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Monday, October 08, 2007

TERMINAL by Brian Keene

This review originally appeared at SFReader in July 2005—it doesn’t seem like it has been that long since I read Terminal because the story has stayed with me so well. I think about it more than I would like to admit, and as I’m writing this short introduction I want to read it again. It really is that good.

If you've never read Brian Keene, skip his zombie stuff and go straight to this one because nothing else he has written comes close to the power and vibe that jolts through Terminal.

Tommy O'Brien is an out-of-luck working class kid with a wife, a son and terminal cancer. The doctor gave him one, maybe two months to live. His employer, one of the last still operating in the small town of Hanover, Pennsylvania, laid him off. The bill collectors are clamoring for their money and Tommy's dying.

He doesn't have the courage to tell his wife about the cancer, or that he lost his job. Tommy loves her too much to hurt her like that. He can't stand to think of his family living like dogs in their double wide with no money and no future. It hurts to think about his kid, T.J., growing up without a father, without a chance.

Then Tommy has an idea. He's going to rob a bank. He can't lose. The money will help bury him and give his small family a shot to get out of Hanover and poverty. It will give them a future. If he gets caught, he's slated to die in a month anyway. There's nothing to lose, or so he thinks. Terminal opens with the edge of a crime thriller. The premise is simple--three buddies take down the local bank--but it changes, and changes in a hurry. Tommy and his buddies, Sherm and John, don't know what they are getting themselves into. They think it will be easy, a walk in the park. Sherm plans the whole thing and he promises Tommy there will be no shooting. No death, but everything goes wrong. John ends up with a bullet in his belly and the boys find themselves in a standoff with police. That's when things get strange-in a paranormal way.

Brian Keene (The Rising) creates a world that is wholly believable. His characters are fleshed out, the dialogue is rich and the prose is electrifying in its simplicity. It is written in first person and has a powerful working class narrative. You can feel the pain of the characters who are trapped in the fading American dream-shrinking opportunities as large corporations uproot to find cheap labor. It has the heavy atmosphere of noir: A gritty, fatalistic portrait of working class rural America. The story also probes into the dark and very frightening subject of death-its answers are not for the weak or timid. They are scary and very real.

Reading Terminal is like watching a train approach a blocked track. You know it is going to crash and burn, but there is nothing you can do to stop it. You can only watch and hope for good fortune, but from the first few pages you know there will be nothing but sorrow and lose. You know this, but still you have to witness it. Follow it through to the end page by page. Terminal is a gem. It is high-octane horror with a crime novel mentality. Keene is the future of American horror, and if Terminal is any sign, the forecast looks good.

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