09 September 2013

The Waking Dark (Robin Wasserman)

I loved Robin Wasserman's last novel, the occult thriller The Book of Blood and Shadow, so of course I scrambled to pick up The Waking Dark, a harrowing horror story set in small-town Kansas, and read it in a night or two. And while I generally like a soup├žon more of the straight-up supernatural chocolate in my horrific peanut butter, Waking Dark is definitely a first-rate novel: heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, thought-provoking, spine-tingling--really a workout for all your internal organs.

To begin with--quite literally--it has one of the best opening chapters I've ever read. It's an account of what Oleander, Kansas, refers to in its aftermath as "the killing day," when five ordinary citizens murder eight others--with shotgun, knife, fire, automobile, pillow--before turning on themselves. Five teenagers (and let me tell you, the age of the protagonists is the only thing making this YA) are at these scenes of sudden carnage: Daniel Ghent, son of the alcoholic, apocalyptic Preacher, who tries to protect his little brother from the worst excesses of their father and the world; Jule Prevette, whose notorious family cooks meth on the decaying outskirts of Oleander; Ellie King, fervently Christian, who witness her reverend crucifying a man before burning the church down with him inside; closeted football player Jeremiah West, whose boyfriend Nick is mowed down by a car; and Cassandra Porter, killer and victim, who smothers the infant boy she's babysitting before jumping out a second-story window. She is the only murderer to survive, incarcerated in what she believes to be a mental hospital, with no explanation to offer.

Oleander buries their dead, as they have done before. In fact, the current town is built on the ruins of the first Oleander, which burned to the ground in 1899, taking 1,123 inhabitants with it--the details of the catastrophe lost to history. A year after the killing day, a tornado sweeps through town, an EF-5 that destroys entire neighborhoods. And a facility on the edge of town, the one Cass has spent a year in, the one which she realizes was never a psych ward at all, as a "doctor" leads her out of the collapsing building and they step over armed and uniformed corpses. After the storm, Oleander finds itself cut off from the outside world--no phones, no internet, tanks and men with guns blocking the roads out. No one tells them why.

But it's clear that things are different: tempers shorten, speculations grow wilder, suspicion and violence creep into the hearts of the townspeople. As their small society begins to spiral out of control, Daniel, Jule, Ellie, West, and Cass, seemingly unaffected by the paranoia and rage flooding Oleander, search for answers. What has happened here? Has the Devil taken over? Or is it simply the darkness in every human heart, brought to the surface and let out to play?

I suppose you could call this a dystopia--Oleander certainly suffers the end of its little world--but like Blood and Shadow before it, Waking Dark is a "kids' book" with serious philosophical consideration behind it. At its core, it grapples with the central questions of human nature: are we, in our most essential selves, good or evil? How are these terms--self, good, evil--even defined? Wasserman doesn't offer answers, and doesn't shield her characters from the consequences of their own actions, giving us a tale that's complex, propulsive, and often genuinely frightening.

P.S. As a native Kansan, I've gotta point out a couple of inaccuracies--there's more than one abortion provider in the state (though not many more); and for Pete's sake, novelists of my acquaintance, the principal crop of this state is WHEAT, not corn. But Wasserman more than makes up for these quibbles with this haunting passage:
Tornadoes, unlike hurricanes, do not get named. A hurricane is an unwelcome houseguest, one you see coming. You can watch it from afar, learning its habits and its nature. The hurricane is the enemy you know well enough to hate, the lover who inevitably betrays. The tornado is the stranger at the door with a knife. It has no features, no habits, no face.
I knooooooow. That second-to-last sentence I will carry with me forever.

(FTC disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from Knopf Books for Young Readers, in exchange for an honest review.)

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