While on vacation, Ted Barton decides to visit the small town of Millgate, Virginia where he grew up, and hasn’t seen since he left 18 years ago. When he arrives, to his surprise, the town is not at all as he remembered it. Normally this would be a story about the loss of small-town life due to freeways and modernization in America, but this is PKD writing. Ted discovers that nothing in the town is where he expects it, and even the newspaper office says that he, Ted, died at age 9. Before the story moves into Twilight Zone territory, we meet two children, Mary Meade and Peter Trilling, both of whom have strange powers to communicate with the insects and spiders, and to animate lumps of clay. Ted stays at Peter’s mom’s boarding house, while Mary’s father Dr. Meade treats mysterious patients in the hospital. As the plot evolves larger gaps begin to appear in Millgate’s facade. Ted realizes he’s a pawn in a cosmic battle ground fought in his home town.
Dick seems to have a good tempo in this book. In his later books the dialogue tends to be jumpy, almost manic. This book only has a few sections like that, and that’s toward the end, just before the climax. Instead, the plot evolves languidly, accurately reflecting the pace of life in a small town of the 1950s. Perhaps that’s the most gripping part of the story, the casual way that a normal visit “home” turns into a nightmare, and then a cosmic battle ground.
Dick does a wonderful job of personifying the cosmic forces at work in this book. I put the two children, Mary and Peter, in the same category as the legendary characters in Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods.” But more than just the characters, Dick endows the town itself with cosmic echoes. The barrier at the edge of town is so iconic. You want to leave the small town, but something always seems to stop you. Later, the movie “Tremors” would take this idea and multiply it by five.
Despite the title and the theme, the "Cosmic Puppets" is more about a man who misses his childhood and is trying to reconcile his memories of the past with the present, than about the gods as they fight. Although the book was published in 1957, Dick wrote “Cosmic Puppets” in 1953, when he was only 25, but he’d already graduated from college, been married twice and divorced once. He was born in Chicago, hardly a small town, but left when he was only five. Despite the fact that the small town in the story is most likely imagined, I can see how Dick must have felt old enough to be nostalgic about his youth. I like the way he describes the reconstruction of the city park with the cannon, as Ted tries to remember each aspect of the park back into existence, the greens unfold with the dawn. It’s almost pastoral.
Here is the summary from the back cover of the Mariner, 2012 edition:
“The Cosmic Puppets” begins like an episode of “The Twilight Zone” and then ramps up the strangeness and fantasy to epic levels. Because the mystery is about more than one man or one town -- this is a battle between gods.
Following an inexplicable urge, Ted Barton returns to his idyllic Virginia hometown for a vacation, but when he gets there, he is shocked to discover that it has utterly changed. The stores and houses are all different, and he doesn’t recognize anybody. The mystery deepens when he checks the town’s historical records...and reads that he died nearly twenty years earlier. As he attempts to uncover the secrets of the town, Barton is drawn deeper into the puzzle, and into a supernatural battle that could decide the fate of the universe.