[REVIEW] The Dark Net by Benjamin Percy

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017


I went into Benjamin Percy’s The Dark Net mostly unaware of what it was about (good start, avoid any “dark” and “blind” puns). The older I get and the more that goes on, well, the more dodgy my memory gets. It’s sort of apt, considering this novel deals so heavily with technology, and this also points out why I jive with Lela (“a technophobic journalist”) so well: technology has made it easier to access, store, and recall information and content of any kind, not to mention doing it all faster, but the human brain has a general peak, after which it slows down. That, and the ability to more easily access a greater variety of stimuli means there are more things competing for memory space/retention, and it’s an endless battle to keep up or get ahead or suss out some stasis.

The Dark Net is described as a “terrifying horror novel” and reads like a paranoid rollercoaster stuck on a loop. It certainly is that horror novel, but it’s also a face-in-a-sink-of-iced-water (I never thought I’d make a Huey Lewis reference that wasn’t also an American Psycho reference, but here we are) comment on our current technological landscape, how we use it (or fail to), and how it uses us, how it controls so much of our lives, and how we maybe shouldn’t blindly (yep, going there) trust in it. Also, more painfully but no less true, just how minor we are.

Some people get lost in the Internet, disconnect from the “real world” and “live” online, but maybe the Internet is just illuminating how microscopic and unimportant people ultimately are, perhaps even to each other (though we should always be excellent to each other). Or, maybe, it’s that we truly are nothing but stimulus and response, and the medium doesn’t matter. But the Internet is eternal, right?

Once it’s online it’s out there forever. That sentiment is not just a scare tactic to protect people or prevent them from publicly doing stupid shit. No. It’s true. Yet, many things are lost, or can be, in the advancing/changing technologies. This is something the film community has already had to start thinking about, between the first shot-on-digital-video movie and now. So, is it forever, if it’s on the Internet? Maybe not. Yet, even the physical, which we deem more “real”, like the printed word — or etched, chiseled, carved — is not immune to time, nor human behavior. Which, all of this further proves how microscopic we are, and thus one could so easily spiral into a mad descent of existential ennui, because, really, “the universe has been around for a long time before us — and it will go on without us. We’re the merest speck in the unfathomable reach of its timeline and geography.”

So, then, yeah, this is some heady stuff. But it’s heady stuff in the best sort of way: a horror novel under three hundred pages. I’m not dissing longer novels, or saying they are in any way “less” because they might be “too long” or anything. Definitely not. I will happily live in a thousand plus pages of horror, but if you can cattle prod my brain like this in a number of pages that I can consume in a single day/evening, well, you get major bonus points. Long story short (too late (that’s a Clue reference, and I don’t get to reference Clue nearly as often as I wish)), Percy writes with the economy that all writers should aspire to.

The Dark Net will no doubt be compared to The Matrix in some fashion, and I can see why, to the extents it will, and there are some whispers there, though they’re not unique to The Matrix. Where my mind is going, though, and it’s just too obvious, because it’s Portland, Oregon and it’s a reporter, but I keep thinking of Chelsea Cain’s Beauty Killer series (like Lela in The Dark Net, I also totally identify with Susan Ward in Cain’s books). That, and Sneakers, because breaking into places sometimes makes me think of Sneakers, though there’s that technology connection, so that could be why. Also, The Young Sherlock Holmes, because of ritualistic goings on. Ritualistic killings feature in a lot of stories, sure, but they always remind me of YSH.

Of all the things that The Dark Net is, the greatest is that it’s a Blob-swallowing thing. In filmmaking there’s the notion of the four-quadrant movie. It’s a story that hits all the demographics. Sometimes it gives us magic (think any animated feature that kids go gaga for but also has stuff in it for adult audiences, stuff that kids miss, or don’t understand — this goes for many films and shows since before “four-quadrants” was even an idea, because all of the stuff that kids watched was created by adults, and they probably figured it’d be nice to throw some stuff in that adults, specifically, would pick up on, because they’re probably watching along with their kids, and maybe on repeat ad nauseam), and sometimes it’s dreck. This? The Dark Net? It is so far from dreck. Oh so very far. I’m not saying it spans the four-quadrants. Kids might not dig it, maybe shouldn’t even read it, but to a kid who grew up on King this technological horror novel might just be the ticket for modern adventurers/darers/rebels. If it’s not, though, it certainly hits all points thereafter, and it hits other points as well. Horror? Check. Thriller (and, yeah, sometimes thriller is just the gutless way of saying horror — think Silence of the Lambs)? Check. Action? I’m going to say check. It’s not Die Hard, but there might be explosions, and it’s got all the suspense built in that good action has, so, then: Suspense? Check.

