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They Hunger / Scott Nicholson

thTheyHunger-1.jpgPinnacle / April 2007
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

In his latest novel, They Hunger, author Scott Nicholson sinks his teeth into a meaty vampire tale that’s The Descent unleashed meets The River Wild. With shades of Deliverance and Just Before Dawn to color the narrative with a gritty backwoods feel, Nicholson once again proves that he is to rural Appalachia what Bentley Little is the southwest.

The set-up is standard: several sets of diverse characters converge on the Unegama region of the Southern Appalachians. Nicholson has mastered the art of seamlessly melding disparate characters into the fabric of his novels, which, in the hands of lesser writers, could take on a distracting incongruence. Along for the ride down the bloody waterways of They Hunger is a hillbilly religious zealot taken to bombing abortion clinics and the young woman whose own dark dabbling in the underbelly of sadomasochism make her the perfect traveling companion. Hot on their trails are two FBI agents – Jim Castle, a veteran haunted by his unremarkable career, and Derek Samford, the rookie whiz kid right off the pages of a Criminal Minds script. Woven into the narrative by circumstance is a sextet of white water adventurers commissioned by an outdoor adventure company to test drive their latest high-tech raft – including a widower haunted by dreams of his dead wife, a renowned cyclist, an Olympic wrestler struggling with his own inner demons, a buffoonish reality show contest winner, a photojournalist (the lone female in the group) charged with documenting the adventure, and the requisite corporate tagalong there to protect the company’s interests while uttering the occasional marketing slogan. Throw in a civilian couple from New Jersey far better suited for slot machines in Atlantic City than the wild rapids of the Appalachian Mountains, and you’ve got yourself one hearty pot of character stew ripe for the tasting.

When an FBI ambush of the fugitive bomber and his gal pal runs afoul of some inconveniently placed tripwires, an underground cavern is opened in the ensuing blast, releasing a hungry flock of ancient winged creatures that swoop, tear, bite, and suck with gleeful abandon. Nicholson’s vampires are of the lean and mean old-school variety, and the author has no problem working the literary equivalent of a potshot at the modern depiction of the classic bloodsucker into the action:

It seemed anybody could stamp a pale, pointy-toothed European bisexual on a paperback novel cover or movie poster and the product would achieve success, however little deserved.

Sensitive readers looking for political correctness should look elsewhere. Nicholson doesn’t hold back from injecting the story with real-life characters regardless of their likeability – some stretching the bounds of political correctness to alarming lengths. Thankfully, the extremism of these characters is buffered by Nicholson’s use of satirical humor in exaggerating their absurdity. Vincent Farrengalli, whose appearance on a reality competition show earns him his spot on the high profile adventure team, is an equal opportunity bigot who hurls racist, misogynic, and homophobic epithets like baseballs. Even Mick Jagger’s lips aren’t safe from this archetype bully’s skewed perspective. Ace Goodhall, dubbed the ‘Bama Bomber even as Nicholson tells us with tongue planted firmly in cheek that he hails from North Dakota, is everything Farrengalli is – only worse, wrapped in a moth-eaten blanket of religious hypocrisy. Even when he veers dangerously close to stereotype territory, as in the case of the half-Cherokee wrestling champ on a pharmaceutical vision quest with medicine bag in tow, Nicholson skillfully detours from the one dimensional by layering the character with some internal struggles to reconcile the nobility of his Native-American heritage with the crass commercialism he’s exploited his own image to cash in on.

Nicholson knows how to muscle his way through a tight, action-packed narrative with moments of all-out assault that the reader won’t see coming. But in his fifth novel in as many years, Nicholson has also skillfully harnessed the power of subtlety with flesh-crawling scenes so insinuating that the horror eats at you in uncomfortable morsels like the delicate nibbles and licks of his bloodthirsty creatures as their cold tongues dart in and out of the wounds of conscious victims.

Hands down the scariest vampire novel to come along since Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, They Hunger will leave you feeling satiated and engorged. Grim, gruesome, and hair-raising, Nicholson’s latest Appalachian terror tale turns the domesticated, homogenized bloodsuckers of late to dust and returns vampire lore to its rightful place among the most frightening and brutal of horrors. And, like the best genre efforts in recent years, he shows us with disquieting precision that maybe there’s a little bit of monster in all of us along the way.

Purchase Scott Nicholson's They Hunger

Posted on Tuesday, October 9, 2007 at 04:31PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine | Comments Off

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