The Brian Keene of 2010 understood the internet of 2022.
The elevator pitch for this short novel reads like a mash-up of two different Stephen King stories: On the one hand, we have the idea of a small town being sealed off from the outside world as in 2009’s Under the Dome. On the other hand, we have the idea of society breaking down and people descending into barbarism as in King’s 1980 novella The Mist. While the plot of Darkness on the Edge of Town may be exactly what you’d expect from a combination of those two stories, the beauty of this novel lays not so much in its plot as in its themes.
The story begins with a pizza delivery guy hauling himself out of bed and struggling to tell the time as the power has gone out and the sky is still dark. Assuming it’s still early, the protagonist waits for a while but the sun doesn’t rise and the power doesn’t come back on. In fact, it’s not just the power that’s out… it’s everything including TV, radio, and the internet. It’s almost as though the world has disappeared.
The sense of bafflement deepens when the protagonist and his girlfriend agree to head down to the local fire department where the volunteer fire chief is trying to keep everyone calm and working together. The meeting doesn’t go well… it’s not just that the chief is a wheezy buffoon with a comical name and no idea what he’s doing; it’s that the townspeople all seem to be looking for reasons to squabble and fight.
As the novel progresses, the protagonist discovers that the entire town is encircled by an impassable wall of darkness. Nobody who ventures into the dark comes back out as everyone who sets foot outside of a ring of protective ruins seems to die screaming. Unable to leave or to get a message to the world outside, the townspeople withdraw from the edges of town and begin speculating. With no working services and limited supplies, the clock is ticking on things turning nasty but the slide into barbarism is accelerated by the ease with which mild irritation seems to blossom first into anger and then into violence that feels not just righteous but also really really good. Keene conveys that slide into madness in an early scene where the protagonist bickers with his stoner girlfriend only for the pair of them to start screaming at each other before the girlfriend bursts into tears and admits that she not only visualised taking a broken bottle to the protagonist’s throat but also found the idea a real turn on.
There is an episode of Star Trek: Voyager entitled “Scientific Method” in which the crew start suffering from a range of unlikely ailments. At first, the crew assume the ailments are the results of passing through a clump of pulsars but as the ship moves away from the pulsars, the effects get worse rather than better. Eventually, the ship’s doctor works out that the crew are being subjected to medical experiments and there’s an absolutely chilling scene in which the captain’s lack of sleep and head-aches are explained by the presence of a cloaked neck brace and a load of needles piercing her skull. Darkness on the Edge of Town has a similar vibe in that everyone in town is acting weird and under the influence of a malign force but with the source of the discomfort and those responsible for its deployment nowhere to be seen, people have no choice but to vent their anger at each other.
A little while ago, I reviewed Keene’s Dark Hollow and was really impressed by the way that Keene anchored his story in the horror that comes from having your identity pierced by your most hidden and transgressive desires. Dark Hollow is not just a novel about a satyr who blows on his pipes and reduces everyone to depraved animals. It’s a novel about a satyr who blows on his pipes and amplifies hidden desires to the point where people feel compelled to act on them in public. True horror lies not in being forced to do something against your will but rather in being obliged to do something you actually want to do but are too ashamed to admit.
There’s a similar process of psychological de-gloving at work in Darkness at the Edge of Town in so far as the anger and violence seem to come from both within and without. It’s not so much that the darkness is making people irrationally angry; it’s more a question of people no longer being able to control feelings that are already present. Keene plays with this idea by dropping hints that the protagonist thinks that his girlfriend might be cheating on him only for his latent and well-controlled insecurities to manifest themselves at worst possible moment. It’s also present in a scene where the protagonist and his friends encounter a man who is performing hideous experiments in an effort to make sense of the darkness. When asked whether he is actually a scientist, the man announces that he is now. With no rules and no authority to enforce them, why not just do and be whatever the fuck you want?
Like the books of a lot of American authors, Darkness on the Edge of Town operates on the assumption that bourgeois normality is rooted in unspoken threats of violence: Remove the cops, the army, and anyone else with the democratically-appointed power to beat people into submission and society immediately descends into savagery and the only defence against savagery is for people to own guns. Liberals have a tendency to view gun-worship as a symptom of conservative politics but I think that’s largely due to the fact that weapons-manufacturers cloak themselves in the flag as a means of marketing their products. In truth, gun-worship sits up-stream from political factionalism, it flows from a far more basic set of pre-political assumptions about human nature and how society is formed. I would argue that this vision of societal collapse and the idea that the only thing between civilisation and barbarism is fire-power is a very uniquely American vision of the world in much the same way as Lord of the Flies’ depictions of hierarchical cruelty is very uniquely British. While it’s tempting to read Darkness on the Edge of Town as yet another American apocalypse, I think this reading of the book is complicated by the presence of the darkness.
One thing that Keene heavily implies throughout the book is that without the darkness making everyone worse, chances are that people would have remained calm and worked together. So how are we to understand the darkness and its role as a social irritant?
