the Little Red Reviewer

The Santaroga Barrier by Frank Herbert

Posted on: January 28, 2013

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You probably know Frank Herbert from his masterpiece, Dune. or perhaps you are more familiar with his son, Brian Herbert, who has been involved with continuing  the series. But Frank Herbert did so much more more than just epic space opera involving secretive sisterhoods and sandworms.  Many of his stand alone  novels took place in the present (which would have been the 1960’s and 70’s) and could be easily be considered mainstream suspense novels.  When I’m at the used bookstore, if I see a copy of a Herbert I don’t own, I grab it, and rarely have I been disappointed.   In my mind, Frank Herbert is a little like George R. R. Martin – sure, their famous series blow my mind every time, but I’m missing out on the bigger picture if I don’t read their other works too.

SantarogaThe Santaroga Barrier, by Frank Herbert

written in 1968

where I got it: bought used

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Something very strange is happening in a valley in Southern California. Or perhaps, it’s nothing strange at all, just a close knit, old fashioned community famous for its cheese production.  Doctor Gilbert Dasein of the Psychology department of the University of California has been sent to the Santaroga Valley.  It is true that he’s hoping to patch things up with his ex-girlfriend Jenny, a resident of Santaroga, but Dasein has another mission, one which killed the last two men who took it on. He’s being paid to do market research and find out what exactly is going on there. Why won’t the Santarogans allow national businesses to build in their valley? Why don’t they have a single reported case of mental illness? Why doesn’t anyone ever leave the valley for good? Are they innocent survivalists? is it a cult? is it something more?

It’s not that Santaroga doesn’t like outsiders, it’s that they don’t need them. They produce plenty of their famous cheese, and they also produce everything else their residents need, from furniture and wine, to independently sourced auto parts and canned food. Most Santarogan-made products never leave the valley, and all residents work together to make everyone has enough, newlyweds have houses, and that everyone is taken care of. And everyone sure gets excited when a wheel of Jaspers Cheese is brought out.

The good news is that Gilbert does find Jenny, and they do patch things up to the point where she’d like to get married as soon as possible. But the more time Gilbert spends in the valley, the more he wants to leave and take Jenny with him. Santaroga is an odd place, to say the least. Salespeople are brutally honest about what’s wrong with the used cars in the lot. No one ever seems frustrated or depressed or angry, words between Santarogans are never misunderstood, and the smell of the famous Jaspers cheese is everywhere. And children? There’s not a single child to be seen in the valley.

The bad news is that the valley is utterly creepy. Jenny keeps telling Gilbert that soon he won’t ever want to leave. The local doctor tells him to “stop fighting it”. But no one will tell him why he won’t want to leave, or what “it” is. Gilbert can’t put his finger on it, but there is something very wrong with the people who live here. No one threatens him, or is outright mean to him, or makes him feel unsafe, but it’s as if the citizens of Santaroga are just playing at being human, to the point where I had to keep reminding myself that this story takes place on Earth, in 1960’s California, and not on some far flung alien planet. And no, that wasn’t a spoiler.

The last two “spies” had lethal accidents, and Gilbert certainly can’t come right out and say “how did he die? did you kill him?”.  Gilbert isn’t in the valley for long before he has his first brush with death.  Everything from tripping on a staircase to poisoned food to accidental drowning and his truck exploding, is the valley trying to kill him? Is Gilbert losing his grasp on his sanity?  Even the town doctor agrees that these events can’t possibly all be accidents. And again, where are all the children?  And what happens to people who keep “fighting it”?

The level of suspense is amazing, as Herbert writes in such a way that I feel like I’m reading the best of Stephen King. We only get Gilbert’s point of view, and as his dangerous knowledge grew, I found myself whipping through the pages faster and faster to see what would happen.   I knew Herbert could write great prose and intense science fiction, but I had no idea he was such a master of psychological horror.  If you’re looking for a vibrant suspenseful read, The Santaroga Barrier is a winner.

The Santaroga Barrier reminded me a little of Herbert’s Hellstroms Hive, where a rural community forms it’s own little utopia to the horror of outside observers.  The two novels differ in many ways, of course, but they both deal with themes of group-think, slavery vs freedom, and how our obsession with individuality may be harming our chances at survival.  Both books are more mainstream psychological thrillers than science fiction, so they are perfect for readers looking for something lighter than Herbert’s famous masterpiece, Dune. Also perfect for Herbert fans like me, who are looking to read his more obscure works!

I’m giving away a copy of The Santaroga Barrier (along with a few other books), so click here for more info and to enter!

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3 Responses to "The Santaroga Barrier by Frank Herbert"

Brilliant review! I absolutely love Frank Herbert’s works

Just thought I’d let you know that you’ve been awarded the Very Inspiring Blog Award by me, check it out: http://deanzwordz.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/inspiring-blog-award-surprise/

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I’m a huge Herbert fan, and I have not read this one! Let me see if I can find it, because I definitely want to read it. Great review!

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I don’t think I’d really consider this to be horror, but THE SANTAROGA BARRIER truly is a fine and too often overlooked Herbert novel, and it’s also an important contribution to the full spectrum of consciousness that so concerned him during the first half of his literary career. Highly recommended.

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