If you’re into Benjamin Percy’s work, you’ll love this, and if you don’t even know who Benjamin Percy is, this book will make you want to devour his other books (and for my final reference I’m using words familiar to werewolves, because Red Moon, though I probably would have gone there anyway, because werewolves are the non-stop ultimate (sorry, couldn’t help throwing in a Psycho Beach Party reference)).

Navigate it well, let it suck you in, explore, venture out, but remember: “the Internet is a landfill and a treasure trove. Every object and every person and every place and every thought, every secret exists there. Every appetite can be satisfied there. Unlike a body, unlike the world, the Internet is limitless.” So, yes, explore. Be bold. Be a pioneer, but remember: it just might be navigating you.

[REVIEW] Saving American From Itself: Steve Erickson’s Shadowbahn


Blue Rider Press, 2017



— a bumper sticker reads, in a land with a flag of disunion, a land wherein a shadowbahn, a secret highway (possibly running parallel with the night train), “cuts through the heart of the country from one end to the other with impunity.” On the shadowbahn, it appears the whole country is a secret. It is no longer a united land, if it ever was. The Twin Towers have reappeared, and they continue to reappear, here and there, and disappear again, from here or there. It’s a time and a land that reminds us “we never were as impervious to the chaos of human history as we thought.”  This is America, yes, and this is the land of disunion.  This is a land with a birth, and also a death, “dates on a country’s tombstone.” The appearance of the Towers is seemingly a miracle, yet none will lay claim to them. The county certainly won’t, even going so far as to shove the responsibility off on the Lakota, whose tribal council elders are none too pleased about such a notion. The nation here, as is, always, still, cares not for tribal lands and rights unless such may be exploited for the nation’s own convenience or gains, and this case is no different. There is no change, now as before, and so we are stuck, not impervious, forever trapped, disappearing and reappearing, and trying to remember what came before, as if we might finally discover that which holds us back.

The Towers are examined form every angle. From below, from on high, with our eyes, and with camera lenses. Photographs are “enlarged, decoded, in-zoomed, and out-zoomed.” It’s Blow-Up on a national scale, concern and distrust on a Blow Out scale. It’s the Zapruder film all over again. And just as we have failed to escape or even remember history, we are back in time, as well. The shadowbahn leads us everywhere. We are JFK. We’re Elvis. We’re Elvis’s twin brother Jesse, dead at birth, yet somehow surviving, living that life the shadowbahn lead him to. We’re in hotels, and we’re in the Factory. We’re being shot at, here. We’re being shot at by Valerie Solanas, and by snipers? Conspirators? Hired hands? We’re living and dying and surviving. The voice says, “what I’m telling here is your story, America… You’re the one who lived it, and you fucked it up, didn’t you? Sure you did.”

Shadowbahn is an exploration of our nation, a journey through it, past and present, all to the tune of an American playlist. Within the book are multiple playlists, in fact.  As I’m sure will be the case with everyone who reads this book, I have compiled these playlists. I’m listening to one now, actually, as I type and erase and revise. I am listening to the playlist of the chapter headings. Tracks one through twenty-four. At least, I’m listening as best I can, for there is no Elvis here, unfortunately. Erickson admits that the concluding tracks are practically impossible to find, and Dylan and Caruso are just fine, but they’re not the precise ones. Perhaps this is why we’re stuck in history and time. We’ve somehow filled the puzzle with ill-fitting pieces. They hold the whole together, but only as well as a single stitch. It bought us some time, but is useless if we don’t mend. Progress comes through union.

On the shadowbahn, we are reminded that it is up to all of us. We are all our own sound, and we are each other’s sound. We are hope and music and sound and voice. Let us not lose our sound. Let us not surrender.