Pocket Star Books (a division of Simon and Schuster) are the current source of Marvel tie-in novels. Their range includes four Spider-Man books so far, one every year from 2005 to 2008. This is the fourth in the Spider-Man run, published late in 2008. I believe that this is the last of that block of books.
All are in standard paper-back format (4.25" x 6.75") each around 300 pages. This one is by Jeff Mariotte, who like his predecessors in this series is a recognized writer in the popularist Fantasy/Sci-Fi domain. He has a track record in Buffy, CSI, Star Trek and other movie tie-ins, but unlike his predecessors, Jeff also has a very strong leaning towards the "horror" genre. That's an interest he attempts to bring into this Spider-Man novel, with results perhaps best described as "mixed".
The story starts with Spider-Man, in a chapter featuring Spider-Man taking care of some local thugs and receiving the back-handed gratitude of a typical New York deli owner. Why? Well, it's to set the scene. There's no reason that everything needs to be part of the plot, right? If the author wants to spend 8 of his 300 pages remind you who Spider-Man is and what he does, he's perfectly entitled to do so.
But we soon get into the story proper. Down in South America, a U.S. archeology team from Empire State University (ah, a Peter Parker tie-in) discovers a terrible book named "The Darkhold". This dark tome contains the dark secrets of the dark elder god Cthlon. It's all very dark. The team puts in a call to S.H.I.E.L.D. But naturally, they all die horrible deaths before the S.H.I.E.L.D. guys can get them out.
By the way, the E.S.U. connection is not relevant at all. I guess it's just the only important university on the East Coast of The U.S.
Now, S.H.I.E.L.D. puts the book deep in a highly-protected safe. The Scriers (yeah, the robes/mask guys from the clone/Osborn thing) learn about it and decide they want the book. So naturally they kill the current Carrion (William Allen), last seen if I recall correctly in Spider-Man: Dead Man's Hand. Why? So that they can use the Carrion Virus infect the long-dead corpse of Stan Carter with the Carrion Virus (there can be only one at any time).
But why resurrect Stan Carter, a.k.a. The Sin Eater, killed by police/suicide in Spectacular Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #136? Well, Stan used to work for S.H.I.E.L.D., and he was involved in setting up security in the facility now holding the Darkhold. And of course, once resurrected he will help the Scriers regain the book so they can summon Cthlon who will take over the world and give it to the Scriers.
Cthlon? Their plan for world domination involves enlisting on the benevolent support of a near-infinite powered ancient evil embodiment of human suffering? Clearly the Scriers are as thick as two short planks stuck together with stupid glue. Because that's the kind of plan that Pinky's Cerebral Pal would dismiss as too outlandish. In fact, it's somewhat poorer than my plan to acquire a Ferrari by cruising the highway until I spot one coming the other-way, cross the centerline and take it head-on, wait for the paramedics to arrive, then tow off the chassis with the ambulance.
But that's what they decide to do. And in a few short pages they manage to at least achieve part one of the plan by killing William Allen and turning Stan Carter into Carrion.
Naturally, Stan doesn't give a rat's arse about helping the Scriers. He immediately launches off to make Spider-Man's life miserable, and that's what the heart of the book is about. For most of the middle chapters, Carrion teleports in, fights Spidey, makes his life a bit awkward, the zaps out again. Rinse and repeat ad nauseum. Several innocent bystanders get brutally murdered in the process, just to make Peter more unhappy. Meh, whatever. What do you expect if you choose to live in New York.
Finally, Carrion decides to get some help (why?) and he enlists the Scriers. They fill some sort of Keystone Cops role - their contribution is far from impressive. Carrion is running around beating Spider-Man to a pulp and killing innocents. Meanwhile the Scriers sneak in to Peter's apartment and spill red wine on his new rug, and re-order his CD collection from alphabetical to genre/chronological. Of course, the Scriers have "no idea" why Carrion (who hates Spider-Man and knows his secret identity) also wants to make Peter Parker miserable as well. They never manage to put two and two together and figure Peter is Spidey. For a bunch of guys who can break into S.H.I.E.L.D. facilities at will (not to mention restoring the dead) they really are a bunch of dipsticks.
I hope I don't spoil the story for you when I say that Carrion eventually gives the Scriers the Darkhold, and they almost but not quite manage to summon Cthlon. I mean, seriously, is nobody in the Scriers smart enough to see that summoning an ancient Demon is a bad idea?
Now, that's the end of the main story. But it's a long way from being the end of this review. Yes, most of the book is given over to Carrion leading/chasing/taunting/fighting Spider-Man with about as many original plot ideas as an all-night Gilligan's Island marathon. But even that mindless repetition still somehow only managed to take up half the pages. We need more filler! Time to bring in the sub-plots.
