It isn’t often that I disagree with a Kirkus review as wholeheartedly as I do in the case of Robin Wasserman’s The Waking Dark. Kirkus panned it as “skippable in the extreme”; I haven’t been able to stop raving about it since reading it. Kirkus found it “unrealistic,” “ludicrous” and “snooze-inducing”; I found it chilling, suspenseful, shocking and raw. Kirkus found it unsuccessful as an homage to Stephen King, while I felt that Wasserman shines in exactly the same way as King: in showing that true terror doesn’t stem from the paranormal, but from the normal. It isn’t vampires or werewolves or zombies that are truly terrifying, it’s what we human beings are willing to do to one another in the name of…well, whatever allows us to rationalize whatever atrocity it is that we want to commit.
A year ago, there was a tragedy in the seemingly idyllic small town of Oleander, Kan. One day, out of nowhere, five people snapped: Each one went on a killing rampage and then each one committed suicide. Or, well, they all attempted suicide. One—a high school girl who smothered the baby she was looking after—didn’t succeed. She’s been institutionalized ever since.
Now, in the aftermath of a devastating tornado, whatever it was that sparked the Killing Day has returned. Neighbors are turning on each other, husbands are turning on wives, brothers on brothers, parents on children. The government won’t let the survivors past the town lines, there’s no way of contacting the outside world and the sheriff has teamed up with a local preacher to mete out a particularly twisted version of justice.
The Waking Dark has a whole town’s worth of characters, and many of them get their moment in the spotlight, but it focuses the most intensely on five very different teenagers, all of whom are survivors of the first round: Jule, related by blood to the major criminal element in town; Ellie, a true believer and a secret sinner; brainy Daniel, son of the town drunk; West, the football star who can’t allow himself to be himself; and Cass, once a princess, now and forevermore a baby-killer.
You’re totally thinking of The Breakfast Club now, aren’t you? Me, too. Well, if The Breakfast Club got crossed with Battle Royale or Lord of the Flies or The Mist*. As in The Breakfast Club, the five main characters begin as archetypes, easily slotted into broad categories, subject to assumptions, stereotypes and judgments, and as the story goes on, each character proves to be more than he or she first appears: more complicated, more believable, more human. And, of course, as in the other three books, there is bloodshed, violence, death—and there is A WHOLE LOT OF IT.
The plotting will require some suspension of disbelief—I completely adored the book, and I still had a hard time buying the idea that no one seemed to notice an entire town in middle America getting cut off from the rest of the world. Even so, I found that aspect of the book profoundly emotionally relevant: After all, it plays into the paranoia, distrust and even fear that many people have in regards to the Powers That Be Listening To Our Cell Phone Conversations.
Regardless of where you end up on the Waking Dark Love-Hate spectrum, regardless of whether you read reviews as a reader, a parent, a teacher, a bookseller, a librarian or an academic, take a moment to remind yourself: While we strive for objectivity, literary criticism is heavily informed by personal taste and opinion of each reviewer. I could hear a squawk where you hear a song; you could see a mud pie where I see a masterpiece.
In other words, trust your gut! If a book looks good to you, PICK IT UP AND GIVE IT A TRY, even if the reviews are less than glowing: You might find a treasure where someone else saw only trash.
*Another Breakfast Club/The Mist mash-up: Trapped!
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.