Names have power; to name something is to domesticate it, or to try. Naming a tornado would be like naming a shadow. What happened in Oleander that day was simply the storm. A cloud that faded back into sky before it had a chance to enjoy what it had wrought.
There are a lot of books that toss about their supposed similarity to Stephen King without ever approaching it. And then there are books like this one, which makes no such fantastic claims, in which I clearly see the influence of our revered master of horror. This book does a better job of recreating and replicating the feel, the atmosphere of a Stephen King horror novel than any young adult novel I have read since John Saul's earlier works.
I would describe this as "Stephen King for teens." It didn't send chills down my spine. It didn't give me any nightmares (thank you, Pennywise). But it made me gag in some parts, and I seriously would not want to step foot in Oleander. Never ever ever. Creepy little place.
The premise is deceptively simple, the execution (no pun intended) is far more complex. Right off the bat, we are immersed in a mass killing, one of many to come in the deceptively sleepy little town of Oleander, Kansas. Warning: if you have a weak stomach for violence, you might want to put this book down. There is no flinching here where it comes to ruthless and wanton destruction of people and property.
The killings (and there are many, many of them) are described matter-of-factly, unflinchingly, no-holds-barred. Within one day, in separate events, 12 people are killed. A child is smothered to death. A man is nailed to a cross and set afire in a church. Many people are gunned down in a drugstore. A young man is mowed down by a car. Most of these acts were committed by reasonable members of the community, the sort of which you would whisper "He never seemed the type...but you never know, do you?"
One year later, a storm comes to town, literally and figuratively. It rips the the town apart physically, and leaves something behind within the hearts and minds of the people in town that is less visible, but no less insidious.
Oleander becomes, more or less, an anarchy. Reason and rationality has no room here, as the town is cut off completely from the outside world. They are under quarantine, by government orders. The internet is down, phone lines are down. Nobody goes, nobody leaves. Oleander becomes a world within itself. And chaos erupts.
...Oleander’s era of democracy had drawn to a close. This was how she learned of the town’s rampant “disorderly conduct,” law and order giving way to anarchy: people walking off their jobs, crimes committed in broad daylight, an armed pied piper herding packs of feral children into the woods, their parents not much seeming to care.
Is it evil? Is it demonic possession, is it God's punishment upon sinners, as the town's charismatic and ambitious Deacon would have them believe? Is it something else? That's what the survivors are trying to figure out.
Above all else, this book excels in creating an utterly credible, eerie small-town atmosphere. Honestly, this is where my Stephen King feels come in. Stephen King has typically used a setting of a a small Maine town, and we get such a clear feeling for the atmosphere of place in his books. I get the exact feeling reading about Oleander, its present, its past, its beating heart.
Oleander is a small town like any others. It is a quiet place, a typical Midwestern town. Football reigns as king. It is solidly middle-class America with a largely ignored white trailer trash underground populace. I could describe it more, but I think the book itself says it best. There is absolutely nothing I can say, I am rendered absolutely speechless at how brilliantly portrayed Oleander has been written in this book. The town itself is the star of the novel. If left unrestrained, I could quote half the book for the sheer brilliance of the descriptions of Oleander, but short of doing that, I shall leave you with this little snippet from Chapter 2:
In blood as in drought or in poverty or in flame, Oleander was Oleander, and there were still crops to be sown and meth to be harvested, pies to be baked and pigs to be prized, bargains to be hunted and farms to be foreclosed, cherries to be popped and hearts to be broken, worship to be offered and sinners to be shamed.
After the recent tragedy in Oleander (and there has been more in the past), the town grieves, but life goes on.
The new Oleander bustled and shone, its determined noise drowning out any echoes of the past. Grass and flowers and trees sprang from fallow ground. The scents of corn and life drove out the lingering smoke, and finally, the fire and its carpet of bones could be safely buried in the past and allowed to slip through the cracks of collective memory. But the earth had memory of its own.
Until the storm starts.
The plot is well-written and kept me guessing; I truly had no idea as to which direction the book was going to take. The events after the tornado, the slow building of chaos and insanity are subtly done and well-described. We feel the gradual building of tension, the feeling that something is just not right, and it's more than just your average post-traumatic chaos. The story is dark, you feel the wrongness of the things that transpire within the people involved, even as they do not seem to realize it themselves. It is not exactly horror, but the darkness, the intensity was so well-written. And some scenes really did make me gag a little bit. Let's just say I have a little issue with corpses, and this book just dredges them up. Again, no pun intended.
Even if it is well-written, the plot got boring in some parts. There's only so much murder and mayhem I can take before I get really, really bored, and this book verged into the "enough already!" territory for me. I want more of a plot, and the plot itself unfolded rather too slowly for my tastes. I have a feeling that a significant part of the book (and it is a very long book) can be cut down without downplaying the message and the urgency of the chaos that is unfolding within Oleander. I didn't have a problem with the plot twist; things didn't transpire as I expected, but it's all good.
The book has five main characters, and we hear the narration from all of their points of view. It got to be a bit much keeping track of 5 different characters and their stories, but no, it doesn't stop there! We also hear snippets from other side characters as the story progresses, from Baz, the alpha-male douchebag of a star football player. From Deacon Barnes, the fiercely ambitious religious fanatic who is one of the leader who step up to take control of Oleander after the quarantine. From Charlotte King, the religiously fanatical mother of one of our main characters. From "Mickey," the wimpy town mayor.
It all got a little too much to handle to keep track of everything and everyone. And there are a. Lot. Of. Characters.
This book is well worth a read; it might not be a great book, but it's certainly better than any other attempts at YA horror I've read this year.