"I don't care where the light leads. I'd just like to see it one more time."
by Brian Keene (Leisure, 2010)
Walden, Virginia is a smallish town like many others. Until the morning its citizens wake to find the world gone: No phones, no radio, no TV, no water, and no power; no sunlight, no starlight, and nothing outside the town limits that means well for its inhabitants.
"Walden," of course, is a watchword in U.S. history and culture. For Thoreau it was a place of hard work, retreat and reflection, a place where one could "live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
Keene's narrator, young Robbie Higgins, would not be mistaken for Thoreau, just as Walden, VA is a long way from Concord, MA and nearby Walden pond. But both, ultimately, tell their own story and tell it true.
Darkness on the Edge of Town displays Keene's passionate curiosity for how working class people confront and negotiate, along with their companions and friends, the end of the world. His characters are sharp, his prose is economical, and the first-person narration is carefully executed .
Even in the early chapters, when the extent of the crisis is still uncertain, Robbie and his comrades are on their guard. These are not fools, as we see when they approach the dark barrier at the edge of town.
After I opened the door and got out of the Pontiac, Russ and Christy did the same. We shut the doors quietly and moved slowly. The air felt heavy. Oppressive, like before a summer storm. I'd parked the car so that the headlights were pointed into the darkness beyond the sign, but it didn't do much good. It was like the beams were hitting a wall. Just beyond the road sign, the blackness swallowed them up.
It's hard to describe something that's not describable, but fuck it—I'll give it a shot. Imagine that you're sitting in a dark room at night with no lights or candles or anything else for a source of light. Imagine that there's darkness all around you. Total and complete darkness. Okay? Now imagine that just beyond that darkness is a different kind of darkness, blacker than the rest of the darkness around you. It seems to have substance, even though you know it doesn't. It's like tar or India ink. It ripples when you look at it out of the corner of your eye, or maybe it seems to shimmer. You can see the change with your naked eye—the razor line where mere gloom changes into obsidian.
That's what it was like, standing there in the middle of the road.
"Jesus…" Christy's whisper seemed to dissipate, as if the darkness were swallowing sound like it did the headlights.
Russ clicked on his flashlight, shined it into the impenetrable blackness, and stepped forward. I grabbed his arm and pulled him back.
"Don't go near it."
"Because it's wrong. Don't you feel it?"
Russ stared at me for a moment without responding, then shrugged me off and turned back to the curtain's edge. He moved the flashlight around, directing the beam at different angles into the gloom. Finally, he spoke.
"This is some fucking weird shit, guys."
Christy and I nodded in agreement. I was about to respond when Christy silenced us.
"Listen," she said.
At first I didn't hear anything. But after maybe thirty seconds, I noticed that there were sounds in the darkness. They started out quiet but grew louder as we listened—slithering noises, growls and grunts and muted, warbling shrieks. All sounded as if they were coming from a long distance away. Some of the noises sounded human. Others didn't. But in addition to those sounds, each of us heard something else, too. The darkness spoke to us. It whispered to us with familiar voices long unheard. Later, when we compared notes, we learned that each of us had heard something different.
The darkness spoke to Christy with her father's voice. He'd died of a sudden heart attack two years earlier. Secretly I'd always thought that his death had a lot to do with Christy's dependence on drugs and alcohol. I mean, we both liked to party, but for her, the partying had become something more after her father passed away.
Russ heard his ex-wife's voice in the darkness, which was funny, he said, since before that moment, he hadn't heard from her in more than twelve years. He didn't know anything about her, other than she'd moved to North Carolina and started a new life without him, but now it was like she was hiding in the shadows and calling his name.
For me, the darkness sounded like my grandfather. I never knew my dad, and my mom worked two jobs to provide for me, so my grandparents pretty much raised me. I didn't mind. They were both good people, and I'd loved them very much. Me and Mom lived with them. I slept in Mom's old room, and she slept on the couch. When I was little, my grandfather was my best friend. We built extensive, highly detailed model train dioramas on top of his workbench, outfitting them with little houses and trees and fake grass and tiny cars. When I was twelve, he took me on a trip to Norfolk to see the navy ships heading out to sea, and another time, he took me on a weekend visit to Colonial Williamsburg. In the summertime, he used to take me out on the back roads in his car. When we got to a place where there was no traffic, I'd sit on his lap and he'd let me drive the car. He'd work the gas and brake while I steered. I'd loved him, and still did....
