I mentioned in one of my earlier reviews that Brian Keene is one of my “go to” authors. He always delivers a solid, entertaining story – a comfortable read. The thing is, to find that comfort, you have to be willing to submerse yourself in a story that, in most cases, really isn’t going to be all that happy. “Darkness on the Edge of Town” is one of those books. It has the style and fit of a familiar and well-tailored suit – the kind of suit you would wear to a funeral.
“Darkness on the Edge of Town” is not a happy book – and it’s proud of that fact. Keene gives you a good glimpse of what to expect early on in the book when his protagonist, Robbie Higgins, talks about his view of the setting for the story – Walden, Virginia:
You know those coming-of-age books and movies? The ones where plucky kids have all kinds of adventures during the summer, and it ends up being a major turning point in their lives? They defeat the monster, bully, bad guy, abusive parent, insert your own antagonist here, and afterwards, they are changed forever as a result of that confrontation, and when they look back on it as adults, they realize how it shaped and molded them? … Here’s the thing about those stories, though. Ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent of the time, they take place in a small town and in a simpler time – usually in the fifties or sixties. … But they’re not really all that accurate anymore, are they? In those stories, everybody knows everyone else in town. People say hello when they pass each one another on the street. The town has a real sense of history…. Can you really say the same thing about where you live?”
That tells you all you need to know about where you should expect this story to go. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good coming-of-age story (“It” by Stephen King is a personal favorite) – but there is also something engaging about Keene’s dark and fatalistic twist on that archetype.
So what is the story, you ask? “Darkness on the Edge of Town” tells the tale of Walden, Virginia. They awaken one morning to find the entire town cloaked in darkness. There is no power, no phone service, no television – nothing. There also appears to be a barrier at the edge of town that cuts it off from everything that surrounds it. No one knows why the Darkness is there, what caused it, or when it will dissipate.
Robbie Higgins, along with his girlfriend Christy and upstairs neighbor Russ, struggle to make sense of what has happened to their town, as everyone initially tries to pull together and find out what has happened. The only person with the answer is the town’s resident crackpot, Dez – but everyone summarily ignores him. He offers the first glimpse at the magnitude of the problem they all face:
The Darkness. Somebody said it’s real name and invited it in to the world. I knew it was coming, so I wrote the words and stopped it. I don’t know how to make it go away, though. I don’t know how to close the door.
After seeing the power of the darkness for themselves, Robbie, Christy and Russ must try and find a way to survive. The town quickly devolves into anarchy as the darkness takes its toll. No one can get out – those who try meet a horrific fate. To make matters worse, the darkness itself begins to affect the townsfolk and turn them against each other.
What really makes this story work is how it approaches the real horror of the situation. For all of the supernatural elements found in origins of the Darkness itself, what’s truly frightening is how quickly society dissolves and people turn against each other. It is clear that the Darkness is at the root of the chaos that ensues – but the question has to be asked: is the Darkness leading people down an unwanted path of destruction, or merely bringing out the basest instincts that lurk in the dark crevasses of everyone’s psyche?
This book falls squarely within the “Keene-verse”. This underlying architecture ties together all of Keene’s works through the Thirteen evil deities that survived when God destroyed the previous reality in order to create our current reality. The Thirteen are now bent upon destroying every world that God has created. They travel between the worlds by way of the Labyrinth – an inter-dimensional network of doors and pathways that connect every alternate reality to each other. Long time fans will find a good bit of meat added to the underlying Labyrinth story, and a few potentially major things are teased for, what I presume, will be future stories.
Keene is always found in close proximity to Stephen King on retail bookshelves (the alphabet is a harsh and unforgiving mistress), so the comparisons are inevitable – indeed I myself fell prey to it earlier in this very review. Lazy readers will be tempted to compare “Darkness on the Edge of Town” to King’s “Under the Dome”. (Truly lazy readers will then say – “Hey, isn’t the Simpson’s Movie kind of like these books too?” Those folks should be strapped to a chair and forced to listen to “Ice, Ice, Baby” until their eyes start to bleed. But I digress…) To make those comparisons is a disservice to both books.
Read Keene and enjoy him for who he is. “Darkness on the Edge of Town” is a great read. It provides a few more layers to the “Keene-verse”, but remains entertaining for those who are willfully ignorant of the broader story that Keene is trying to tell. Pick up any of his books and you’ll find a great way to pass a few days. Then you’ll want to pick up another, and another. Go ahead – enjoy them. The only thing that could make them better is if Keene decided to put your humble reviewer in one, and then killed me off in a suitable gruesome fashion. But authors don’t really do that to reviewers, do they?
(Brian – about the last part – shoot me an e-mail. If you need more fodder, my likeness is available and ready to meet a truly horrifying fate. I’m just saying…)
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