The town of Oleander is nothing exceptional… except for one thing, something brewing underneath the surface that one horrible day led to the most gruesome of things: The Killing Day. 12 people in the small Kansas town were killed by 5 other Oleander people. Four of them killed themselves afterwards, except for Cass whose suicide attempt failed. With no recollection of what happened, she’s put in an institution hoping that this means things will be buried forever.
But then, a year later, a storm came, the town of Oleander is put under military quarantine (for which you don’t exactly get a reason until…) and the distrust that had been plaguing the people of Oleander ever since The Killing Day is about to come to the surface once again… no more hiding, not for Cass, who’s now out of the mental institution, but not for the other group of ‘outsiders’ in the ‘normal’ city of Oleander either: Jule (the girl trying to escape her family reputation of meth addicts and meth dealers), West (the high school football star mourning his dead lover, Nick), Ellie (the religious zealot who’s trying to save all of their souls) and Daniel (who’s the son of a Preacher and has taken the care of his younger brother Milo upon himself as he sees his father suffering from his own personal demons) and a bunch of other teens, like Grace and Milo who all blend in and out of the story as you go along.
Wasserman changes focus so very often throughout her narrative that getting to the essence of a character was really hard. The book is told in the 3rd person, which here is a very distancing perspective, and which always prevents the reader from internalizing the often shocking things that happen to the characters or that the characters do themselves. Each of the protagonists has something that sets them apart, and each of them has baggage galore, so once the mayhem starts the book almost feels like an experiment in human behavior focusing on rage, violence and (im)morality of certain acts. Something to watch, rather than experience. It’s also the main reason why I never clicked with any of the characters, and there’s nothing worse than feeling indifferent about the fate of a character in a book.
The Waking Dark is very much set in a Stephen King horror tradition…that much is clear, from Wasserman’s own acknowledgements, to the blurb, to the marketing of this book, and also to the brewing menacing style of writing. However… Stephen King is more than just horror and style. For me, Stephen King is first and foremost a brilliant storyteller who manages to create a menacing universe, yes, but whose characters within that universe are so well-rounded that even at the creepiest of times, the characters (that I can care for or have actual emotions about) and the lavish plot always – always – win over style. “Style” is not so much secondary with King, as that it feels like he’s not even trying and it’s an integral part of the overall plot. It’s not that Wasserman is trying too hard in The Waking Dark, though. What bothered me the most is that the style becomes an impediment to the plot, the mystery and the characters. Ultimately the style drags out the sentences and the paragraphs and the pages, until you really have to look for the plot – which is there, for sure, but which should have been to the forefront and not in the background like it is now.
As for the ultimate resolution of the story? Well, I don’t think that this was Wasserman’s intention in the first place, and it shows… because when we get to the why, it’s not very… well, original. It’s just a bit of a cheap way out.
The Waking Dark is horror, but there’s much better to be found out there, not in the least in Stephen King’s magnificent oeuvre. However, if the Maine Master of Horror doesn’t shake your bones enough, try Daniel Kraus’s Rotters and Scowler or Andrew Smith’s The Marbury Lens and Passenger.