Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Keep your fears to yourself but share your courage with others.” It’s indeed a noble thought, but it’s one the characters of Lauren Oliver’s latest novel, Panic, would shrug their sunburned shoulders at. As they play an illegal game (the eponymous Panic), their fears are spotlit and exploited, and their courage is more accurately defined as tenacity bleeding into double-crossing and revenge. And what else is there to do in forgettable Carp, N.Y., except participate in a competition where the winner reaps a wad of cash and the losers remain losers?
The game of Panic is born from small-town ennui but results in a gamble that is anything but boring. It’s terrifying. Over the summer break, participants (limited to graduating seniors) face a series of physical and mental challenges many people would skirt individually and not even pursue as part of a mob. There’s plank-walking between two water towers, something involving an interstate and a blindfold, and the final cherry of doom: an automotive duel dubbed “Joust.” Panic isn’t just about a fleet of teenagers behaving badly, though: It’s an examination of the myriad ways in which people deal with fear and whether they succeed or fail at it. Oliver’s impetus for exploring this notion came from a Grimms' fairy tale with the cumbersome title of “The Boy Who Went Forth to Learn About the Shivers.”
“It’s basically a story about three brothers, and one of them is considered ‘simple,’ and he’s actually so simple he doesn’t know how to be afraid,” says Oliver. “So he goes on this quest after he hears people talking about having the shivers. Basically, the whole book is about his attempt to give himself the shivers. He ends up spending a hilarious three nights in a haunted house and still can’t manage to be afraid….It got me thinking about the nature of fear and about why certain people respond to fear in certain ways.” Some can confront fear, “and other people have their lives dictated by fears,” she says.
That unguarded boy on the prowl for some shivering might have had three hilarious nights, but Panic doesn’t traffic in lighthearted hilarity. Oliver, who grew up in a small town, knows a little something about the entrapment that accompanies boredom. “You really can’t escape,” says Oliver. “You don’t really have any agency, and there’s this desperate energy that begins to build to break out or do something or test your limits. Anything, really.”
The key to breaking out of Carp comes in the form of a massive cash prize for the winner of Panic. Sure, there’s the lingering risk of death or dismemberment, but a purse stuffed with $67,000 (collected forcibly throughout the school year) is irresistible bait for a handful of restless teenagers. With nothing to do but drink beer and dream of escaping monotony, there are 67,000 hopeful reasons at stake to temporarily blur the lines of humanity and legality. The competitors are ready to do anything—including sabotage their peers to the point of death—to win and kiss Carp goodbye.
Panic is told from the perspectives of two participants, Heather and Dodge, the former a reluctant competitor and the latter invested in annihilating the competition. Heather, arguably the main character, lives in a trailer park with her younger sister and drug-addled mother. Not originally intending to play, she enters the competition on an impassioned whim after being dumped by her boyfriend. Heather soon realizes that she has to win in order to extract herself and her sister from the stifling, toxic world to which their mother has them pinned. Dodge’s participation is more pointed. His older sister was tragically crippled in a previous year’s Joust after her competitor sabotaged her car. With said competitor’s younger brother now competing in Panic, Dodge sees an opportunity for revenge.
“The initial first couple of chapters had little snippets from a bunch of the different players because I was so interested in people’s motivations for playing,” says Oliver. “Ultimately, Dodge and Heather became the backbone around which I wanted to build the story.”
The ebb and flow between Heather’s evolution from hesitant to defiant and the revelation of Dodge’s sensitivity and purpose further serve to agitate the undercurrent of unpredictable danger. Readers beware: Palpable narrative tension may result in the unconscious biting of nails and lips.
“When things are tense or very high-action, what I’ll do is I’ll unconsciously start to speed up and try to get to the end of it very quickly,” says Oliver. “So I have to really slow down, and I have to write very slowly and only write about a sentence at a time and then take a break, otherwise, I just rush through it and curtail the scene, and it ends quickly.” Haste, harnessed or not, isn’t apparent here. The pacing is just right and the tension—just crazy.
Panic, like Oliver’s Delirium trilogy, is young adult. Her E.B. White Read-Aloud Award–nominated Liesl & Po is middle-grade. And later this year, she is releasing an adult novel. This span of genres could be seen as a conscious effort to avoid being pigeonholed in one category. To the multidisciplinary Oliver, it’s just storytelling.
“Hardly anything I do is conscious,” laughs Oliver. “I have extremely, extremely wide reading habits, and so much of what I do and my passion for writing is informed by my love of reading. So really, it’s just because I’m interested in all of the different genres, and different stories are meant to be told in different ways.”
Gordon West is a writer and illustrator living in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is admittedly addicted to horror films and is at work on his own YA novel.