By: David Morrell
Published by: CDS Books, 2005

Vadding, roof and tunnel hacking, urban exploration, shafting. My kids and I used to call it "adventures," though we confined our explorations mainly to abandoned properties in the country. It's also known, unfortunately, as "breaking and entering," and aside from the physical dangers (collapsing floors, rats, sharp, rusty objects, and the possibility of un-desirables having taken up residence), the police won't be any too happy to find you inside an abandoned house, factory, hospital or school, poking around and commemorating the experience with photos.

David Morrell calls it "creeping," though that is a term I hadn't heard before. But with a premise like this, and my own proclivity (however relatively tame) to like to explore abandoned buildings, I was primed for a good read with this book.

David Morrell, it turns out, is the guy who created Rambo. He wrote First Blood in 1972, and though a mild-mannered university professor, he "is a graduate of the National Outdoor Leadership School for wilderness survival as well as the G. Gordon Liddy Academy of Corporate Security. He is also an honorary lifetime member of the Special Operations Association and the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. He has been trained in firearms, hostage negotiation, assuming identities, executive protection, and anti-terrorist driving, among numerous other action skills that he describes in his novels. With eighteen million copies in print, his work has been translated into twenty-six languages."


The Rambo connection should have tipped me off that while I love the premise of the book, I might be disappointed in the execution.

The premise: The book is a chronicle of "eight hours in the lives of five "creepers", urban explorers who break into abandoned or condemned buildings to experience their historical and architectural delights first hand. This particular group, comprised of Professor Robert Conklin, high school teacher Vincent Vanelli, graduate students Rick and Cora Magill, and reporter Frank Balenger, has chosen the Paragon Hotel in Asbury Park as a target, accessing it via a series of underground tunnels. Once inside, the situation deteriorates rapidly as the group discovers the Paragon is not the abandoned building they thought it was. The perils presented by others in the building, and by the decayed hotel itself, place them all in mortal danger."

The writer tosses in a couple of promising hinting-at-paranormal red herrings in the form of mutant rats and a huge albino cat. These intriguing bits go nowhere. Then he ups the ante with sly indications that the adventurers are not alone in the hotel. And while this turns out to the be true, the menace - which might have been genuinely creepy - turns out to be more special ops than supernatural.

Frank isn't who he says he is (he never comes across as a reporter type, so nobody is fooled but the gullible team); the Professor has ulterior motives; and surprise, surprise, the little group isn't alone in the hotel.

The hotel is a fun-house of secret staircases, peepholes, and museum-like rooms, maintained as they existed at a particular point in the history of the hotel. Again, this is a fascinating idea - full of aura, intrigue, and possibility.

All this keeps you turning pages for the first half of the book. Then the bad guys (or, the first set of bad guys) arrive. I've used the term "Pease, Punch and Mr. Bouncely" before to describe comical, inept, and extremely stupid bad guys. That goes double here, except that these lack the charm and humor of the former. The baddies are smart enough, and well-prepared enough to come equipped with night-vision goggles. Other than that, a paper bag would prove challenging to escape for this gang of fools.

There is a passable real bad guy, though his garden-variety psychological problems are uninteresting and unoriginal.

I'd love to have Morrell start the book again from about hour 5, and give us a bit more to chew on.


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