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Paperback Head, Issue #3: Carnosaur

Try to imagine yourself as a kid in the mid-nineties. You get your first look at this "dinosaur movie" as you enter the horror aisle at Blockbuster. The cover looks like a T-Rex, mighty, roaring in defiance. And you pick it up because you think that maybe this movie will be something like an R-rated Jurassic Park, and you’ll just love it if your parents will rent it for you. But no, not Carnosaur. And that's when the attack comes-- not from the front, but from the side, from the other two Carnosaurs you didn't even know were there. The point is, you are alive, when it starts to crush your soul.

Yes, if you were another dino-obsessed kid in the wake of Jurassic Park, you probably (unfortunately) stumbled across the Carnosaur series-- launched by Roger Corman in order to reap the residual benefits of Spielberg’s box office behemoth, these movies were complete with outstanding cinematic feats, such as hand puppets biting off limbs and the pure, traumatic nightmare fuel that is Diane Ladd giving birth to a dinosaur. But did you know there was a book?!

Yes, Carnosaur is actually a novel that precedes Michael Crichton’s cultural touchstone by six years, and wouldn’t you know it, bears almost no similarities with the film series which it serves as the basis for. Written by Harry Adam Knight (pseudonym for John Brosnan) and released in 1984, The premise of Carnosaur centers around a wealthy exotica enthusiast named Sir Darren Penward, who through studying dinosaur DNA alongside that of a chicken, has somehow begun reverse engineering the animals back into existence on his vast England estate. And to give credit where credit is due, this is not as ridiculous as it may have seemed in the eighties. Good call, Harry/John!

But of course, like most eighties pulp novels, Carnosaur is light on the unpacking of ideas and moral quandaries, and instead focuses on getting the reader into the thick of the violence (and sex) as quickly as possible. We follow ex-lovers and small town reporters Pascal and Jenny, as they uncover a string of grisly animal attacks tie directly back to Penward’s estate-- just in time for Penward’s nymphomaniac wife (sure!) to release the dinosaurs on an unwitting England in an act of jealous rage (why not!).

What ensues is a series of dinosaur attacks on English citizens, which are entertaining and creative enough, and come from a wide variety of extinct animals. The highlights of which are the relentless pursuit of our protagonists by a Tarbosaurus (Tyrannosaurus Rex -lite), or a plesiosaur attacking a boat party and snatching up a teenager. Brosnan really makes no attempt to portray these creatures as animals, which Jurassic Park did so successfully-- instead, we’re given mindless killing machines, and while it is thrilling to imagine a Dilophosaurus confronting a man in his home, these scenarios run their course rather fast.

And of course, Brosnan doesn’t do much to ward off the tired tropes of the genre. “The dinosaurs are coming!” warnings falling on deaf ears is as excruciating for the characters as it is for us to read, and while it’s almost guaranteed in a story like this, it doesn’t really serve any higher purpose. We simply read along as these cutout characters go through the motions of the invasion plot, with nothing new or interesting to offer. There is an inherent, visceral excitement in the idea of dinosaurs rampaging through civilized society, and it is clear Brosnan devoted all of his energy to meeting that idea.

If you’re looking for breezy, mindless dinosaur violence while you’re locked in your house (Corona reference, check), this should satisfy your needs. Though the novel doesn’t have anything as scarring as Ellie Sattler’s mom giving birth to a dinosaur, there’s plenty here to enjoy and laugh at for fans of paperback trash (meant in the most complimentary way possible).

And I almost made it the whole review without mentioning the cover, but, let’s be real-- could be a lot more evocative. The movie tie-in version is at least ridiculously goofy, and therefore about a million times better. When you tell all your friends you read Carnosaur, show them that cover instead.

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