The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston

TLDR: read this book with caution, as it’s a fascinating story and simultaneously rife with content later found to be in dispute.

The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston is an easy book to read and a hard book to resolve.

If what you’re looking for is a book that gives you a history of smallpox, how we eradicated it, and what’s happened since, this is a great primer of the science that can’t be taken at face value for the historical accuracy.

Preston takes us through two stories: the “Amerithrax” anthrax attacks against the United States in 2001, and the ongoing story of the eradication and probable weaponization of smallpox beginning in the 1960s. There are many obvious challenges to telling these two stories: first, that when the book was written in 2002, the Amerithrax case was still open, second, that much of the information involved in the stories is classified, and third, that writing about science such the the layman can understand viruses is a hell of a challenge.

The third, Preston nails. The book has view diagrams, but the ones provided are profoundly effective. His use of language to paint setting and explore human characters is equally effective discussing the shape and behavior of anthrax and smallpox.

The first, Preston couldn’t have ended effectively. The book was published in 2002, but the case was not closed until 2009 (according to Wikipedia’s article on the subject and even then, Wikipedia notes, some folks question whether the true perpetrator was found. Some of the content of the book itself has been refuted or discovered to be wrong since its publication, which is also one of the risks of writing about current history. Preston states, what was believed to be known at the time, that the anthrax in the attacks had been weaponized. Since then, that believe has been overturned, and the anthrax is now believed to be “just” a mix of anthrax purified to different extents. Stephen Hatfill, who at the time of the writing was a person of interest in the case, has been fully exonerated. Obviously, it’s extremely difficult to resolve an open investigation in such a way that the book is satisfying.

Finally, there’s the question of whether Preston himself was able to get the full story, for which the obvious answer is “of course not”. Multiple American and world government agencies, scientists, and organizations were all involved not only in the anthrax case but also in the handling of smallpox — the actual story that the book puts forward.

Preston interviews and quotes many people from around the world in his storytelling, which results in a rich and fascinating look at killer poxviruses, how they work, and how grateful we should be that they are contained. He goes into stark but not sensationalist detail about what smallpox does to the human body, its various forms, how the virus looks and behaves, and how the Eradication Team defeated it. He outlines challenges in “bringing it back to life” so that an antiviral could be created. (Wikipedia’s smallpox articlereports that in 2018 an antiviral treatment was approved by the FDA, indicating that the US Government’s goals may have been at least partially reached.)

Preston also covered much of the history of the virus in detail, including its use as biological warfare during the French and Indian War. He described extensive evidence of Russian biological weaponry as well as interviews with Russian defectors who produced weaponized smallpox during the late 20th century. He speculates and infers heavily that the Russian supplies of smallpox could easily be in the hands of American enemies such as Iraq and Iran, as well as any of a number of other “bad actors”. He also goes into details of a research project in Australia that turned mousepox into a “superbug” and how a similar genetic experiment on smallpox could make it even more deadly than it already is. In some cases, the people involved in biological warfare are painted in a negative light (as well they should be) accused of prevarication and avoidance of WHO inspectors.

However, Americans throughout the book are never cast in this same light. The book states that all biological warfare research in the US was ended prior to the eradication of smallpox in the late 1970s and that while Preston makes it clear he believes the Russians did engineer smallpox as a weapon, he never even suggests that US has considered it.

As a close friend said to me, “If the Russians were doing it, you can bet we were doing it, and we probably both still are.”

I don’t expect an author working closely with US government sources to produce such a book would write anything that would jeopardize his sources without good reason, and in the early 2000s doing so in the US (in the height of significant nationalism resulting from the 9/11 attacks) would have gone over like a lead balloon anyway. “Know your audience” is a key point in publication. But I caution other readers to remember these motives in the writing. The Amerithrax attack was eventually (at least in the FBI’s view) traced back to an American scientist who had access to anthrax and lab equipment and knowledge. There is no reason to believe that American scientists have never created smallpox bioweapons, nor a reason to believe that they could not still, outside of the CDC’s official position that smallpox is only available in a firmly secured freezer in an undisclosed location.

It’s 2019, and smallpox remains eradicated from nature. Measles is on the rise thanks to a different kind of bioterrorism — deliberate misinformation about vaccines. White nationalism is on the rise and the vast majority of terror attacks on US soil since 2001 have been by radical white extremists. ICE and the DHS are imprisoning minority immigrants and asylum seekers in near-concentration-camp conditions. It seems objectively likely based on the contents of Preston’s book that the right American scientists with the right twisted motives in the right place and the right time could find himself in possession of some smallpox — domestic or purchased internationally — and free the demon from the freezer. It could, I dare to say, even be our own government experimenting on the asylum seekers we have always welcomed.