Sub-plot number one is, of course Mary-Jane. It's obligatory in all these Novels that Peter and MJ play the cooing lovebirds, with lots of kissing, endless declarations of affection, and hints of passionate love-making on the sofa. Mary-Jane also needs to be either (a) involved in a B-grade movie (not worthy of her talents), or else (b) acting in an off-Broadway play (where her talents aren't taken seriously). This novel goes with the off-Broadway option.
However, nine times out of ten, folding Aunt May and MJ into the story becomes inconvenient, and both girls are shipped off out of town. So it is this time around, as MJ moves into a Motel because "Peter is so worried about Carrion". Seriously. Carrion can teleport, and read your mind. If Carrion had half an inkling in his decomposing mind to kill MJ and/or Aunt May, he could do it before you could fire up Google to check out what time that Gilligan's Island all-night marathon started.
But that's not all. It's traditional to have another sub-plot where Peter is showing his humanitarian side either by (a) inspiring a struggling student or (b) helping a neighbour or friend deal with gangs or a large oppressive corporate. It's option (b) in this case. A family friend (or friend of a workmate or something, I don't care enough to remember the exact details) is having trouble with his health provider (very topical) denying him coverage. Peter Parker organizes a rally and shows how sometimes people-power is mightier than super-powers!
This completely irrelevant sub-plot soaks up every fifth chapter or so, and totally fails to tie in with the main story either in plot or theme. Even worse - after all the public protest, the corporate sends "men in black suits" to bully Peter's friend. What's Spider-Man's response? He threatens his way into the corporate headquarters and intimidates the CEO with promises of violence until he promises to never deny coverage to anybody again.
Wow! Brilliant! Problem solved, and it only took five minutes! Say, Spidey - why didn't you just start with that, instead of pissing around with the people-power time-wasting? And why don't you nip round and do the other major health providers too! Then you could get your fists out, smash some furniture and sort out Enron, Lehman Brothers and Congress! The message is clear. Intimidation is the best way to get justice, and Spidey's your man for a job like that!
But wait! We're still not quite done. There's one more sub-plot, and this is the big one. It's "The Surgeon". We've had mystic horror with the Darkhold and Cthlon. But we need more horror. This is the other horror - the realistic stuff. You see, there's this elderly, deranged former serial killer named "The Surgeon". He used to go around slicing up pretty girls to "fix them". He keeps the tips of their tongues as mementos. Yeah, this ain't Stan Lee's Spider-Man, kiddies. This is hardcore!
So, over several interleaved chapters, we follow this unidentified killer as we learn about his cruel sadistic past. Remember, this is all interleaved with sickly lovey-dovey MJ sweet-talk, and with super-hero battles, and with common-man-versus-the-corporate morality tales. It's kind of surreal, to be honest. It's like the printer screwed up and folded four different and unrelated novella into a single binding.
Anyhow, just towards the end of it all, we learn that the Surgeon is... Stan Carter's Uncle! And Carrion is staying in his spare room! Yeah, Carrion went to stay with his Uncle. See, Stan Carter was a psychotic serial killer. But here's the kicker. So was Stan's Dad! And so was Stan's Uncle (aka The Surgeon). And also so was Stan's Grandfather!
Amazing co-incidence, yeah? Doesn't that all make sense now. Doesn't that enrich the whole story! See, there's a common thread between... umm... Hmm.
Actually, now that you come to mention it, maybe it's just a transparent sensationalist plot to try and make the novel seem more edgy, but instead it just makes the book entirely inappropriate for young teens, and unpleasant for anybody who doesn't enjoy graphic descriptions of helpless girls being sliced up with a scalpel. You can put me firmly in that second category.
Well, the final result is an unreadable mess of basically unconnected stories, each of which is uninteresting and/or unpleasant by itself. The Carrion story is repetitive and over-long. The Surgeon sub-plot is deliberately gruesome and completely out of place in this genre, while the MJ segments are irrelevant and sickly-sweet.
Along with all that, the "Spidey helps the common man" sub-plot suddenly collapses into a ghastly immorality tale where Spider-Man teaches us that violence is the answer to the complex socio-economic political problems of the world. That may indeed be true, but it's hardly a message that ties well with Spidey's core ethos.
I'm really struggling to find a redeeming feature anywhere in this novel. A couple of the early chapters (the ones in South America) were well written. But being 5% well written isn't really enough to start handing out bonus webs. Hey, I'm 5% kind and thoughtful, but that doesn't go far in the modern world.
No, I'm sorry. This is one-web stuff. Better luck next time.