Thorley has spent most of his screen time bringing monsters to life. His devoted fans fondly remember him as “Kha-Ton-Ra the living mummy, Corpuscula the alchemical creature, and Gorgantis, King of the Lizards.” However, no one suspects that Gorgantis, a grotesque fire- breathing lizard, originated as a top secret military project designed to swiftly end World War II.
During the summer of 1945, while on the set of Revenge of Corpuscula, the U.S. Navy informed Thorley that he had been selected for another role, one associated with the Knickerbocker Project. In order to convince the Japanese to surrender, the common iguana was transmogrified into a hulking, destructive behemoth. Fearing the behemoth’s unpredictability, U.S. scientists then developed miniature versions whose tragic flaw was their innate docility. The mini-behemoths would not intimidate a butterfly, so the government decided to recruit Thorley to impersonate one in front of a group of Japanese dignitaries. Thorley’s dramatic contribution to the war effort consisted of inhabiting a meticulously detailed behemoth suit and destroying a replica of a Japanese city.
Thorley’s demonstration of fire-breathing fury was meant to give the Japanese an opportunity to surrender before the U.S. unleashed full-sized behemoths on Japan. Unfortunately, the Knickerbocker Project did not have the intended effect, and the U.S. eventually unleashed something far worse than weaponized lizards. Despite Thorley’s spellbinding performance as Gorgantis, the Japanese felt they could combat this new form of biological warfare. Consequently, the U.S. government abandoned the monster lizards and concentrated on developing monster bombs.
Decades after the war’s eventual conclusion, Thorley finds his career in a wasteland. However, footage of Knickerbocker’s key demonstration was rediscovered in Japan, where Gorgantis represents the horrific consequences of nuclear warfare. When a Japanese film studio recruits him to once again play Gorgantis, Thorley acquires fame and notoriety, but his conscience is still plagued by shame, regret, and sorrow.
In Shambling Towards Hiroshima, Thorley’s reveries reveal his enduring sense of guilt. If only he would have made Gorgantis more threatening, the war would have ended without so much destruction. He is haunted by the overwhelming atrocities initiated by nuclear warfare, and feels personally responsible for the suffering of hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Thorley’s story is not merely a bleak lamentation, however. There are moments of brilliant humor, and the historical revisionism is very engaging. While Syms Thorley and Kickerbocker are fictional, many of the other characters are actual cinema icons. Willis O’Brien, best known for his work on King Kong, constructs the model version of Japan for Gorgantis to pulverize. James Whale also makes a memorable appearance, directing Thorley’s original performance as Gorgantis. In addition to the historical figures that pop up in Shambling, Thorley’s narration is peppered with references to the halcyon days of monster movies. B-movie fans are sure to find engaging allusions embedded throughout Shambling Towards Hiroshima.
In James Morrow’s off-beat novel, politics and monsters intermingle, creating a narrative that is both intricately layered and incredibly entertaining.