One hopes that when the next pandemic occurs, whether it’s in the US or somewhere else, we are able to use the knowledge from scientists such as D. A. Henderson and Peter Jahrling, to rapidly contain and re-eradicate the threat.

Catfish Lullaby by AC Wise

Caleb is a young black boy without a mother who lives on the edge of the swamp in the town of Lewis, down by the Bayou. When he is a boy, he discovers his neighbor’s house on fire and helps to save the girl who set the fire.

It turns out that all is not well in the town of Lewis.

Cere was born to destroy the world. Her father, a sorcerer and erstwhile preacher, was bound and determine to murder a man/spirit/creature/monster named Catfish John. The best way to destroy something bigger than the world was to destroy the world, Archie Royce figured, so according to his daughter he shaped her to do the job.

She was not as keen on it as Archie may have hoped.

In the beginning of the book, Caleb was a boy, trying to piece together truth and fiction, and the definition a monster.

By the end of the book, he has taken his father’s place as Sheriff of Lewis, just in time for the horrors of his childhood, and Cere, to return.

At 110 pages, Catfish Lullaby is a terrorized run through the swamps and out the other side of humanity, where we can see who the monsters are and what they leave behind when their good intentions get twisted by their mission. The world building is strong enough to smell the swamp water without getting bogged down (sorry) in environment. The story is satisfying and solid, and leaves me wanting to hear more about Caleb’s co-worker Rose’s war stories in a future publication.

Catfish Lullaby is available now on the publisher’s site or you can preorder it on Amazon for a September release.

Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse

I have been in an absolute funk today. Sometimes the brain weasels come and they don’t stop chewing, you know?

Rebecca Roanhorse’s latest book, Storm of Locusts, has been helping me out of the funk. The protagonist is Maggie Hoskins, a monsterslayer with Clan powers who lives in a post-apocalyptic United States in Dinétah, the Navajo nation that survived the Big Water. Having recently “killed” two gods, she has enough trouble to deal with in her life… but then she ends up unwitting caretaker of a teenager with Clan powers, half-friends half-enemies with a once ally, and crossing the Wall into the remains of Arizona to find the man she fell in love with in Trail of Lightning.

No matter how much I hate doing laundry and no matter how stressed I am about my job, nobody’s asking me to figure out how a lightning god’s sword works, or attacking me with locusts.

Oh, yeah, by the way? Total fuckton of locusts in this book. Me? I have no problem with creepy crawlies in books because my brain just kind of slides over them like “oh yeah horrible thing happens here, we’re not going to dwell on that…” but if(when) they make this series into a movie this is going to be nightmare city for some people.

Including me. Because my brain can’t slide past creepy crawlies in movies.

Anyway, just like in the first book of the series, this one is chock full of Navajo gods, Navajo culture, kick-ass women kicking ass with swords, guns, knives, etc., one seriously fucking creepy bad guy, and magic.

Plus bugs. We are not screwing around about the bugs here, people.

Definite must read, looking forward to the next one, hoping it’s slightly more bug-free.

Twain’s Treasure (Phantom File’s #1) by William B. Wolfe

Alex, the protagonist of Twain’s Treasure, is a liar. And if I could see ghosts and they constantly got me in trouble I would be a liar too. After all, who believes a kid who says he can see ghosts? We’ve got medication and counseling and all kinds of other ways to deal with supposed paranormal sightings.

The only problem is that Alex’s best and only friend in town, Bones, is crazy for paranormal activity stories, shows, books, even conventions. And Alex has been lying about his ability to see ghosts for a long long time, even to his best friend.

Alex might have gotten away with his lies if it weren’t for one Samuel Clemens, supreme haunt of the library in Hannibal MO.

This book was ten times more delightful than I expected, and was chock full of facts about Mark Twain and the town of Hannibal. It reminded me Richard Peck’s The Ghost Belonged to Me only updated and, honestly, a bit more interesting. Definitely one to recommend to middle grades (and old fogies like me still reading them in their 40s).

Drive, Act 2 by Dave Kellett

Welp, that didn’t take long.

Drive Act Two is (obviously) the continuation of Drive, Act One, which I reviewed earlier today… because I inhaled both books today.

The second act of this story is as intoxicating as the first, filled with aliens and worlds beyond ours, introducing new characters and new twists and turns to the plot line at every convenience. The pacing continues to be spot-on. The art continues to be polished and delightful. The situation for our cast of characters continues to worsen, which, I mean sure, act 2, that’s it’s job.

I’ve reached the point in the story where even if I tried to explain the plot to the reader, it would take longer than actually reading the book. Plus I’d mess it up. Suffice it to say that I look forward to Act 3 with great admiration for Dave Kellett’s writing and a sincere desire to see how this all wraps up.

Or whether it does wrap up. There’s no law against a five-act space opera.

This isn’t one you’re going to find on Amazon. Buy directly from the Drive store in hardback, paperback, or PDF.