If any of the late Philip K. Dick’s novels can be classified as horror-related, A MAZE OF DEATH can. It’s not one of his better works but is worth a look, as virtually anything by PKD is superior to most everything else on the bookshelves.
If nothing else, A MAZE OF DEATH showcases PKD at his most ambitious. He created an imaginary religion for the novel, and pushes the subjective reality conception of previous efforts like EYE IN THE SKY and UBIK to its farthest possible limits. A MAZE OF DEATH can also be viewed as a bridge of sorts between straightforward-but-eccentric 1960s-era PKD opuses like DR. BLOODMONEY or MARTIAN TIME-SLIP and later, more idiosyncratic works like VALIS or A SCANNER DARKLY.
The religion in this book is derived from a tome called HOW I ROSE FROM THE DEAD IN MY SPARE TIME AND SO CAN YOU, imparting a mash-up of Christianity, Buddhism and most every other existing faith. Each of the novel’s 14 characters, emotionally disturbed cosmonauts all, are extremely well-versed in this religion.
These 14 cosmonauts are stationed on a distant planet for reasons they don’t know. This dark, scary environ would seem to be inhabited, possibly by some malevolent life form intent on wiping out the human visitors. Also afoot is the “Form Destroyer,” a nasty creature culled from the pages of HOW I ROSE FROM THE DEAD ETC.
But there’s something else going on: all the characters have their own subjective take on what is occurring on the planet, which in one particularly clever sequence translates into several of them seeing a different word inscribed on a structure, each corresponding to the characters’ individual neuroses (one sees WINERY, another STOPPERY, another WITCHERY and so on). Individuality is the major danger here, as whenever any character dares break away from the group he or she is murdered.
Are these people being assaulted by some sort of psychedelic weapon or are they being used as unwitting guinea pigs in a macabre experiment? The truth of what’s occurring, unveiled in the final chapters, is bleaker and more horrific than either possibility.
A MAZE OF DEATH is, again, not among PKD’s standout work, lacking the mind-tugging imaginative power and narrative strength of his finest novels and stories. Among other things, PKD appears to have spent too much time developing his made-up religion at the expense of things like plot and character. Yet the novel is intriguing, and (I believe) fairly influential: David Cronenberg’s film eXistenZ echoes many of its themes. If you’re a PKD fan A MAZE OF DEATH is a title of obvious interest, although if you’re a PKD novice you’re better off reading something else.