Book Review: The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman
PROS:beautiful writing; well fleshed out cast of characters; terrifying, chilling scenes worthy of Stephen King
CONS:the violence is not for the faint of heart
A beautifully written, smart small town horror story that will have you fearing the evil that lies within every human.
I think the reason zombie and possession stories are so perennially popular is that scenes of mothers, fathers, children, neighbors and friends attacking each other without any reason or warning never fail to deeply disturb and fascinate us. We know we humans have the capacity for horrifying acts of evil, one only need read the news to confirm it, but we never expect that sort of tabloid violence to be delivered from a familiar face and hands. While Robin Wasserman’s The Waking Dark couldn’t be put in either of the above categories exactly, the same sort of terror is within its pages.
Something dark is awakening within the residents of Oleander, Kansas. An isolated small town, Oleander is far from idyllic before the Killing Day, when twelve people are inexplicably murdered by family members, neighbors and friends in the space of a few hours, and it is perfectly situated to be the site of unchecked evil, like one of Stephen King’s fictional small towns in Maine. Oleander is already full of prejudices, rivalries, bigotry and crime, including a flourishing meth business. We waste no time jumping right into the terror that awaits this community, beginning with the violence of the Killing Day and never really letting up until the end when we can finally breathe easy.
Despite the fact that this book is disturbing on every level, I absolutely loved reading it, and would strongly recommend it even for readers who aren’t huge horror buffs (just maybe don’t read it anywhere close to bedtime). I wouldn’t say I was overly jumpy or terror stricken, I experienced more of a constant unsettling feeling that comes from realistic psychological horror. There are scenes of violence and madness so harrowing and undiscriminating that you will fear for all the characters lives pretty much nonstop (and you’d be right to fear). What takes this beyond pure shock value horror writing into something that really resonated with me is that all of the violence feels inevitable, rooted deeply in past grudges, paranoia and barely contained urges, and you truly see what a fine, invisible line there is between society and chaos.
Wasserman’s writing is beautiful. She can describe even the ugliest impulses and human interactions in such an interesting way, you are simultaneously shuddering at the meaning and marveling at the language. This book doesn’t have one narrator or one main character, instead we follow a group of teens as they try to survive Oleander’s escalating darkness and violence. Seeing the town devolve gradually as the threads of civilization loosen hour by hour is all the more terrifying because you see its impact on everyone, from the babies to the school teachers to the little old ladies, and no one is safe. Normally such a fractured group of main characters would bore me, or lose me, but the individual voices are distinct and strong, and Wasserman holds on to the plot and pace with a sure hand. I was hanging on every word. I had such a hard time putting this book down for breaks, despite its considerable heft. After loving Robin’s last book, The Book of Blood & Shadow, an academic mystery with its own share of terrifying thrills, and now loving The Waking Dark even more, I’m am officially placing her into my auto-buy author list.
I’m really enjoying the quality horror stories coming out of YA these days, it’s making the wait for the next Stephen King novel much easier. Along with Wasserman, who is eerily skilled at coming up with shocking and terrifying scenes that leave echoes in my mind long after I’m done reading, I’ve also been terrified recently by the likes of Libba Bray, Daniel Kraus, Neal Shusterman, Jonathan Maberry, Kendare Blake and Rick Yancey. If you enjoy any of these authors and love reading can’t-put-down stories that will unsettle you like the best of Stephen King, then you must give The Waking Dark a read.