I think that Darkness on the Edge of Town can be read as a kind of political allegory for the role of social media over the last 5-10 years and the way that people online, like the residents of the town in the novel, can no longer see the edges of their world.
We know that something isn’t right but we are utterly alienated from the systems that shape our world. Liberals account for this alienation by talking about ‘fake news’ and the kind of disinformation that gets shared by elderly relatives on Facebook but before there was fake news, there was an entire generation of well-educated politicians and thinkers telling us that the world was so complicated that only a rare breed of highly-educated and experienced professional should be allowed to make decisions. These professionals presented themselves as dispassionate experts with no ideological commitments but the conclusions they drew were inevitably that we lived in the best of all possible worlds except for a few micro-targeted means-tested tax breaks aimed at tweaking the economy in one way or another. Change was impossible, all we could ever hope for was slow and marginal improvements to a system that allowed some to become billionaires while others starved to death in the streets outside their palaces. When the financial crisis hit, it became immediately obvious that these experts knew no more about how the world worked than anyone else… like the bureaucrats who once administered the Soviet Union, they had made up a load of stories and refined them to the point where you needed a PhD to engage with them in any meaningful way and yet, they were a huge pack of lies.
Since then, people have tried to reconnect with the world through a series of political projects that have all ended in failure: The left tried to talk about class, the right tried to talk about nationalism, and while both made political inroads, neither set of stories has proved as stable as the centrist mythos it was trying to replace. So here we are in 2022: We know that things are fucked, we know that things are going to get worse, but we don’t know how to fix the problem. There’s no visible path from bad to better only from bad to immeasurably worse.
This is not just a bleak situation. It is also a situation that runs contrary to many of the myths that Western civilisation has been telling about itself since the enlightenment. What if working hard didn’t result in a better life? What if democratic institutions couldn’t be reformed in a democratic manner? What if the best and most-qualified people weren’t in charge and what if putting those people in charge made no difference? What if millionaires from both parties put kids in cages and pretended not to notice when billionaires used their private jets to swap under-aged sex partners? These are all things we can observe by watching the news and yet they are also things that should not be taking place. These things should not be happening and yet they keep happening and nothing can be done to stop them.
The current situation is defined not just by a political impasse, but also growing social instability. Emotion is like electricity in that your emotions will always seek the path of least resistance. You might not be able to change the economy or reform the political system, you might not even be able to participate in the political process without being subjected to violence and abuse, but you can yell at people on the internet. You can argue with your loved-ones. You can bitch about your friends and cause your social group to splinter and splinter and splinter. You can slander and lie and generate huge amounts of social clout in the process. You can spend all day broadcasting endless waves of toxic cruelty and be celebrated for doing so. Plus it turns out that hounding people to the point of suicide feels really, really good. In fact, it feels better than almost anything else in the entire world.
Darkness at the Edge of Town is a portrait of a social system under pressure. As the novel progresses, people get visibly more angry, depressed, and scared but with nothing to do and nobody to blame, they start coming up with reasons to vent those negative feelings. Like the energy built up in a storm front, people’s minds are churning with energy until some minor disagreement or irritation presents itself and allows the energy to discharge. When confronted with the violence of these discharges, some people lean into the feelings of catharsis and become monsters while others come up with weird conspiracies that explain why they were perfectly justified in their decision to murder, rape, and torture. Like us, the people in this novel are always angry and always in the right.
While I absolutely adored the novel’s themes and psychology, I could understand people feeling a little bit frustrated not only with the somewhat episodic structure but also with the ambiguity of the novel’s ending. In Keene’s defence, I think the ending of the novel makes absolute sense once you realise that it’s all about how disempowered and alienated people will latch onto any story that allows them to act, even when that story seems nonsensical. I also quite liked the episodic structure as it not only brought home the town’s slow descent into savagery but also the ‘flatness’ of actions performed in a world were nothing makes sense and nothing matters. I also enjoyed the structure as each of the set pieces is brilliantly rendered making for a really engaging and (at times) quite visceral read.
Darkness at the Edge of Town is probably best-described as a supernatural post-apocalyptic story with elements of cosmic horror. The cosmic horror in question relates to the mythology of the Thirteen that pops up in a number of Keene stories including Dark Hollow and its various sequels. Fans of that series might appreciate the Easter Eggs and references but I didn’t find it all that compelling as Keene presents these alien forces as not only evil but also quite conventionally expansionist in so far as they seem to spend their time trying to dominate people and the planets they inhabit. For my money, that’s a lot less compelling and creepy than the Lovecraftian idea of alien presences that aren’t so much evil as literally incomprehensible but I recognise that mileages vary on that one.
I must admit that I really enjoyed Darkness on the Edge of Town. It’s not exactly overflowing with new ideas but the ideas it does deploy are handled in an elegant and evocative manner. This is old school horror, but it still works because people are and always will be shit.