Panic in the conifers

Panic in the conifers

Horror is to wake up in a dystopian world, find that you have lost your memory along with your belongings, and  realise you are completely helpless.

Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke wakes up in the middle of a picture-perfect town, with pain and a patched memory in Blake Crouch's thriller, Pines.

Judging from his bruises he believes himself to have been involved in an accident, or maybe even a crime, or perhaps he was simply attacked? There is a sense of fear, but a fear of what?

This fear is all the more potent because of its mystery. He gatecrashes into a house that is vaguely familiar, hoping to jog his memory, and wakes up in a hospital. Pam, the nurse who attends to him, is both friendly and steely. She informs him that he has been in a traffic accident but will not comply with his demand for a phone.

Ethan stealthily makes his way out of the hospital to find the Sheriff's office and retrieve his belongings, but it is closed. Left with nothing except his charm, he sweet-talks the receptionist Lisa of Hotel Wayward Pines into giving him a room with a promise to pay the next day. Later, at a pub, obliging Beverly serves him dinner on credit and slips him the address of her home. Pines is a remarkably non-happening town.

On his way back to his hotel under a starlit sky and the chirping of crickets, Ethan is reminded of his peaceful childhood days in Tennessee, until he bends to catch a cricket and finds a speaker instead. The first indication of something wrong in this near-perfect town. The next day, thrown out of the hotel and seeking relief from a persistent headache, he makes his way to Beverly's - except it is a house that has long been abandoned and is falling to pieces. Persisting, he pushes his way in to find the corpse of Agent Evans, the man he had come to find, handcuffed to a bed, devoured by flies. Then, the meeting with the Sheriff is not very pleasant either.

Ethan's attempts to call his family and his office strangely do not go through. With his head reeling, he goes to the pub to meet Beverly, hoping to make some sense of things. He is told that there is no Beverly, no female bartender there, leading Ethan to now seriously start doubting his sanity. Walking by a group that has companionably gathered for a barbecue, Ethan spots Kate the other agent he had come looking for in Wayward Pines. Although she is recognisably Kate, she is at least 20 years older. And different. The feeling that something is terribly wrong with the place grows stronger, and hoping to escape, Ethans hotwires a car but discovers that whichever direction he takes, the town ends suddenly. The mountains that surround the valley now loom dangerously, closing in on him. Why is he so relentlessly pursued? Who are his pursuers?

The rest of the book is about a series of escapes, all chilling. Preparations are made for a surgery on Ethan, clearly against his will, when the mysterious Beverly reappears and helps him escape by digging out the microchip embedded in his skin. It is this chip that provides information about his whereabouts.

Interspersed with the mainline story is a series of flashbacks of a torture cell when Ethan was caught in action in the second Gulf War. In their attempts to escape, Beverly is caught and dies a ritualised death hunted like an animal, and Ethan knows he has no choice left but to scale the cliffs around the valley to escape. Thirsty, hungry, cold, in pain and exhausted. Ethan is confronted by a new kind of danger - a strange species of furless, vicious animals with talons. His military training stands him in good stead and he manages to reach the top successfully, and there he comes face-to-face with all that he had been seeking to escape.

Pines would make a marvellous movie, with all the heart-stopping moments of breathless chase and pure evil. The tipping of a pretty town into a place of unimaginable horror would have a strong visual appeal. Special effects of monstrous animals pitted against human will make pulses race. The end, when it comes, is sobering.

Blake has thrown all our sins against the environment in a hat and given it a shake. But the parallel world that he has come up with is hardly endearing. It reminds one eerily of Orwell's 1984.

If you are fond of thrillers, there are enough situations here to chill your blood and get your adrenaline pumping. If, however, you are a sedate reader, it will throw up more questions than it answers.  

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