« Angel Land / Victor J. Banis | Main | Dead End Street / Rick R. Reed »

Castaways / Brian Keene

Leisure Books / February 2009
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

About halfway through Brian Keene’s Castaways, one is reminded of that infamous tagline from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: “Who will survive and what will be left of them?” Indeed, after this white-knuckle fiction screamfest, there may be very little left of readers’ nerves. Relentlessly frightening and viscerally brutal, Castaways combines non-stop action with an old school horror abandon that gives readers scarce time to come up for air.

On a lush tropical island, contestants of a Survivor-like reality show competition backstab and connive as each vie for the show’s million dollar grand prize. At the novel’s outset, thirteen of the twenty original contestants are several weeks into the competition, having already “exiled” several of their number as part of the show’s elimination process. They’re joined on the allegedly deserted island by a rotating crew of cameramen, medics, field producers, and a pompous, preening host there to coordinate, manipulate, and film their every move.

When a cyclone heads for the island, only a skeleton crew of three remains with the unlucky thirteen, the rest taking refuge on an offshore freighter that’s home to the exiled contestants, production crew and equipment. Just as the storm is about to hit, all hell breaks loose as the year-round residents of the island – a legendary lost tribe of savage half-human creatures – decide that they’re not up for company. Suffice to say that this is not Gilligan’s Island, and these are not your sitcom-variety headhunters.

What follows is, quite frankly, some of the best stuff to flow from the tip of Keene’s blood-soaked pen. As contestants and crew scramble, he expertly tracks and manages the large ensemble of characters, who endure a prolonged and vicious assault from both the storm and the cannibals. Blood coats the rain-soaked jungle as the contestants are eviscerated and torn limb-by-limb by the most ferocious creatures to stalk the written page in recent memory. And just when you think you can’t take another minute, Keene uses the literary equivalent of defibrillator paddles on a conscious person to amp up the tension even more.

That Keene is able to imbue almost every character with some kind of distinguishable traits that make the reader actually care when they’re slain is no small feat and one of the reasons why this book is destined to become a classic. Not surprising, Castaways is an homage to Keene's mentor, Richard Laymon, and comes across as the literary offspring of the late scribe’s The Woods Are Dark and Jack Ketchum’s Off Season…hopped up on amphetamines and juiced up with about a thousand volts of adrenaline.

In between the copious bloodshed, readers and reality TV fans alike will chuckle knowingly at Keene’s astute observations of reality show contestant demographics —with his own fictional cast resembling almost any season of Survivor. With a pair a African-American contestants, the requisite lone gay contestant, and the usual assortment of buff jocks, the voluptuous beauty, an obnoxious buffoon, the hothead, the all-American girl, the under-the-radar loner, and a smattering of middle-aged contestants, Keene’s fictional Castaways rings true right down to the challenges and makeshift shelters. This immediately recognizable pop culture setting makes the ensuing carnage all the more effective and chilling to the core.

At the heart of Castaways is Keene’s commentary on the barbaric nature of humanity — and how greed for money, power, and fame fuels our savagery toward one another. He personifies his exploration of the theme in both the cannibalistic creatures and their human counterparts, in the end proving that there’s little difference between those willing to exploit others and themselves for cold hard cash and the flesh-consuming creatures that haunt the jungle. He also explores how the façade of our culture’s so-called “reality” contributes to our collective apathy, using one of the more unlikely characters whose ulterior motive is one of the first genuine shocks of the novel. Even when Keene teeters dangerously close to overplaying the political card – here in a four-page theory on the dumbing down of America as a political conspiracy – he knows just when to pull back.

Other horror writers are going to hate Brian Keene this year. Launching Castaways so early in the new year, Keene (and publisher Leisure) have created an almost impossible act to follow. Unflinchingly vicious, heart-stopping, and immensely readable, Castaways is part throwback, part pop culture marvel, and all horror masterpiece. Easily Brian Keene’s best.

Purchase Castaways by Brian Keene.

Posted on Saturday, January 3, 2009 at 12:00PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend