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Upcoming thriller explores the Pandora myth

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"The Pandora Room" by Christopher Golden (St. Martin's Press, 320 pages, in stores April 23)

Pandora's box isn't what we think it is.

Time has transformed its original description into a box containing all the world's troubles, sicknesses and sorrows. That's partially correct, although classicists would describe it differently.

The story derives from a Greek myth told in Hesiod's "Works and Days." Zeus, upset with Prometheus for stealing fire from the gods, punishes him by sending Pandora to Prometheus' brother, Epimetheus. In her possession is a jar filled with everything bad. She opens it and all bad things escape; she manages to keep only one thing sealed inside the jar; that item is often interpreted as "hope," which can be a miserable affliction, too.

The story is recounted in different Greek texts, including Homer's famous work, "The Iliad." In that version, though, there is not one jar but two. One is full of terrible things. The other contains everything good.

Still another account implies there was only one jar, and it was full of hope and blessings.

It was never a box until someone, probably Erasmus, mistranslated the Greek word for jar into the Latin word for box. Erasmus wrote in the 16th century, much later than the story originated.

So which is it? One jar or two? Good or evil?

Those questions are at the heart of Christopher Golden's new book, "The Pandora Room," whose work I tend to like even though it's formulaic. I gave a positive review to his previous novel, "Ararat," which is nearly identical in structure and theme to this one.

In "Ararat," a multinational team of experts explore an isolated, freezing cave in which they have apparently discovered the remains of Noah's Ark. They're not alone up there, though. Something ancient has been freed from its captivity, a dark, horned figure whose presence infests the hearts of those around it and who may very well be an actual demon. Most of the team die during a desperate attempt at escape.

In "The Pandora Room," a multinational team of experts explore a hot, humid cave in disputed Kurdish territory near Turkey. This time they've found a jar in a hidden room surrounded by warnings not to enter. Soon they're not alone in there. A battle rages above them between outmatched coalition forces and well-armed terrorists, preventing our heroes from leaving, and a dark presence inflicts people with a plague, drives them crazy and essentially possesses them. Everywhere around them are mean-spirited "ghosts." Most of the team die during a desperate attempt at escape.

See. More similar than not.

Both books feature a guy named Walker, who is both a scientist and a U.S. secret agent. He actually cares about people and tries not to kill unless he must. He even has an 8-year-old son to whom he's trying to be a better father. He's involved with another character, one he met in "Ararat," but it's not a simple "fall in lust" situation. It's an actual relationship, and a complicated one.

That's one of the reasons I like Golden's books. Do the plots defy credibility? Yes, but he draws the story lines from myth and legend. It's hard to believe in modern humans facing demons and ghosts and discovering Noah's Ark and Pandora's jar, but it's the situations that are outrageous, not the characters. Golden's ability to create likeable, realistic characters is his strongest suit. Even the incidental characters, the Red Shirts who clearly are destined to die, aren't throwaway stereotypes; you feel bad for what's about to happen to them.

"Real" people aren't common in action thrillers. Generally the genre is stocked with ultra-patriotic super-soldiers, armed with magic weapons and survival skills and backed up by researchers who are too smart to work for NASA. That makes Golden's characters, who have foibles and weaknesses and sometimes don't know as much as they think they do, all the more impressive.

I liked "The Pandora Room" a lot. It's the definition of a page-turner; I read it very quickly.

Let me know if you enjoy the book. What's your take on it? I hope asking that question doesn't open a Pandora's box ...

Ken Raymond

Ken Raymond is the book editor. He joined The Oklahoman in 1999. He has won dozens of state, regional and national writing awards. Three times he has been named the state's "overall best" writer by the Society of Professional Journalists. In... Read more ›

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