The Fearing: Fire and Rain by John F.D. Taff
A Book Review (of sorts) by Shane Douglas Keene
Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, a young man named Stephen King woke up one morning and said, “Let there be apocalypse,” and there was apocalypse, in the form of a novel called The Stand. And he said, “Let it be the most epic, sweeping rendition of the apocalypse ever,” and so it was, for a time.
End of story? Maybe not so much.
Let me tell you another story, this one a bit longer. Once upon another time, in 1984, a young man named Shane Keene walked into his local corner store and saw, there on a rotating book rack, a tiny tome called The Two Dead Girls. It was the first book in a serial novel titled The Green Mile, and it was the beginning of an experience this guy would never forget, a spring and summer of anticipation in which he would search that rack daily, hoping for the next entry in the series, needing that motherfucker. And each month, around the end of the month, the hunt would yield fruit and, for a few brief hours, his need would be sated. It was both the most agonizing and the most delightful reading experience of his life, never to be outdone.
End of story? Not so much. Not so much at all.
Fast forward–holy fuck, hold on to your britches–a few decades to 2019. The world has moved on, things have changed in both predictable and unforeseen ways. That Stephen King guy? Yeah, not so fuckin’ young anymore, are you, Uncle Steve? Me? Same fuckin’ deal. Not all that youthful. That apocalypse story, The Stand? “The most sweeping, epic rendition” of the apocalypse? Yeah, not that so much anymore either. Welcome to summertime 2019, folks. Welcome to the new apocalypse and the reading event that has already, in a single entry, knocked The Green Mile off the playing board as far as Shane’s most agonizing and delightful reading experience ever is concerned. Because John F.D. Taff and Grey Matter Press have teamed up to bring you something you’re not likely to walk away from unscathed nor unchanged, and they’ve given the end of the world a much-needed facelift with the serial novel that will knock The Green Mile off the racks in its onrushing fervor to be first in line.
And it will, I think, be a frontrunner in the realm of such reading events and of apocalyptic stories in general. It already is for me and a lucky few others who have been fortunate enough to receive early galleys of it. Because the accolades The Fearing: Fire and Rain has so far received have been universally positive. Extremely positive. Set to become an instantaneous classic, it will stand comfortably beside the likes of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach or Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon as a staple of the apocalypse theme and will do so for many reasons, but none so much as what I’m about to discuss. Because, like most work by John F.D. Taff, it’s the characters that drive the story. It’s they who grab your heart and give a rough squeeze that both lets you know how alive you are and also that they’re in full control of your immediate destiny.
First up, you’ll meet Adam Sigel. It won’t be a spoiler to say that Adam is key, at least so far, to the whole story. That said, I’m not going to tell you a whole lot about why, just that it’s so. He’s a complete coward, a guy who’s afraid of pretty much every goddamn thing there is to be afraid of, and his fears will be a catalyst of sorts, or at least a portent, of the coming apocalypse. We don’t get to know a lot about Adam, at least as far as backstory, in this first volume, but what we do learn is huge. He’s a relentlessly fascinating character whose story, I suspect, will hold many facets and nearly limitless possibilities–some of which are revealed in this first volume. And mild-mannered though he may at first seem, this dude is one scary motherfucker and I suspect, before all is said and done, he’s going to give even Randall Flagg a run for his money.
Told in three interconnected stories in various places about the United States, the tale moves back and forth between the individual narratives, giving us little bite-sized chunks of terror that serve to drive the pacing and introduce us to the players in small, easy to absorb chunks that give us a chance to actually know and intensely care about them. Of particular interest are our two sets of protagonists, beginning with Sarah, Kyle, and Carli, three young high-school students who Taff quickly introduces to utter hell, in the process demonstrating why we call him the King of Pain. The trio is in the high-school gym when the world ends, when everything changes in horrifying and inexplicable ways, and they, in spite of being vastly different people from disparate backgrounds, are forced together in their fight to survive this funhouse of horror that the author has created for them. They will have obstacles and challenges set in their way that will serve both as barriers and mechanisms by which John grows and changes his characters, giving them depth and personality and making us want to follow them through to the culmination of this nightmare. These young characters will get to know fear on a personal basis, that of their own and of others, and so will you.
Now I’m going to tell you about my favorite character dynamic in this episode. We meet them initially in the desert, Marcia Schlimpert and her husband Glen, Wanda and her husband Charles, and Rich the driver of the tour bus they’re on when we encounter them for the first time. Of particular interest in this group is Marcia. The strongest character in the book, she’s a woman with her own mind and will, not afraid to speak her mind or take charge in an emergency, and it won’t take you long to figure out who’s in control on this guided tour through the depths of Hades. Mr. Taff puts these characters through the worst horrors in the book, but that’s a statement that’s going to depend on the reader. Because it’s these folks who go through the shit that I’m most afraid of in life and their experiences hit me on a visceral level. More than once I found myself gritting my teeth, clenching my shoulder muscles, and fidgeting in my chair; all sure signs I’m on my way to an anxiety attack. And while that may seem like a bad thing, it isn’t. Not at all. Because we come to horror stories wanting two things: one, to be entertained by a good story, and two, to have the hell scared out of us. Well, in Fire and Rain that’s two checkmarks. Both boxes filled in in spades.
Now, while I’m far removed from that young man who walked into that corner store in 1984, the experience that began there is imprinted on my being, never to be forgotten and thus, never to be lost. And I have a feeling this series is going to have much the same effect on me as The Green Mile did. As I closed the covers on this first episode I found myself already anticipating, speculating on where Taff might take his characters next, what new ones he might introduce, and what fresh shitstorm he might throw at them. Because that’s one thing you can rest assured of. The author is going to throw suffering their way, and we’re going to suffer with them every step of the way.
The Fearing as a whole is a brand new apocalypse, and it’ll completely change the way you think of the end of the world. And you’ll be glad of it if you’re like me. I keep telling people this book is not a reading experience, it’s an event, and I’ve gotten a lot of “what the hell..?” responses. So here’s what the hell for you. I started out on the first page reading this thing, and I closed the back cover feeling like it just read me. I was so immersed in the story there was nothing else in the world for a time, not that mattered, and when I was done, I was satisfied, dazed, and hopeful for the hellish future my new favorite characters have in store for them. John left the ending in a perfect place and in a way that didn’t piss me off or leave me hanging in the middle of a heavy action scene, and all I have is love for this novel and anticipation for the next entry in the series. That other King may reign supreme, but the King of Pain holds the reins here–see what I did–and it’s a pale horse he’s riding in on. Because fear is coming.
All of it.
Buy The Fearing: Fire and Rain from Amazon