By Robert Dunbar
Uninvited Books, 2015
Trade Paperback ($18.00), Kindle ($4.99)
In a desolate city, as ravaged and dangerous as a post-Apocalyptic wasteland, horrors prowl the back alleys. Struggling to survive, a group of young people find themselves trapped in a decaying asylum … where unspeakable evil lurks. Do the streets offer escape? Or death?
Robert Dunbar first made a splash in the horror genre in 1989 with his much heralded “The Pines,” a unique spin on The Garden State’s Jersey Devil legend. His follow-up, “The Shore,” took some time to gestate (pun entirely intended) and again made quite an impression. Now, here it is – some 26 years after “The Pines” first hit the shelves – and Dunbar completes his trilogy with the bleak, dread-inducing, yet remarkably life-affirming (seriously…yeah…I’ll get to that) novel “The Streets.”
Our story opens…nowhere. Under a bridge. On the outskirts of a desolate city, somewhere near the Pine Barrens. A ragtag group of discarded young men gather there nightly because they have nowhere else to go when not plying their trade, one born out of their only asset, their youth. There’s a de-facto leader, Rudy, heinous, full of a bravado he can never sustain, and a sensitive young man, Matthew, who quietly watches and waits and worries. When Rudy turns to violence one night, all hell breaks loose and the encampment is ripped to shreds as Matthew transforms into some sort of monster. One assumes his target is Rudy but, ironically, Rudy is the only survivor. It’s a pretty damn powerful kick-off chapter and a testament to Dunbar that he manages to pack a lot of characterization and atmosphere into a brief five pages. You get a palpable sense of the desolation of the place and of the souls of these young men who know they have no future…which of course turns out to be true.
In the following chapters, other characters are introduced who are integral to our story. There is the eerily introspective Reba, an inmate at the Whitman Youth Study Center, a decaying “asylum” of sorts. Reba hears voices…at least she thinks they are voices. We also meet Lute, a lithe young man whose dreams have long been replaced by the necessity to sell himself to willing Johns just to survive. Near the Whitman center, one evening Lute contemplates mugging an old woman but is waylaid by an encounter with something monstrous, something invasive…something encroaching from the woods. Left dazed and confused, Lute finds himself, through a series of legal (though definitely not above-boards) judgments, confined as well to the Whitman Youth Center where he meets Reba, Bruno, Henry and a host of other kids who have found themselves here for no other reason than “nobody wants us.” Surrounded by a staff that doesn’t give a shit about any of their patients, the kids have only themselves to rely on as they question their own sanity and the problems that have been assigned to them by adults who hardly acknowledge their existence.
The one saving grace is Nathan Jenks, the lone employee who really tries to connect with the kids, holding regular “share sessions” that, of course, the kids believe to be pointless. It would seem that Nathan is the only one truly interested in helping them…but none of the kids will let down the walls they have built long enough for him to make much of a difference.
Out in the city (or what as left of it), we follow Rudy who feels he’s hit the jackpot with a particular john, an imposing, arrogant “Doc” who is far more dangerous than he initially seems. We also meet adults Athena and Steve who are camped out in a rickety, old abandoned building with their de-facto son Perry. Beat down and weary from living one step ahead, it seems Athena and Steve are old pros in dealing with whatever has been infesting the woods; they’ve figured out (or at least they think they have) what the creatures are and realize that the world is changing…that the human species is changing, evolving into something frightening; yet natural and beautiful in its own way. If it ever has a chance to survive.
The creatures, however, are the least of their concerns right now. They are intent on The Whitman Center…for there, they believe Athena’s son Matty – with whom Perry shares an almost psychic link — is being held against his will. They watch and wait, all the time devising a plan to rescue him so that he has a chance to survive his own metamorphosis. Into their world comes Kit, a former police officer who clearly has “history” with Steve and who Athena is begrudgingly — grateful isn’t quite the right word, but let’s use it — to have on the team.
Meanwhile, we discover that Rudy’s “Doc” is even more sadistic than Rudy and appears to run a “service” for local adults…one in which the trade is beyond rough and the commodity is pretty young men and women. But where does he find these kids? Well, it seems he runs a little institution, the Whitman Youth Center.
Back at the Youth Center, we discover there is a secret patient, “The Quiet One,” Athena’s son Matty. He is comatose, but retrained to his bed. Kindly Nathan has been secretly taking care of him and wonders why, exactly, the center would be handling a comatose patient, let alone keeping him restrained. We get to know each of the kids at the center and soon a bond forms between Reba and Lute, both of whom are disturbed and confused by their blossoming relationship. And they share a bond more intense than one driven by hormones, one in which “The Quiet One” plays an integral role.
