The Cosmic Puppets by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Well, The Cosmic Puppets certainly isn’t Philip K Dick’s best work, but it’s among his earliest, so perhaps he was just getting his feet wet and hadn’t established the maturity he displays in later works. The book is a story about a 27 year old man named Ted Barton who takes off on a side trip (while on a vacation with his wife) to his hometown of Millgate, VA. He moved away from there at age nine and hasn’t been back since, living in New York. He seems strangely driven to get there, anxious to see his old haunts. His wife is none too pleased. However, when Ted arrives, the town has changed — radically. In fact, nothing is the same! Street names are different, stores are gone, others have appeared, the town park is now comprised of dilapidated buildings. It has a dingy feel to it and Ted is overwhelmed with curiosity. He asks people where Central Street is, only to find there is none. He’s advised to go to the newspaper’s office to research Millgate of years gone by. There he finds reference to his birth … and his death of scarlet fever at age nine, precisely at the same time he moved away. He sends his wife to a motel in a neighboring town and returns to find out what the heck happened. So far, so good. Typical PKD alternate reality. But it has a toned down feel to it. It’s not as fleshed out as some of his later works.
We’re introduced to Mary and Peter, two children who mold clay figures and have strange powers (and habits). Ted takes a room in Peter’s mother’s boarding house and Peter tells him he knows who Ted really is before running off. We then see him with his collection of spiders, rats, and snakes in his barn, as well as “golems,” clay figures who are miniature people. He uses this collection to spy on people, particularly Mary, who uses bees. While Ted is sitting at the boarding house, he spots two ethereal beings come up and walk through the walls of the house. He asks if others saw that, and to his surprise, everyone had seen it. It’s common. They’re called Wanderers and they’re taken for granted in town.
Out drinking the next day, Ted meets the town drunk, Christopher, who confides in Ted that he, too, remembers the town of 18 years ago before “the Change” took place. That he had a business. He remembered many of the same things that Ted did. Together, they somehow magically start recreating parts of town out of thin air, starting with the park, just by sheer concentration. Apparently, everything in the town, including the people, are artificial. The town was buried by this fake Millgate 18 years ago and the Wanderers are some of the original inhabitants.
Things start to get crazier here as we discover there is a battle between good and evil taking place on a universal level, starring Millgate. The rats, spiders, and snakes come for Ted, Christopher, and the Wanderers, while Mary is killed. However, she had created a golem of herself, so she essentially survives.
I’m not going to give away the end of the story, but I guess it was okay. I’ve seen better PKD endings. I guess he was doing the best he could with what he had written himself into. This book really predates his quality work of later, in my opinion, but it’s a short read — I read it in easily less than a day — and if you like Dick, you might want to try this book out. However, I’ve got to say that I can’t recommend it for the average reader. Oh, by the way, this isn’t sci fi. It’s fantasy/horror. Just in case you were wondering….