Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Darkness at the Edge of Town by Brian Keene (2010)

Darkness at the Edge of Town by Brian Keene (2010): Enjoyable but slighter and less juicily pulpy novel from the reliable Keene, who's made a fascinating career out of combining cosmic horror with splatterpunky, visceral violence. 

Walden, Virginia wakes up one morning to find itself surrounded on all sides by an almost solid darkness. Some people drive to work. Some stay home. Landlines and cellphones won't connect to anything. All the utilities are out. And when you walk up to the darkness, you start to hear voices and see visions of your loved ones. This is only the beginning.

While not part of one of Keene's acknowledged series, Darkness at the Edge of Town nonetheless fits into the larger schemata of most of Keene's novels, which deal with one or more cosmic threats to life on Earth. Well, life on Earths: each Earth is part of a larger multiverse. While one novel may depict the destruction of all life on one Earth by, say, giant earthworms, another novel may depict the salvation of another Earth by a recurring character such as Keene's Amish magician, Levi. And Levi, too, is duplicated across countless Earths.

Mysterious symbols drawn at points along Walden's town boundary coincide with the line where the darkness stopped. A mysterious homeless man -- Walden's only homeless man -- may have something to do with the symbols. Or did he summon the darkness? Our narrator, an underemployed pizza delivery guy in his 20's, will try to find out. Because the darkness very rapidly starts to make people more and more violent and crazy.

There are elements of metatext here -- a character notes at one point that our narrator's plan to explore the darkness comes right out of Stephen King's The Mist and should thus be avoided because of the dire results of the tactic in both novella and movie. The title comes from a Springsteen song. Many of the group dynamics are reminiscent of both The Mist and King's Under the Dome, though any resemblances to the latter would simply be a case of shared sub-genre, as the two novels came out within a handful of months of one another. 

The dire violence and madness that quickly infect the town are solidly depicted, with several stand-out moments of gross-out horror. The cosmic elements don't work so well, in part because Keene's narrator simply isn't written as a character capable of describing dread or terror. Dez, the homeless madman, manages to Basil Exposition us for several pages near the end, but this seems both too little and much too late. We've seen towns disintegrate under crisis in horror novels before. What makes this narrative different?

Well, utter helplessness, a well Keene goes to repeatedly in his novels, though it's usually leavened with a group of characters doing their best to stave off the apocalypse, even if they fail utterly. Here, though, our narrator and his friends just aren't up to taking on the darkness. And they seem to miss one glaringly obvious thing that a competent person might at least try, given that we're stuck inside the bottle of this narrative for what the narrator estimates is at least a month. I don't need a Heinlein hero in my horror, but the readerly frustration that attends the nihilistic helplessness and pettiness and dim-bulbedness of our heroes leaves one longing for death after awhile. Their death, that is. Go darkness!

Now, this frustration seems to me to perhaps be the point. Keene has given us a novel with an even less bright, less competent, less heroic cast than usual, and has set them against an unbeatable foe. But it's all too much. As T.E.D. Klein noted, himself quoting another critic, I don't see what the point of the point is. Lightly recommended.

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