The Fearing: Air & Dust by John F.D. Taff
Book Review by Rich Duncan
John F.D. Taff’s The Fearing has been taking the horror community by storm since the first book, Fire & Rain, hit the bookshelves this summer, and for good reason. The Fearing shares a lot of similarities with other popular post-apocalyptic novels and utilizes those genre hallmarks well, but it also forges its own unique path. Imagine a scenario where the world as we know it is faced with total annihilation. Not from just one catalyst like we often see in literature and film – plagues, zombies, natural disasters or monsters – but from a wide variety of sources. I mean sure, fear is the driving factor behind the nightmare Taff unleashes on his characters, but the destruction that is consuming the world comes from a limitless gauntlet of horrors. The idea of all of mankind’s fears being set loose upon an unsuspecting population is an intriguing one and gives Taff the opportunity to craft nightmare inducing scenes, which he does often. The Fearing boldly challenges what we know and what we think of when we think of the apocalypse. It takes a psychological concept and manifests it in reality to create one of the most terrifying “end times” scenarios in recent memory.
As we enter the second half of John F.D. Taff’s epic serial novel The Fearing, it’s clear that Taff plans on putting these characters through a punishing trial that will test them in ways they never thought possible and make them question the values they hold dear. The first two books in the series – Fire & Rain and Water & Wind – introduced us to the characters we’ve come to know and love and gave readers a glimpse what was at stake through nightmarish scenes of devastation and terror. They both established a blistering pace as the world rapidly descended into chaos and confusion and readers were kept on the edge of their seats, unaware of just what sort of terrifying hell Taff had in store for them and the characters from page to page. Also, how about that scene from Water & Wind? You know the one. Air & Dust – the penultimate installment of The Fearing – is a little different and a little more contemplative than its predecessors. That isn’t to say Air & Dust has a slower pace or that the scares are dialed back. In my opinion, it’s every bit as terrifying as the first two chapters, maybe even more so. But where the first two books were about introducing characters and showcasing the cataclysm that is devouring the world as we know it, this book explores the psychological implications of what’s happening. It also offers a much deeper glimpse into the lives of the character’s we’ve already met.
Air & Dust opens with Jelnik and Adam as they are still racing towards an unknown destination. Well, unknown to Jelnik. The first time we met Jelnik, he came across as little more than a “yes” man to Adam, a man concerned with his own survival and nothing else. He’s content to follow orders because he’s captivated by Adam’s aura. However, as the events of The Fearing unfold, Jelnik begins to feel doubt creep in. He’s still terrified of Adam, but one night after he is emboldened by booze, he finally starts pushing Adam for answers. It’s through this back and forth conversation that the reader starts to get a sense of Adam’s true nature. It’s one of the few times we get a glimpse of how Adam may view himself and the chaos exploding around him. Not only that, we start to get a sense of why these things are happening. They also have an interesting discussion on if they are bad people or if fear is bad. It raises serious implications for the future of the characters in The Fearing and it seems that Adam is finally fully aware of the role he plays in what is happening.
I’m also glad that Taff decided to focus a majority of Air & Dust on John, Mark, Monday, Cynthia and Jennifer. We got to meet them in Water & Wind, but throughout the course of this novel, we get a deeper understanding of their personalities. When we reconnect with Mark’s group, they are just making it into Camp Straggalot, where a bulk of Air & Dust takes place. It’s a former military base but there is not a single member of the armed forces to be found. Most of the camp appears untouched except for a few missing buildings, but there is still an eerie feeling that hangs over the camp because they all vanished without a trace. And yet, most of their equipment has been left behind. Tanks, helicopters, jeeps and pretty much everything you could need to survive a situation like this, but without the people there to utilize it properly. It’s an interesting take that everything they could possibly dream of to save them is there and readily available, but effectively useless. It is a refuge for 200 people who are lost, struggling to survive and gathered together to combat the loneliness of such a world, seeking comfort in safety in numbers. While the novel still focuses largely on the characters established in the first two books, the introduction of Camp Straggalot further widens the scope of the novel by introducing some new secondary characters that are bursting with personality. There is Bill, the eccentric unofficial “welcome wagon” who seems to be quite boisterous considering the situation everyone finds themselves in. We’re also introduced to Dr. Gaines and Dr. Cunningham, with Dr. Cunningham proving as a sort of unofficial leader. He has a great sense of humor and while everyone seems to look up to him, he has no desire to be in charge.
I thought it was interesting that in this massive group of survivors, no one was vying for power. It’s just a loose collection of survivors who seem to be doing the best they can to survive and trying to find someone they can follow. Even when retired Captain Jack Hilton arrives at the base and they seem to think he could lead them, even he tries to distance himself from a position of power. They’re able to make Camp Straggalot into a functioning community, but the reluctance of anyone to step up and lead means there is a power vacuum waiting to be filled. When someone does finally decide to try and step up and lead, it creates a problem none of the other survivors were prepared for.
I like how Taff will use his characters to show the widespread destruction that has played out since Fire & Rain and also the evolution of the fears. When Jack Hilton finally arrives, we learn through his stories that the eastern seaboard is destroyed. This means there is no power structure left as D.C. was wiped off the map and likely means that there will be no huge rescue mission coming to save them. He also introduces a new threat that the other survivors have not encountered yet. Without giving away what Jack encountered, it’s an interesting concept because it is one of the first events that is permanent, whereas some of the other fears can be conquered. And to make matters worse, it appears to be widening its reach and threatening to eliminate any hope for survival. What makes it such a great narrative twist for Air & Dust is that its a piece of the unknown and that in comparison to the sheer variety of terror that has been unleashed so far, it is relatively benign. But is it? Despite all of the crazy shit that has plagued the survivors so far, this threat could be the most terrifying yet. Mainly because it represents something that can’t be reasoned with it just is.
I also liked the progression of Mark and Monday’s relationship, which sort of mirrors the one shared by Jelnik and Adam. They have a similar philosophical discussion about what these events mean and Mark finally begins to get Monday to open up. It’s during this conversation that the reader finally learns a lot about the overall narrative story. I also feel like Monday’s presence is what allows Mark to establish himself in Camp Straggalot as one of the leaders. They have a much closer relationship than Jelnik and Adam and I have to feel that is by design. Adam pretty much uses Jelnik as a tool to achieve his goals and will often belittle him or threaten him. He doesn’t view Jelnik as an equal and I don’t think he even views him as a person. However, Monday treats Mark as a friend and seeks to bolster his confidence and faith in his beliefs. She builds him up and that confidence and encouragement are responsible for one of my favorite moments in the series. I could be way off on my assumption as Monday is still a bit of an enigma. Maybe her friendly relationship with Mark is more for show than an actual, genuine connection. Only time will tell.
Air & Dust reveals a lot of major bombshells throughout that finally give the reader an idea of just what this apocalypse means and the truth about Adam and Monday. That being said, these revelations also raise new mysteries that make the story even more compelling. I wish I could go into why, but it would spoil it. As the characters begin to uncover parts of the truth, they are confronted by new adversaries that will make survival even more difficult and squash any semblance of returning to a peaceful life. But in the face of those new threats, they finally have a purpose – head to St. Louis. This sets the stage for Earth & Ember, the final chapter of John F.D. Taff’s masterful work, The Fearing. Buckle your seatbelts, because if Taff has demonstrated anything throughout The Fearing, it’s that things will get much, much worse.