An attention-getting prelude introduces young Karen Tandy, who's in the hospital baffling doctors with the strange moving tumor on the back of her neck that X-rays reveal to be a developing fetus. A fetus. I know, right? Then Masterton switches to first-person narration by Harry Erskine, a 30-something guy earning his living providing sham psychic readings (are there any other kind?) to little old rich ladies in a wintry New York City. Just before she enters the hospital, Karen Tandy comes to see him about a disturbing dream she's been having.
Her sense of doom and foreboding about it causes Harry to start thinking there might be something to this occult business after all (I don't mind messing around with the occult when it behaves itself, but when it starts acting up, then I start getting a little bit of the creeps). Cue more strange happenings that Masterton makes believably unsettling and convince Harry, and soon comes the big reveal: the fetus developing in Karen's neck is the reborn spirit of the great and powerful Native American medicine man Misquamacus. Of course this being the 1970s and all, that phrase "Native American" is never uttered; instead, we get the charmingly offensive "redskin" or "Indian" or "red man." Ah well.
As the tumor grows and the arrival of Misquamacus becomes ever more imminent, Karen's life hangs by a thread. Harry consults the anthropologist Dr. Snow, who tells him about "Red Indian" spirits and how this Misquamacus was able to magically implant himself in Karen's body, to be reborn 300 years after his tribe was exploited, caught disease and run off by Dutch settlers. The "manitou" is his spirit, and we learn everything that exists has its own manitou. Misquamacus now wants vengeance, and his occult powers are virtually unstoppable by modern scientific men. Only another medicine man fully in control of these powers can stop him - and perhaps that is not even possible. Can they even find a modern-day medicine man to fight back?
1982 UK edition - more cover art here
If all this is making you think, what the fuck? you'd be right. But Masterton makes it work. Despite its implausibility, I actually loved how everyone seemed to accept the reality of what was going on: Karen's doctors and parents, Dr. Snow, Harry himself. The only people skeptical are the police, and they come to a very bad and very gruesome - and very awesome - end. Pretty graphic for the era, I thought; a great shock moment.
Masterton's style may sometimes inadvertently belie his Britishness but he really keeps the action going while also touching on broader, more thoughtful concerns. Harry's seeming skepticism about the reality of occult powers is treated with some ambivalence, and at one point Karen's doctor, Jack Hughes, wonders aloud about the inherent guilt the white race must feel about their treatment of Native Americans, and shouldn't they feel at least a little sympathy for Misquamacus? Which, as it turns out, is a terrible idea: as the story races to its climax, Masterton introduces a wonderful Lovecraftian menace as Misquamacus attempts to open the gateway for the Great Old One, aka The Great Devourer or He-Who-Feeds-in-the-Pit. You know that's never good.
But it was not Misquamacus himself that struck the greatest terror in us - it was what we could dimly perceive through the densest clouds of smoke - a boiling turmoil of sinister shadow that seemed to grow and grow through the gloom like a squid or some raw and massive confusion of snakes and beasts and monsters.
The Manitou is a pulpy, funny, gory, and even ridiculous read; like I said, a damn-near perfect example of vintage '70s horror fiction that strikes just the right balance between each of those aspects. Glad I also bought a copy of its sequel, Revenge of the Manitou (1979). So well done Mr. Masterton - I'd say I made my favorites-of-the-year list one book too early!