Book Review: The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman
It’s easy to confuse the title with The Walking Dead, but no, there are no zombies in this new YA novel. Instead, horror bleeds out of the living, capturing the terror that a human is capable of wielding. Robin Wasserman is not new to writing but The Waking Dark has been her most successful book so far, and it’s easy to see why.
In The Waking Dark, we are taken into Oleander, a small town in the state of Kansas. But there are no sweet introductions to a life in the country; instead there is blood and mystery showered onto the reader from the very beginning. It all starts with what the town calls the killing day. Five different but gruesome murders in five different and unrelated locations shake Oleander to the bone. There is no explanation why, there’s only confusion towards the murderers’ strange change of character. No one expected them capable of such evil, and their questions remained unsolved. All murderers kill themselves after their sinful act except for one: Cass. But she doesn’t remember anything, except being overcome by a suffocating darkness.
Including Cass, The Waking Dark follows five different teenagers. Daniel, Jule, Cass, Ellie, and West all have distinct personalities and conflicts: Daniel comes from a broken home and feels the need to help everyone except himself; Jule struggles to break out from her family of meth addicts; West struggles with identity and sexuality issues; Ellie battles with her faith in God amongst the growing evil in Oleander; and Cass grapples with the realization that she is a murderer.
Once in a while, a chapter will follow secondary characters, mostly adults. As in most YA novels, they hinder the growth of the teenage characters and in Oleander, where strange things are happening and behaviors are polluted with maliciousness, their morals are thrown out the window. Alone, the teenage characters’ plight becomes even more difficult as destruction ensues in Oleander.
“The storms were gone, the skies clear from Wichita to Topeka. But they weren’t clear over Oleander, where a thick layer of clouds blotted out the sky. A strange trick of the moonlight had stained them red. And when people remembered anything about that night, it was this: there were no stars.”
After the killing day, the town is hit with a tornado. Once it passes and the townspeople finally decide it’s time to get out, they realize they are closed in by the government; they are under quarantine, the reason unknown even by the mayor. As days pass, it seems as if nothing good will ever happen. The town is cut off from the rest of the world and they’re forced to adapt old rural ways of living. At this point, a more prominent darkness begins to make its way through all people of Oleander. It’s a darkness that can’t be spotted but felt in their minds until it takes over and they become violent or morally blinded. And The Waking Dark does not shy away from the gory, instead it challenges the standards of the YA world, exploring humanity without ethics. And what’s more horrific about the gore is that such bloody situations happen in real life. Parents attacking children, adults attacking adults, children attacking children, it all happens in the real world and it happens every cringe-worthy chapter in The Waking Dark.
“Right now, before you found us? That’s the first time all week I haven’t felt like throwing up. When I had that gun in my hand. That’s the only thing that made it go away. And it’s going to come back. It always comes back.”
Apart from the specific conflicts tackled in the novel, there is an overarching theme used in it that is common in YA. Through the mental and physical destruction of Oleander, the teenage characters scramble to take control of their lives. They take agency to solve their problems and become unapologetic towards their rash decisions. As shown in the quote above, they only feel good when they hold fate in their hands. But even through their faults and their need to grow up faster, most still try to act kind and human through the realizations of impending doom. There is some light in this novel as the main characters find comfort in sharing a common struggle; humanity is still capable of hope, especially in the younger generation.
“Names have power; to name something is to domesticate it, or to try. Naming a tornado would be like naming a shadow. What happened in Oleander that day was simply the storm. A cloud that faded back into sky before it had a chance to enjoy what it had wrought.”
The strange occurrences in Oleander are always a mystery, especially for the readers. Each chapter leaves the reader in the shadows, always hinting of a darker future and the insignificance of humanity against such darkness. The characters always find themselves having to keep secrets but to no success, for someone in the small town is always keeping a watch.
The Waking Dark disturbs its readers’ emotions by injecting them with a large dose of darkness. We are reminded how evil can be uncontrollable as we even see it control the dreams of a few characters, who wake up and realize the dream, the nightmare, is all too real. But it’s not all despair and I found comfort in the perseverance of some of the characters. It’s no surprise Robin Wasserman novel has been compared to some of Stephen King’s first books. Her boldness and careful mixing of rawness and fear has left me admiring her. Robin brings something fresh to YA horror and it’d be a shame for anyone to miss out on it.