What, exactly is Matty’s role in all of this? Will the kids at the Center figure out that they are really part of a factory system wherein they are being groomed for heinous crimes at the hands of adults? Will Nathan lead them into “The Streets” and would their circumstances improve if he did? What, exactly, is infesting the woods and does it really mean the end of the world…or is it really just the beginning?
So the first thing we need to get out of the way is the common question when dealing with a book that is part of a series: “Do I need to have read the other books to ‘get it’?” Technically, with “The Streets,” the answer is “No.” Dunbar’s latest definitely is a tense and quietly horrifying read that stands completely on it’s own. That having been said, many characters from “The Pines” and “The Shore” are major players here and because of their history together in those previous novels, they often talk and react in short-hand with one another. Athena, Steve and Kit, for example, have a past, one that Dunbar doesn’t feel the need to rehash in this novel. Their relationships are established and, like in real-life, they don’t feel the need to “explain” for the reader’s sake. This may frustrate some readers, but Dunbar expertly drops in little hints, enough for the reader to fill in the blanks all on their own. The relationships are rich as they are, and those familiar with the earlier novels will probably experience aspects new readers might not.
If you are familiar with Dunbar’s work, you already know that he will never talk down to his readers. He introduces a lot of characters in a very short time period and wisely expects the reader to “keep up.” Likewise, there are no easy answers in “The Streets.” Not everything will be spelled out for the reader. Like the best of horror film directors, Dunbar knows that the unknown is far more terrifying. He defiantly won’t show you the “monsters” that populate his novel. He’ll give you glimpses in the dark, a hint and allow you to fill in the rest. It’s one of the wonderful aspects to Dunbar’s work and the suspense builds and builds throughout this novel.
Monsters, however, are at the core of “The Streets,” but they are not what lurks in the woods. Dunbar finds horror in the predicament that the kids are in — trapped in a system with no way out, no understanding of how they came to be there, and the belief instilled by the adults of the world that they are ill, worthless, beyond repair. And the horror here is palpable, especially as they begin to piece together just what might be going on.
“Doesn’t it seem to you like we’re some sort of, I don’t know, assortment pack. One black kid, one Asian kid, a blonde, a redhead. You know? It’s like we’re menu items.”
What lurks in the Barrens is certainly frightening to those who populate this bleak world, but Dunbar puts a great spin on that, taking what the world has labeled as “monsters” and creating a new mythology of sorts. Maybe what is in the woods is just a natural part of the evolution of humanity. Dunbar smartly plays with the fear of the unknown and man’s knee-jerk reaction to obliterate and demonize that which it doesn’t – and isn’t willing – to understand. The creatures of the woods are in not so different a predicament than the kids in the Center.
The kids that populate the novel are the good guys, confused, misunderstood, just trying to find a way to survive in the harsh world. The real monsters in “The Streets” are the adults, the evil seemingly far outnumbering the good. While the just-other-side of pubescence Rudy is certainly a scary individual, his “Doc” is a sadistic monster, selling kids as if they were pieces of meat; grooming them to believe they are worthless and beyond fixing so they are more easily controllable, profitable. He is in a position of authority, evil to the core and Dunbar makes no bones about it. While young Rudy earns some redemption in the novel, the author doesn’t attempt to give “Doc” any softening back story to make him more palatable, more relatable. He is evil incarnate and the henchmen he employs are equally treated. In a day and age when a U.S. Judge was actually selling children to prisons, Doc’s heinousness is not so far-fetched.
The exceptions to this adult rule is Nathan, who genuinely wants to help the kids, and Athena, Steve and Kit who want to save Matty and Perry and those like them. Still, it is clear that the trio were and are not saints…they have clearly evolved to where they are now over the course of the three novels. Whereas they once feared the creatures in the Barrens, they have come to understand them, that they are not some foreign invaders, and that there are others just like them in their midst, if they are ever given a chance to survive. Even then, they are not above using kids – in this case the vulnerable Perry — if the ends justify the means. This aspect gives those who haven’t read the previous novels a tangible hint of whom these three might once have been. Very nuanced characters.
And that is what is always core to any of this author’s work…the characters. Dunbar knows there is no story without full characters, and he especially excels at drawing disenfranchised youth, imbuing them with amazing depth and emotion. While the tension is thick and the suspense impressive, it is the characters the keep the reader hooked from beginning to end.
Now, you may recall that at the beginning of this review I called the novel “life-affirming,” and I’m sure a number of you rolled your eyes a bit at that, but I stand by the statement. Dunbar has crafted not only a dread inducing novel, but in the process creates and allegory that can be read on many levels: evolution of man, survival of youth, fear as means of control, the absolute perversion of power. In the end, though, life in all its myriad of forms, matters and will hopefully triumph…if we as a species ever get past our fear, whether we have nurtured it or had packaged and sold to us by those higher up the food chain who want only to maintain their power.