"Hello, Robbie," he said. "Come and give your grandpa a big hug."
I tried to speak, but my mouth was dry. My tongue and lips felt like they were swelling. The smells grew stronger.
"Come on," he insisted. "It's been so long. I've missed you."
He held out his arms to me the way he used to, and I remembered how safe I'd felt with them wrapped around me, squeezing. I didn't feel that way now, and I imagined that if I went to him, the squeeze would be something less than tender or caring. I stayed where I was. In truth, I don't know if I could have moved even if I'd wanted to. My feet felt like they were ankle deep in cement. I glanced over at Russ and Christy. They both stared into the darkness, gaping in the same direction as I'd been, but judging from their reactions, neither was seeing what I saw. I wondered what they were seeing instead. Then I turned back to my grandfather and he smiled.
"Go away," I whispered.
"Come on, Robbie," he urged again. "At least come over here where I can see you better. You're all grown up now. All that blond hair and those blue eyes. You look like your mother when she was your age."
He beckoned. The darkness seemed to flow around him like ripples in a black, oily pool.
"Go away," I repeated, closing my eyes. "Please go away. You're not my grandfather. You're not real. You can't be. You died."
"I'm real," he said. "Touch me, Robbie. Feel me. I'm solid."
I opened my eyes. His eyes seemed to blaze with that cold light. It flared and sparked around his frame, billowing from his head and shoulders and fingertips. He still hadn't moved.
But Russ had. While my eyes were shut, he'd shuffled toward the darkness. He stretched his arms, reaching for something I couldn't see. He had a shocked, confused smile on his face.
"But why didn't you call?" Russ peered into the shadows. "If you had just let me know you were coming, I could have picked you up at the airport."
I glanced in the direction he was staring. There was nothing there that I could see. I turned to Christy, but she seemed oblivious to us both. Weeping, she knelt in the middle of the road, wiped her eyes and nose with her hands, and repeated, "I'm sorry," over and over again.
"Don't be silly," Russ said, smiling. "It's no trouble at all."
"Robbie," my grandfather called. "Don't worry about them right now. I need you to come closer. It's hard to see you."
Ignoring him, I ran after Russ. He was just a few feet away from that thin razor line where the darkness became the absence of light. His smile had grown broader, and he nodded in response to something I couldn't hear.
"Sounds good to me," he said. "I missed you, too. You don't know how much. Let's go back to my place. The past is the past."
He paused but didn't turn to face me. I hurried to catch up with him and grabbed his wrist. He turned to me as if half asleep. The confused smile was still on his face.
I squeezed his wrist. "Where are you going, man?"
"Robbie?" He blinked. "Hey, I want to introduce you to somebody."
"There's no one there, Russ. It's a trick."
"Are you nuts? She's standing right there. Look!"
I did, and she wasn't. I told him so. Then I told him about my grandpa.
"Robbie," my grandfather interrupted, as if on cue. "Hurry up now. Enough of this foolishness."
"Shut the fuck up," I shouted.
"Who are you hollering at?" Russ seemed puzzled.
"My grandpa. You didn't hear him, right? And I bet that you can't see him either, can you?"
Russ nodded, frowning. He glanced into the darkness and then back at me.
"And I can't see or hear whatever it is you see out there," I explained. "They're not real, Russ. We're hallucinating. It's like a bad acid trip."
"It's not…not real?"
"No. It's just the darkness. Something in the darkness is fucking with our heads, man."
"She's not there."
It wasn't a question, but I shook my head anyway.
It's a harrowing moment so early in the novel. As readers we are still orienting ourselves to these characters, and we are relieved that Keene is not going to use his main protagonists as canon fodder; he saves that privilege for a couple of firemen in a 4x4 heading for the next town over.
Darkness on the Edge of Town gives us at least a dozen main characters: the mad, the bad, and the dangerous, most turning out to be dangerous to Robbie, Russ, and Christy.
After initial toing and froing in the first half of the novel, Keene gives us some very funny social interactions as Robbie, Russ and their neighbor Cranston try to form a group to probe into the darkness.
