The Monster of Minnesota

Book review by Thomas M. Sipos




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The Monster of Minnesota by Mark Sumner (Ace Books, 1997, 208 pp.)






The Monster of Minnesota is the first of Mark Sumner's "News from the Edge" series, the other two being Insanity, Illinois and Vampires of Vermont.

The Chronicle (the 2001 Sci-Fi Channel series) credits "News ¨from the Edge" as its basis, yet the TV show so little resembles Sumner's books, I doubt anyone would make the connection without the onscreen credit.

(Richard Matheson reportedly expressed surprise when he received a remake royalty check for The Omega Man, as he would not have guessed it was based on his novel, I Am Legend.)

Perhaps The Chronicle's onscreen credit for "News from the Edge" is some contractual residue of the books' passage through Hollywood's infamous "development hell." Sumner's books' covers make no mention of the Sci-Fi Channel's "original series," but instead proclaim: Now an NBC TV Series!

The Chronicle changed everything about "News from the Edge" apart from its premise. It's not an original premise: Reporter tracks monster. That was the premise of Jeff Rice's 1971 novel, The Night Stalker, the basis for TV's Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Which was an inspiration for The X-Files.

Both The Chronicle and "News from the Edge" are set at tabloids. Not like The National Enquirer or Globe (which concentrate on celebrities), but more like their poorer relations that still cover Bigfoot and UFOs (e.g, The Weekly World News or Sun). But though they cover similar terrain, the tabloid in TV's The Chronicle (called The World Chronicle) and that in Sumner's "News from the Edge" (the Global Query) differ in tone, resources, and attitude.

The World Chronicle has integrity to shame most major media. ¨Everything it publishes is true. Based in New York City (but obviously filmed in Canada), The World Chronicle boasts an underground complex of space-age investigative hardware that rivals that of the CIA, NSA, NASA, the Illuminati, and most James Bond villains. Its high-tech paranormal lab resembles (but surpasses) that of The Legacy group in Poltergeist: The Legacy.

However, The Chronicle's whimsical humor evokes She Wolf of London, rather than the darker Poltergeist: The Legacy). Its reporters are proud of their paper, work as a team, and even like each other.

This is the TV series's claim to distinction: It violates tabloid stereotypes. A high-tech tabloid, with proud reporters who tell the truth about real-life Bigfoots and UFOs.



The Global Query in "News from the Edge" is a more stereo typical tabloid. A cheap, sleazy ragsheet, based in St. Louis, its contents are 99% fake. Sumner's heroine, reporter Savannah "Savvy" McKinnon, lies to her editor, contemns her paper, and dislikes her co-workers. This is in stark contrast to the closely bonded team at The World Chronicle (as with so many TV shows, a recent episode emphasized the theme of "friendship").

Savvy wishes she worked for a "real" news publication. But though the Global Query is a ragsheet, on rare occasions, as in The Night Stalker, Savvy encounters actual monsters. But whereas Kolchak reported for a "real" news organization and only stumbled onto monsters by chance, Savvy's monsters (and monster witnesses) simply phone in to the Global Query.

Sumner's variation fixes Rice's implausibility problem. A tabloid is a natural magnet for monster-sightings, whereas it's unlikely that Kolchak would keep meeting monsters by chance. It is this variation on Rice's formula that The Chronicle takes from "News from the Edge," then adding The Legacy's high-tech gear, She Wolf of London's whimsy, new friendlier characters, and a further variation on the formula in that everything it publishes is true.

The Monster of Minnesota begins when a girl phones Savvy, claiming that a lake monster killed her brother. Three others were killed by this monster, making it an anomaly. Neither the Loch Ness Monster, nor its less famous brethren lake monsters, were ever alleged to kill anyone. Cynical in the Kolchak mold, Savvy suspects a shark. (They sometimes find their way into lakes.) Soon after arriving in Minnesota, she suspects murder.

The book is not really horror or sci-fi, but mystery. Its ¨spine says Science Fiction, its title implies horror, but the (pre-Chronicle) posts at Amazon indicate readers regard "News from the Edge" as a mystery series. They have good reason. Structure, tone, atmosphere, and characterization are that of a mystery, despite the sci-fi/horror icons.


The story is told by Savvy in the first person. Although only 25, her voice is that of a jaded sleuth. She is irreverent, cynical, a frustrated romantic, a disillusioned idealist, self-deprecating about her appearance, acknowledging her cowardice, yet capable of courage when the occasion requires it.

Savvy's voice is not only world weary, it is hyperstylized. She can't simply order some pie, but rather: "Besides, my nose was under unfair assault from a selection of pies revolving in a little glass case. Given an hour to set and sniff, I did in a slice of chocolate and then ordered a slab of cherry with a glass of milk to wash it down. At least it was skim milk." She can't simply watch TV, but instead: "Ten seconds after we came through the door, the phosphors were glowing and the laugh tracks were crowing. Let us all praise the sitcom."

Savvy's voice remains consistent and keeps the story flowing, but, while mystery buffs might like it, I found it irritating. Who in real life says "phosphors" when they mean TV? This standard issue, hard-boiled first person voice should be retired to satire. Not that the book is funny. Savvy's voice is not so heavy-handed as to inspire laughs, just odd enough to grate one's nerves.

Because her lean, jaded, hyperstylized voice is so common to mysteries, Savvy becomes less distinct. We've heard her voice before. She could be anyone. Yes, she has traits that are distinct, if not unique. Her hair is a tangled mess. (She is often unkempt, in tabloid stereotype style). She laments that she's too short (forever reminding us that everyone towers over her) and too fat. In deference to Nineties' sensibilities, her vices are fat and cholesterol, rather than nicotine and booze.¨



In further deference to PC concerns, she packs Mace rather than a Magnum. She self-righteously gets into people's faces, then self-deprecatingly quips about how scared she was. I suppose some readers will regard her as "plucky." I found her something of a bully.

In the end, Savvy solves the mystery of the lake monster and ¨gets her byline. To Sumner's credit, the monster is original and unexpected, his clues well-laid. But the villain responsible for the lake monster was never a mystery. Savvy had three suspects: a man whose family includes Native Americans, a man dating an environmental activist, and a man working for a pesticide corporation. Think along PC lines, and you'll have little trouble spotting the villain.

It's ironic that "News from the Edge" bears so little resemblance to TV's The Chronicle, because The Monster of Minnesota is as insubstantial as a TV novelization. A slight, thin book (198 pages) that flows well but is forgettable. Reasonably enjoyable, but hardly compelling. Readers often complain that "the book was better" but that's not true here. If you enjoy The Chronicle, don't assume you'll like "News from the Edge."


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