The Halloween season is upon us. Time for pumpkins, costumes, and candy, or if you’re braver, time for supernatural threats and psycho killers galore. The horror side of Halloween has never really been my jam. I’ll dig on a good horror-comedy, because gore doesn’t bother me, but I find jump scares cheap and annoying. And anything psychologically scary? Well, the real world is scary enough that I’m not trying to seek out a similar vibe in my escapism. However, I recently read a book that scared me to my core. Not to be That Guy, but to me the scariest monster is Man; the stuff that frightens me the most is the stuff that could really happen.
For a story of the end of the world, Wanderers begins simply enough. One morning, Shana Stewart finds her teenage sister walking away from their rural Pennsylvania home in a sleepwalker-like state; seemingly awake, in motion, and unresponsive. Attempts to physically stop her cause violent seizures and a rapid rise in body temperature, so Shana walks along with her sister to keep her safe. They are shortly joined by other walkers in the same state and attempted intervention from local authorities goes badly fast. We soon meet former CDC doctor Benjamin Ray, who is pulled in to study the walkers by a seemingly shady organization represented by the enigmatic Sadie Emeka. The “flock” grows as it travels across the country, shepherded by loved ones, and more players are drawn into the story, including disabled former police officer Marcy Reyes, whose chronic pain seems to dissipate with proximity to the flock, pastor Matthew Bird, whose encounter with the flock calls his faith into question, and aging rock star Pete Corley, who may or may not be there just for the publicity. Hijinks ensue. And by “hijinks,” I mean “horrific circumstances that go from bad to worse to oh-God-oh-fuck-oh-no-no-no-no-
The genius of Wanderers is in its simplicity. It takes place in a world pretty much like our own present day, though in this version an analog of Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election and her opposition for re-election is the Trump-esque Ed Creel. Politics, religion, technology, and climate change, and the feelings and beliefs on these topics held by the characters, play a huge role in the development of the story. At several points, I found myself responding to plot developments with, “Yup, that is exactly what would happen.” Given how the story turns out, the realism of it makes it all the more terrifying. The author, Chuck Wendig, gives us a picture of how on the brink of collapse our world is and just how small a push would be required to send all the dominoes toppling. Yet the story is not all doom and gloom. There are touching moments of love, friendship, and family as the world goes to hell in a handbasket around our heroes. And Wendig writes with respect for the human race. In this America, people of all genders, races, and sexual orientations exist as valid and normalized. It’s America as it is, regardless of what some hateful people, both in the book and the real world, would have you think. It’s a small thing and something that should be universal to any story, but sadly isn’t. In short, though the author is a cishet white dude, he doesn’t write like the stereotype of one might, which is both a relief and a pleasure.
If Wendig’s name sounds familiar, you might know him as the author of the Star Wars: Aftermath series (he was also famously unjustly fired for publicly voicing opinions that were unpopular in that oft-toxic fandom), as well as a whole slew of other novels, not to mention the excellent writing advice, weird-food obsessions, and hilarious random comedy contained in his Twitter feed. His morning greetings are the bizarro version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s, yet somehow no less inspirational. I’ve often said following him is one of the best Twitter decisions I’ve ever made. He is also the author of The Kickass Writer and Damn Fine Story, books of writing advice which, given the expert construction of Wanderers, he is clearly qualified to give. This was my first experience reading his work, but it will not be my last, though I am going to need to take a break before his next book. Not only was my mind blown by the ending (which does offer solid resolution, take heart, those who abhor an ambiguous conclusion), but once it comes back together, it’s going to need some time to recover and think about ways to avoid the events of the story coming to pass.
If you’re looking for something unconventionally scary but truly terrifying to read this month, I highly recommend taking on the behemoth that is Wanderers (fair warning: for story reasons, reading it during cold and flu season makes it all the more terrifying). It clocks in at a hefty 800-ish pages which may keep you busy for a while, or, as it did with me, it may become the monster that takes over your life halfway through and become the thing you have to finish before you can get anything else done.