Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers: A Novel (2019)

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Since the entirety of October is officially Halloween this year (shut up, you!), we at Psycho Drive-In have decided to attempt to fill the month with thirty-one recommendations for horror-related movies, comics, books, TV shows, toys, games, and everything in-between. It’s gonna be a grab-bag of goodies we feel you should be exposed to, whether you like it or not! But don’t expect your standard suggestions for Halloween fun, we’re digging into some stuff that we love in the hopes that you might make this October a little bit weirder than usual.

Weirder in a good way. Not like what’s going on outside in the hellscape of 2020.

Like many of us, I suddenly found an unexpected amount of free time back around March. Throughout the spring and summer, I experienced what’s sure to have been more than a fair share of virtual retirement.  I watched movies with my family, binged TV shows, put together puzzles that had been moldering in the attic, tried some new recipes, threatened my teenagers that I would start a TikTok but only to make the Thriller dance work with songs other than Thriller (setting it to WAP would have been a viral sensation, I tell you).  The poor dog got so sick of people asking him if he needed to go for a walk that he took to hiding under the coffee table any time anyone made a move toward the front door.  Heck, my family even adopted a turtle just to give us a new recipient of our housebound attention.

But more than anything else, I read.  We’re talking… I can’t even count how many books I’ve devoured in the past eight months.  Giant collections of comic books, novels, short stories, articles, journals…  I couldn’t begin to count them all.  At least one hour out of every day (usually more) was spent sitting on the back porch, a coffee cup in one hand and a book in the other.  Heck, if my kids didn’t need to have enrichment and nourishment, I could have been content to sit out there from morning to night every day.  One day in particular, I took an old paperback copy of Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me and read it cover to cover while waiting in line for six hours at the Trenton DMV office to get the registration for my car.

I spent a significant portion of every single day between March 13, 2020 and right now with my nose buried in one book or another.

Except for one day.

It was a day near the end of June.  I was about four hundred pages into Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers: A Novel, and I had to put that shit down and walk away from it for a full twenty-four hours.

I was in Tennessee, helping a family member pack up her house and prepare it to go on the market before moving her up to live with some other family members in Ohio for health reasons.  I had flown from New Jersey, then one of the nation’s epicenters for Covid-19 where we had been shut down to all but the most essential business for more than two months.  I remember riding on the New Jersey Transit Airport link train, crossing an all-but barren NJ Turnpike at 8:30 on a Monday morning and feeling like Rick Grimes leaving the hospital for the first time.  I arrived in Tennessee to find a land where the threat of the virus hadn’t yet found an appreciable footing.  A place where my PPE put me squarely in the minority.  Places were still open.  People weren’t wearing masks.  In fact, my own mask was the focus of many side-eyes while I waited for the baggage carousel to start turning.

And here I was, a couple of hundred pages into a pandemic thriller.

In the real world, the President of the United States was continually downplaying the severity of the virus and urging his supporters to do the same.  Mocking people for taking protective measures.  Disregarding the advice of scientists and medical experts, even as infection rates and deaths continued to climb here and around the world.  All this, as my family member sat by and did her best to protect herself and her highly-compromised immune system.  Here I am halfway across the country, away from my wife and kids who are hunkered down in the hot zone of the northeast tri-state area.  And I’m neck-deep in Trump country, witnessing its citizens clutch at their pearly false hopes of their chosen leader’s ill-informed bravado, preparing themselves to 2nd Amendment the living hell out of the minor inconvenience of a mask mandate, if need be.

And in Wanderers, the self-appointed president had begun to orchestrate his militia around the country as people are falling victim to an increasingly less fictional sickness that originated from cave bats but made the jump to humans before continuing to evolve, or so the epidemiologist says, not that anyone in power is willing to listen to him.  His precautions are too severe, too unbelievable to be taken seriously. 

I’d been following the group of zombie-like wanderers from the first page of this eight-hundred-page opus, but along the way had encountered many other key players. There’s my pity for the minister whose message becomes slowly poisoned by the monetary advantages of evangelical politics despite the misgivings of his own heart.  I had learned to despise the de facto leader of the nation’s best-equipped militia and his conveniently situational ethics.  I had shared the frustrations of the disgraced doctor, whose professional transgressions prevent his voice from being heard.  I had felt the desperation of the teenaged girl trying to protect her sister while battling an ongoing emotional battle with their father. I was at first amused by then deeply sympathetic for the aged rock star, stuck in the trench of his manufactured lifestyle.

But I found myself at a tipping point in my reading where the fictional pandemic had achieved the level of the actual pandemic happening around me.  I somehow began to feel like this novel, written two or three years earlier than this particular moment in time, had somehow manifested into the world I had to live in and try to survive.  In the book, the president was calling on his lapdogs to eradicate the innocents to curb the disease and on the TV in the other room a bloviated tangerine prolapse was running his mouth and I discovered that I just





I put it down.  I walked away.  The activity which had provided such a blissful retreat from the inexorable crushing anxiety of the real world had betrayed me.  I tried to lose myself in a Bradbury short story, but my brain just couldn’t figure out how to make the words turn into ideas.  I walked outside, but caught myself watching the mountainous country road, wondering if the militia tanks or the invulnerable horde of wanderers might come around the bend.  I did some chores and staged some boxes for when the moving van was to come.  I stayed up late flipping through the handful of channels that the antenna could pick up in that part of the Smoky Mountains.  I found an old movie on a Knoxville station, but a storm came and knocked out the TV reception.  I went to bed, and for the first time in months, I turned out the light and went to sleep without reading.

The next morning, I woke up looking at the book on the stand beside me.  I had breakfast, ran a few errands, made some lunch, and somehow found myself sitting in the living room with the book beside me.  When I finally reached for it, it was as if I was touching a pot handle that had burned me the last time, I grabbed it.

But I did pick it up.

And I opened it.

And I continued reading.

Because, dammit, it was in my head. It was in my gut.

And my heart broke a little, and I was thrilled and horrified and breathless and ultimately satisfied with this great big story of love and loyalty and empathy and hope.

But it gets its claws into you, man.  And once it does, it does not want to let go.

Wanderers is a big, sprawling epic of a book that is driven on the merits of its characters.  And by the end of the nearly 800 pages, those characters are about as real as fictional characters can get.  A brilliant yet disgraced scientist. A farmgirl and her distant father.  A pickled, vintage rock star.  A minister in desperate need of redemption after succumbing to the lure of political and social power.  A larger-than-life militia leader.  These lives all splinter out from and around each other only to be drawn together into an apocalyptic confrontation.  This book sits comfortably on the shelf next to King’s The Stand but isn’t in any way an echo or a retread of old territories.  It entirely stands on its own as a reflection of today’s society.  Come hungry, because tucking into this literary all-you-can-eat buffet is a chance to gorge yourself without any risk of botulism or salmonella.

The book has been picked up by QC Entertainment, producers of Get Out and Blackkklansman, and is being developed as a series by Glen Mazzara, known as a producer of The Shield and Walking Dead.  Wendig himself has announced a sequel entitled Wayward for a 2022 release.  But while we wait for that, his Twitter is an endless source of daily affirmations and important information about apples, expletive-laced political screeds, and the Eastern Pennsylvania wildlife photos.

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