Skip to main content

Retro Reading: Wreck! by Parley J. Cooper


Do you remember the great blackout of 2003?

It really doesn't have anything to do with this review, but on the day the lights went out, I was reading this novel of terror and destruction. It was the second time I had read it, the first being when I bought it at a drugstore after it originally came out in 1977.

Of course, that original copy was long gone and I found my current copy at a used bookstore and it's a good thing that I picked it up when I did. This is one hard book to find.

Enough about the history of my reading this book and I can now say that I've read a book three times, but for some odd reason, the book has always haunted me since my first reading.

A classic it's not, but for those who love disaster novels, this just might be The Great American Disaster Novel. I'm only saying that since it's so hard to find.

Anyway, let's get into the story.

In a way, I'm almost hesitant to say that this is a true disaster novel, although the train is involved in a wreck after a centuries old boulder is loosened and careens down the mountain cutting away a section of the track.

As the book starts, Gina Granville, a very pregnant housewife in Truckee, California, has been having strong visions of a train wreck. She's told her husband, Tim, the station master at the Truckee station of her visions and he tries to reassure her that she's just been having bad dreams.

She insists that the visions are true, since she was told that she has psychic abilities after being studied years earlier. He just blows it off and gets angry when she begs him to stop the train.

Divided into three sections, we meet most of the players in the morning as they go about their lives prior to boarding The Gamblers' Express headed for Reno later that afternoon.

Among the passengers are actress Eve Kyle, a has been at thirty who's looking to make a comeback in a live show opening the next day. She's trying to get off the pills and booze and has a one night stand with a guy she met the night before in the hotel bar.

Eve tries to get rid of him and when he finally leaves, she goes downstairs for a final rehearsal and he comes back and rips her off.

Scroll to Continue

Then there's Pamela Wade.

A nubile seventeen year old who's come home for the weekend from college with a secret that only she and her boyfriend know. She's pregnant and hasn't told her parents yet, and he won't marry her.

This puts a strain on their relationship and since she comes from a wealthy family, she doesn't want to be the talk of the social set with a bastard child. She thinks that the six hour trip from San Francisco to Reno will be the perfect time for the two of them to talk and figure out their future.

Vivienne Durbin is the neglected wife of a wealthy businessman who's found pleasure in gambling and has been having an affair with her hairdresser. She knows that she's addicted to both and after she dumps her lover, she heads to the bank and then the train station to do a little gambling over the weekend.

The owner of the railway's son, Kevin McKinney, is in a loveless marriage and he's off to Reno to do some whoring around and hide out from a hitman.

Kevin has always been viewed as weak but becomes the hero of the wreck as he leads the survivors out of the dangling club car. He's also been a friend of Pamela's family and when he runs into her on the train, he's amazed as to how she's grown and isn't too impressed with her boyfriend, Darryl. He knows that Darryl's bad news and hopes that Pamela doesn't make the mistake of marrying him.

Finally, there's the conductor, Howard Thorpe, while not quite the ladies man, he does harbor a crush on the waitress at the diner where all of the railroad employees go. Marilyn, the waitress, feels the same way, but is upset that he's never asked her out.

Howard mulls it over and has decided that he's going to ask her out, but when he leaves for work that night, he still hasn't made his move and later he finds himself attracted to Eve, thanks to her flirtatious nature.

Everything really about the book is melodrama and soap opera-ish, which probably would have made for a so-so movie of the week.

The actual wreck doesn't happen until page 226 and Cooper does a great job of describing the carnage as it's happening. For some odd reason, I always thought they were in a tunnel instead of hovering over a gorge.

It's a fairly fast read (and thank God the print is much better than a lot of '70's books) and the cover art holds a promising story.

For me, the problem was that the cover shows a really long train and I think it would have been better if some of the coaches hadn't plummeted to the bottom of the mountain. It would have probably been much more suspenseful if there had been some people trapped on the mountain.

The first two sections are bogged down and in a way, I felt that there were too many characters. More are introduced throughout and of course there are characters introduced on the train as well.

Oh, and there's also an elderly couple.

Related Articles