Crown, 2008, 342 pages, C$27.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-307-40610-1
The recent resurgence of horror as a genre has been, so far, mostly confined to paperbacks, but there are signs that horror may be coming back to hardcover too. After Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, here’s another widely-available horror novel in hardcover from a new author: Scott Sigler’s Infected.
Sigler, like many horror writers of his generation such as David Wellington and Brian Keene, is currently breaking out from niche publishers and web fan circles to traditional publishers. Sigler’s been writing for a while, relying on podcast serialization to build a fan base and hone his skills. Now, with Infected, he’s been unleashed on an unsuspecting population of bookstore readers sure to be tempted by the cover illustration’s arresting triangular iris.
From a certain angle, Infected‘s not much more than another go on a familiar horror story: The idea of an alien invasion via radical body modification, and the fight to contain the infection. Zombies, Ebola, Pod-People: whatever the name, the tune remains the same. The novel may begin with people mysteriously turning psychotic and shooting down their families, there’s a sense that this is familiar territory, even as Sigler has mastered the art of intriguing the reader with hints of the menace looming over every character.
But the trick’s in the execution, and Sigler’s got a mean streak. If the whole infection plot-line is familiar, what’s far more interesting is the book’s main sequence, in which ex-footballer Perry Dawsey deals with the progressive stages of his alien affliction. From a bad flu, his infection turns into something far stranger. His body is hurting in seven different places, and Dawsey isn’t the kind of man to whimper all the way to professional health care. He’ll take matters in his own hands, especially when it becomes obvious that his infection isn’t a garden-variety plague.
Because his growing tumors start talking to him. And when he starts digging them out, they fight back using Dawsey’s own body. Faint echoes of other voices (intriguingly presented as chaotic typography) amplify and present a formidable enemy solidifying under the protagonist’s skin. No household implement is ignored as Dawsey cuts out, digs out, burns through or rips apart his growing antagonists.
Extreme bodily harm is the name of the horror-show in Infected, and it goes without saying that readers with known sensibilities to these kinds of shenanigans shouldn’t even attempt to read this book. Thrill-seeking horror fans, on the other hand, will be overjoyed at the inventive ways Sigler can find to induce winces and gags from his readers. There’s plenty of squishy, flesh-tearing atrocities in those pages, and the result is definitely memorable: every time you think it can’t get worse, well, it does. Our protagonist certainly doesn’t make it intact to the end of the novel.
In comparison, the overarching plot about fighting an alien invasion feels like a perfunctory attempt to provide some context and pad the story to novel length. The final climax is far more ordinary than Dawsey’s own story, and the entire book deflates a bit because of it. What prospective readers should know (despite this not being written anywhere in the hardcover edition) is that Infected is the first in an unannounced trilogy, and so the connecting material may end up becoming far more important when seen from the entire series’ perspective.
In the meantime, readers looking for a few gruesome thrills may want to read through Infected for its clean prose, bloody developments and scary self-harm scenes. There’s no deep social message here, nor even any attempt at literary respectability. But unrepentant horror has been absent far too long from hardcover shelves, and Infected is a welcome return to the hardcore rough origins of the genre. Sequel Contagious has already been announced in time for New Year’s Day 2009.
[February 2009: As the alien infection spreads out, Contagious attempts a bigger story. From the first scenes featuring a new President, the feel is less intensely claustrophobic and closer to wide-screen SF/technothriller. It’s a worthy follow-up (and despite being a second in an announced trilogy, it ends on a fairly definitive note) even though it’s somewhat less memorable than Perry Dawser’s appartment-bound fight against intruders in his own body. The mixture of horror and military elements is intriguings, and the confidence with which Sigler tells the story shows that he’s definitely writing for the big leagues now.]