Darkness on the Edge of Town

23 Oct

About a month ago, Brian Keene, apparently replying to several Twitter followers who’d pointed it out, said something about yes, he knew that Amazon was offering the Kindle edition of Darkness on the Edge of Town for free and that he wasn’t promoting it because he hadn’t authorized the deal and wasn’t making any money from it. Fair enough.

I started following Keene on Twitter this past summer after CONvergence announced him as one of the 2011 Guests of Honor. For that matter, I followed all the GoHs who had Twitter accounts, to “get to know them” a bit before next summer’s CON. So in the spirit of that aim – and being the opportunistic poor person I am – I took advantage of the offer (yay for free Android apps!) to download my first-ever e-book and read Darkness.

Having just finished the book (what? I’m busy and a slow-ish reader), I have to say that if Amazon was hoping offering one of Keene’s books for free would inspire me to buy more, they chose the wrong book. (Minor spoilers ahead.)

Amazon’s one-line Product Description is a fairly accurate synopsis of the book:

One morning the residents of Walden, Virginia, woke to find themselves cut off from the rest of the world by an impenetrable wall of darkness.

And that’s pretty much it. Darkness surrounds the town; utilities and communication devices no longer function; anyone who ventures into the darkness (say, trying to get to work in the next town) is never heard from again. Oh, sure, there’s some fairly interesting (yet fairly stereotypical) devolution of the residents – the predictable looting happens; the darkness preys on the residents’ darker emotions, prompting violence of all sorts – but nothing happens.

Having mentioned the violence, I’ll offer a word of caution: one early and several later scenes get pretty gruesome, so if you can’t handle a description of the aftermath of suicide-by-shotgun (to give one example), you’ll want to pass on this book.

Darkness is narrated by Robbie Higgins, a pizza delivery guy who lives in Walden with his girlfriend Christy. As the book opens, Robbie, Christy, and their neighbor Russ are about to try yet again to escape the darkness. But before they go, Robbie’s writing up an account of the events since the darkness arrived, to leave behind. And thus do you get the end of the story within the first few pages, because that’s the last thing that happens:

Anyway…

We’re leaving now. We’re going out into the darkness.

A highly dissatisfying ending. There was something about Keene’s writing style that kept pulling me back to Darkness, eager to find out how it all got resolved, but it doesn’t. There’s no real explanation of where the darkness came from, unless you count the narrative’s eleventh hour rambling from Dez, the town’s resident crazy homeless guy and possibly the only sympathetic character, partly because Dez’s sigils at the borders of Walden appear to be the only reason the darkness hasn’t already consumed the town. No knowing if Robbie & Co. managed to escape, after all. And no indication of why it took Robbie to the very end of the book to come up with the final escape plan when I thought of it myself somewhere around the halfway or three-quarters mark after he observed the blood of a man killed by Russ draining down into the sewer system.

What’s worse, I don’t know if I even care whether they escaped, because I had real trouble caring about any of the characters. All four of the main characters are drug users and heavy drinkers with no real depth and enough immaturity to giggle at the fire chief’s name: Seymour Peters. Any hope of sympathy from me was lost when Robbie admitted that “on boring Friday nights, we used to go down to the corner [where there’s a household of known violence] and bet on how long it would take for the cops to show up in response to a domestic-disturbance call.”

But of all the characters, Christy is the worst. Her main role in the story seems to be to complain about the dwindling marijuana supply and be someone at whom Robbie can try not to direct the anger stirred up by the psychological influence of the darkness. I almost felt some sympathy for her when she professed a desire to go release the animals from the pet store, until it turned out she was just after a store employee’s stash.

Robbie at least tries to do something at a few points. He tries to get information, tries to reason with people, even leads an exploratory party. This last action earns him his own torches-and-pitchforks mob when not everyone in the party makes it back. But even the mob is dissatisfying, resulting in nothing more exciting than the four principals entrenching themselves deeper in their apartment building; they were already in a self-imposed quarantine, to avoid darkness-induced altercations with other town residents. Not once are they required to deal with a member of the mob sneaking into the building to attack, not once is the building stormed or even a window broken.

Several online reviews have accused Darkness of stealing from Stephen King’s The Mist; I’ll have to take their word for it, since I’ve never felt any desire to read King. As for me, the appearance of loved ones in the darkness, tempting people in to swallow them up (along with a couple other factors), reminded me strongly of the “Things That Go Bump” episode of the short-lived The Dresden Files. Obviously this is a plot device that has shown up in a few places, but that’s true of most plot devices; the goal of each work should always be to do something compellingly different with it.

In brief, Darkness on the Edge of Town had an intriguing premise that I feel didn’t stretch itself far enough to reach its potential.

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