There were five teenage boys hanging around the burn barrel on our street corner. Even though it was daytime, smoke and shadows obscured their faces until I got closer. One of them was occupied with a handheld video game system that still had power, and his attention was totally focused on that. But the rest of them looked up as Russ, Cranston, and I approached. One of them, a white kid whose baggy jeans hung low enough to expose three-quarters of his boxer shorts, stepped forward.
"'Sup, dog? What you need?"
I tried to hide my smirk. I had nothing against the dude's fashion sense or slang or intentional grammar-mangling. I've had plenty of friends who did the same thing. But two things were immediately obvious to me. One, if I wanted these guys to help us, I'd have to convince this de facto leader, and two, their leader was an idiot.
"What's up," I returned the greeting. "You alright?"
"We solid, yo. Just chilling. Know what I'm saying? Got to wonder who these three dudes are, steppin' to us on our corner, though."
"Sorry for intruding."
"So what you want? You here to break bad? Know what I'm saying?"
"Not really," Russ said. "You sound like you're auditioning for The Wire or something."
The leader scowled. "What you mean?"
"I mean that I don't understand a goddamned thing you just said. What language are you speaking?"
"The fuck you been smoking, old man? You looking to get your ass stomped?"
I interrupted, before Russ could reply. "We need some help. I asked around and heard that you and your crew are some good people to have guarding your back."
He grinned. "Word. People sayin' that for real? It's true. Our set rules this motherfuckin' street. Don't nothing go on without us knowing about it. Know what I'm saying?"
I thought about pointing out that before the darkness came, the only place he and his friends ruled was maybe the high school—and even that was doubtful. I swallowed my laughter and tried to appear impressed.
"I'm Robbie. This is Russ and Mr. Cranston."
"'Sup." He nodded at Russ and Cranston, then motioned to his buddies. "I'm T. This is Irish, Stan the Man, Mad Mike, and Mario."
All of them mumbled greetings, except Mario, who didn't look up from his game. T slapped the back of his head, and he almost dropped the unit.
"Where your manners, dog? Say hello, motherfucker. Be polite and shit."
"Yo, Tucker! You gonna make me blow this level! Been trying to get this shit for two days."
"Fuck that game. And how many times I got to tell you? Out here on the street, you call me T. You feel me? Do I call you Phil? No, I call you Mario, motherfucker. So don't be calling me Tucker anymore. Tucker is dead. Know what I'm saying? Tucker was my slave name."
Russ cleared his throat. "Slave name?"
Cranston seemed bewildered. "But…you're white."
"Shit." T snickered. "You think I don't know that, yo? Hell yeah, I'm white."
"Don't you think that calling yourself a slave might be disrespectful to those who are actually descended from slaves, man?"
"See, you thinking in terms of color, old hippie dude. We need to move beyond that."
"But you're talking about slavery," Cranston persisted. "You're making light of one of the most horrendous things ever perpetrated by mankind."
"Slavery don't know no color, yo. And I ain't making light of it either. I was a slave to my parents and shit. A slave to my motherfucking school. A slave to all their fucked up rules. Know what I'm saying? But my parents ain't come home from work, and school's out forever, so now I'm free. I ain't a slave no more."
Cranston opened his mouth to respond, but then he shut it again and simply stared at the teen. He looked bewildered. Russ looked annoyed. I thought it was funny, myself.
T turned to Mario. "We got visitors. Say hello, stupid. Don't be a dick."
"'Sup." Mario, aka Phil, turned back to his game.
"We need your help," I repeated. "You interested?"
"Yo, we for hire, if the price is right. Know what I'm saying? What you need done? And, more importantly, what you paying?"
"All in good time. First, I need to round up a few more people."
The probe into the darkness by Robbie's band of volunteers ends in a deadly fiasco. Lives are lost and Robbie takes the blame. This sets the novel's denouement in motion: as supplies dwindle and the darkness itself accelerates every argument among individuals to the point of homicide, Robbie, Russ, and Christy decide on one last strategy that may permit escape.
The fact that the rest of the world may no longer be there only underscores the weight of this choice.
Near the end of Walden, Thoreau noted, "No face which we can give to a matter will stead us so well at last as the truth. This alone wears well."
The modest truth of fiction in Darkness on the Edge of Town wears very well indeed.
28 August 2021