The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman (Knopf Books for Young Readers, Sept. 2013)-The darkness is nearly all encompassing in Robin Wasserman’s latest, THE WAKING DARK. Oleander, Kansas is a very small town, considered quaint by its older residents (and some young ones), but for most of its younger set, it’s a place to escape once they come of age. Unfortunately, the time for escape is coming to an end, and it starts with the killing day. On the killing day, people that seemed sane snap and kill anyone that gets in their way, then themselves, except for one, a girl named Cass. Soon after, a tornado ravages Oleander and among the ruins, the town spirals further out of control, and when military forces move in, five teens will find the survival of Oleander on their shoulders, if they can survive the coming days. Juliet (Jule) Prevette is from the wrong side of the tracks, and part of a family that makes its living producing meth. Violence is nothing new to Jule, but it’s nothing compared to what’s in store. Jeremiah West is on the football team, popular and well liked, but he’s got a secret, and carries despair like a torch after witnessing his friend Nick’s death on the killing day. Daniel’s father is the town drunk and the only thing that really gives him joy is his younger half-brother Milo, and they’ll need each other more than ever when the town goes to hell, and boy does it.
I’ll admit, I had this for a bit and didn’t get to it until Chuck Wendig named it in his Stuff Wot I Liked in 2013 post. Boy, he wasn’t kiddin’. Wasserman’s small town vision is like something out of a Bosch painting and has been compared to Stephen King’s work (she mentions him in the acknowledgements and I can’t help but think he’d be proud.) In fact, it calls to mind Under the Dome, but with teens for the main characters and minus the aliens. That said, the comparisons are of the best kind, and this is uniquely Wasserman’s story. These teens are connected, but they’re not necessarily friends, and when the shite hits the fan, they have to trust each other, even if they never would have in their former lives. The adults in The Waking Dark behave very, very badly, and indeed, one of the scariest thing in a young person’s life is if the ones they are supposed to rely on the most become the enemy. Now, there is a reason behind this mess, and revealing what that is would be spoiling part of the fun, but Wasserman very slyly explores what it might be like to become completely morally untethered, and it is a nightmarish exploration. I grew quite fond of all the kids, but my favorite is Jule, who pretty much everyone would forgive if she went completely into the dark, but she doesn’t, and that makes her pretty special. Her family is right out of Deliverance, and the horrors of meth addiction are trumpeted loud and clear, as is the horror of her life of violence and neglect. Part survival horror, part psychological dissection of small town life, and part unflinching scare-fest, THE WAKING DARK is unmissable for mature teens and adults looking for scares that rise far above the usual fare.