I can’t say I necessarily had any reservations about reading Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers (2019) right now, as our current global pandemic is ramping itself back up into nightmare territory. I figured the story of a group of people who out of nowhere turn into unresponsive sleepwalkers who leave their homes and form an ever-increasing block on the road to … somewhere … wouldn’t ring many bells with the reality of Covid-19 and its maddening variants.
And that was mostly true, although there are enough similarities to be disturbing. On the other hand, disturbing readers is kind of what the horror genre is all about, so caveat lector and all that. And putting aside whether it’s a little too on the nose right now, I found Wanderers to be a compelling read.
The parade of sleepwalkers begins with a single teenager, who is unresponsive to attempts to talk or interact with her, relentlessly putting one foot in front of the other and refusing to deviate from her route. When her sister tries to intervene and stop her march, the wanderer undergoes alarming physical changes that quickly discourage any further attempts to divert her. People come out of their houses as she passes by, in the same catatonic state, and join her. No one knows why it’s happening, how people are “infected” by the sleepwalking illness (if that’s what it is) or how to stop it. As the walkers continue on their way, some of their loved ones form a support group that travels with them to make sure they are safe. Other people, without any family or friends among the afflicted, become hostile to something they don’t understand. Conspiracy theories abound as to the cause and the ultimate outcome, none of which have any effect on the wanderers themselves, who seem to have a definite destination in mind but are unable to communicate in any way with the unafflicted.
It took a while for the narrative to reach its full velocity, but it does get there eventually and once it does, I was helpless to stop reading. There may have been a few too many subplots, which led to spending more time with secondary characters than I would have liked, but that’s a minor quibble. I wasn’t surprised to find that the parts of this science fiction novel I enjoyed the least were the parts that hit a little too close to current events — the demagogue presidential candidate, the white supremacist militias, and so on. I prefer my horror to be a little less grounded in reality, thanks.
Nevertheless, I appreciated the plot twists that I at least did not see coming. I was less appreciative when the story ended on a semi-cliffhanger that made it clear there will be another book to truly finish off the plot. Having said that, I’m pretty sure when the next installment is published, I’ll be ready to revisit the Wanderers universe once again.