Book Review: Scott Nicholson’s THEY HUNGER

The concept of putting the “fangs” back in vampires gets a lot of buzz these days. In large part because of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, but it can also be traced back to Anne Rice. And yet, though Anne Rice’s vampires certainly had detailed “sensitive” sides, her novels still contain plenty of blood and guts, as well as varied species of vampires that include near mindless revenants hungry for a blood meal and nothing else.

From books to TV to movies, whenever we encounter these creatures, most fans of pop literature and media can quickly recognize the categories. They know which type they’re dealing with in any given work.

Yet with Scott Nicholson’s They Hunger, we get more than just a reaffirmation of (as the back of the book offers us) “Vampires. No Interviews.” Rather, Nicholson ups the ante and gives us vampires with a relatively original wilderness twang. Think Dracula meets the Wendigo. Of course, we’re dealing with Scott Nicholson, an enigmatic American horror writer from North Carolina who is capable of echoing Stephen King’s more prosaic moments between laying out Brian Keene-like scenes of enticing mayhem.

The novel opens with a group of professional whitewater rafters setting out on an expedition down a treacherous mountain river to promote a new type of raft. Nicholson draws an intriguing cast of characters: corporate managers, washed up reality TV stars, veteran outdoorsmen in search of redemption and a beautiful adventure-photographer with a twang of the femme fatale. Thrown into the mix is a nutcase family planning clinic bomber fleeing through the nearby woods from a pair of FBI agents. This setup alone could well sustain a good rural noir novel à la Tom Piccirilli.

But of course, the story takes an abrupt and immediate turn: when one of said nutcase’s bombs accidentally blows up an underground cavern, it unleashes a flock of vicious vampires that resemble gray, humanoid, undead bats. We’ll stop the summary there and only add that Nicholson’s prose delivers a heady narrative of the ensuing pursuit and struggle for survival.

And yet, probably the most interesting aspect of this novel is that it avoids being simply, “small group attacked by awful horrors.” True, wondering who will survive the vampire onslaught motivates us to turn the page. But the difference between Nicholson and Keene is the type and style of character development we get along the way. I have always been impressed by the latter’s ability to develop characters swiftly in just a few lines. With Nicholson, I get a sense that he has the skill to do the same thing, yet gives us maybe two more sentences of stream-of-consciousness thought amid the action. This delivers a sense of emotional reality that gives the characters just a little more substance. And so when the fangs sink in, the reader can truly feel the bite.

I am not necessarily arguing one method is ‘better’ than the other; rather, I think we can see an interesting amalgam of the Stephen King suspense style horror coupled with the faster paced, apocalyptic zombie-attack style horror more popular in recent years.

So if you like dark literature and savor it like a single malt scotch, pick up They Hunger and try it out. The flavor is fresh, potent and has a singular twist that will leave you satisfied and wondering what else this author has on offer.

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