Hellboy: The Lost Army, by Christopher Golden

Hellboy The Lost Army, by Christopher Golden book coverGenre: Dark Fantasy
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Published: 2004
Reviewer Rating: two and a half stars
Book Review by James Michael White

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Hellboy, the big rough-and-tumble, red-skinned devilish dude whose comic-book history tells us was accidentally brought into this world by evil Nazis at the end of WWII, and who was raised to be a nice guy and to fight otherworldly nasties with the Bureau of Paranormal Research, made his stone-fist-swinging novel debut in 1997 at the pen of horror writer Christopher Golden.

In Hellboy: The Lost Army, his assignment is to find out what happened to an archaeological team lost in the Libyan desert at a site where, way back in 525 B.C., a fifty-thousand-man Persian army also vanished.

With the help of former lover, Dr. Anastasia Bransfield, an MI5 team, and historian Arun Lahiri, he does just that, discovering a secret oasis covering still deeper secrets that threaten to bring forth not only the lost Persian army in all its desiccated glory, but an ancient Sumerian doom as well.

Like a good Saturday matinee movie serial existing to entertain and not enlighten, The Lost Army moves mostly apace with its full-steam-ahead plot, jumping from one event to the next with obligatory cliffhangers, intrigue, action and suspense, including a sandstorm, flesh-eating beetles, and sword-swinging skeletons, wasting nary a moment developing characters or interesting psychological portraits.

What we get for the latter, instead, are broad-stroke stereotypes among secondary characters who exist to make the main ones look all the more interesting by comparison, those main characters just as delineated in primary personality colors — albeit a few more hues thereof — than the secondaries. For instance Arun Lahiri is the introverted academic. Creaghan, the MI5 captain, is a typical military jerk. Bransfield is the strong/smart/tough/beautiful girl who, despite being strong/smart/tough/beautiful, doesn’t manage to save herself very often, having to rely on Hellboy when the chips are really down.

Subtlety and nuance don’t exist here, just as they don’t exist for the workman-type Hellboy who approaches his job like one might while repairing the kitchen sink.

His relationship with Dr. Bransfield is behind them both, but each still cares enough for the other that they remain fast friends. If you think this means the good doctor will become “the woman in jeopardy,” you’re right, but the twist in the plot is that Dr. Bransfield is not so much in jeopardy as Hellboy himself. Turns out he’s the key to resurrecting that ancient Sumerian doom that only needs a suitably strong body to inhabit whence it returns.

That Hellboy and Dr. Bransfield still have such a good relationship causes historian Lahiri to have jealous fits in what proves to be the biggest ricochet in what’s otherwise a pretty straight-shooting plot. Sure, we’re told the guy has feelings for Bransfield he’s never spoken of, but while searching for clues concerning the lost archaeological party, he happens upon an amulet that captivates and alters his will, rather like Sauron’s ring did to Smeagol, aka Gollum, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s quaint little fantasy.

Nothing much really comes of the transformation of Lahiri’s personality, and the subplot comes off rather like the start of a good idea that fizzles before becoming interesting. By such means is Lahiri wasted, apparently existing mainly to introduce an element of drooling sexuality that the otherwise chaste references to the Hellboy and Bransfield romance don’t provide. Sure, this’ll keep the 14-year-old male audience happy, but even they will probably see how manipulative and pointless, yes, pointless, a device the Lahiri subplot is.

All in all, The Lost Army is pretty average fare for dark fantasy in the desert. Not outstanding. Not bad. Just typical, which means if you want your stories fast and quick and superficial, you’ll probably dig this, and if you want more than that, a novel based upon a comic book probably isn’t your best bet.

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