The Border (2015) by Robert McCammon

border_10_hcThe Border is Robert McCammon‘s long-anticipated return to the balls-to-the-wall horror of such classics as Swan Song (1987). Unfortunately, the balls are missing, the wall is crumbling and the result is a poor copy of that earlier (far superior) novel.

There’s not a whole lot of originality in The Border. The plotline is pretty much lifted wholesale from Swan Song, with a supernaturally gifted youngster leading a ragtag pack of survivors to a US president hiding in a mountain base. But instead of a nuclear war, it’s an alien war that has devastated the planet. That ingenious difference probably comes from any number of alien invasion movies, video games and TV shows, with Falling Skies being perhaps the most obvious one.

Even overlooking the secondhand premise it’s hard to enjoy the novel; the storytelling drags, forcefully, like the novel had no literary editor at all (some typos and a constant, annoying use of dot dot dot also imply that some quality control was surrendered in the making of this novel). The beginning is alright, but an overlong alien sex sequence (!) segues into a long, interminable bus ride which takes just forever, with basically no breaks in between. I mean, couldn’t there have been at least some attempt to flesh out the world in which these characters live.

Besides the miracle kid Ethan who finds himself turning into a Silver Surfer, only the television evangelist Jefferson Jericho is sketched out in any significant detail; he’s the only character worthy of the title “character” in the novel, the others being basically cardboard stand-ins. The aliens are alien, and particularly one-note creations at that, with a (not at all surprisingly) silly Terminator-like mandroid Vope being the most memorable one, besides the penis-milking alien queen (really can’t get that alien sex sequence out of my mind, sorry).

The single positive thing about the novel and its remarkably undeveloped world are the mutants, the feral Gray Men, who for some reason or other keep attacking the live ones (one assumes it’s because their kind always do that in movies). There’re some moments approaching horror in these scenes, but it’s all by the numbers with no surprises, and of course they all fizzle out and it’s back to the bloody bus and a deus ex machina ending. One almost wishes someone had pushed the reset button much, much earlier.

The other saving grace of the novel is its relatively short length and some semblance of readibility (meaning it’s not the worst horror novel I’ve read, not by far; but I guess that just says something about how many truly crappy horror novels there are). At 400+ pages The Border is mercifully over fairly quickly – and it’s still hefty enough that it can be used as a doorstop or a paper weight. Small mercies, eh?

Skip this one and pick up Swan Song.

** (2/5)

Available now in multiple formats from Subterranean Press. Visit the author’s site and check out his far superior earlier books! Even the fairly recent I Travel by Night kicks some serious butt.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

stationeleven
UK paperback cover

It’s Captain Trips all over again; with a sneeze and a fever the world comes to a crashing halt, and only a handful of survivors are left to pick up the pieces. In this desolate landscape a ragtag band of survivors (actors, musicians) travels from settlement to settlement, performing Shakespeare, because mere “survival is insufficient”.

And that’s the idea that lifts the novel above the common postapocalyptic drudgery; sure, there’s a tight spot or two with all the familiar craziness the end of the world brings, and that keeps things exciting. But beneath the usual trappings the message is positive and hopeful. Not only will humanity survive, but so will some of its cultural achievements, from Shakespeare to a lowliest self-published comic book. Little by little things keep getting better: a newspaper appears, and a town is seen on the horizon, lit up by electric lights.

Station-Eleven
US cover

The postapocalyptic narrative is interrupted by scenes from before the fall, featuring a famous actor who dies suddenly on the eve of the calamity. Not all parts fit as elegantly into the whole as well as they should, but the realistic, feet on the ground optimism of the novel is, no pun intended, rather infectious.

**** (4/5)

Published in 2014, available in multiple formats. Visit the author’s site