Let’s Talk About It:
I first read Wanderers in 2019, the year of its release. At the time, I felt that maybe Chuck Wendig might have gone over the top with his description of right-wing militia types. Sure, they’re stoked in paranoia and racism in real life, but would they really try to overthrow the government during a pandemic?* Despite all the things that happened in the years leading up to that summer, 2019-me was still full of naivete.
To call this book a bit prophetic wouldn’t be too far from the truth. In the novel, a strange pandemic happens when Shana Stewart’s younger sister, Nessie, begins walking aimlessly. Her eyes are vacant. She’s awake, but not conscious. Shortly after, another “sleepwalker” joins Nessie on her trek. And another. Shana and her father don’t understand what is happening to Nessie, but when one of the sleepwalkers explodes after being restrained, they understand that the world around them has changed drastically.
The country – the world – has a strange reaction to the sleepwalkers, continually growing in numbers. They don’t understand what is happening, so their fear becomes anger becomes violence. Just as things seem to be on the brink of things, something new appears. Another problem.
A fungal pathogen is discovered in a deceased man. What follows is the realization that this isn’t just a pandemic, something to be quarantined and let run its course. This is world-ending.
Much like in Stephen King’s The Stand, Wanderers is a story about good and evil, but not one of supernatural good and evil. This science fiction horror is embedded too much in reality. Where the good just want humanity to thrive past the point of an extinction event and the bad want a certain skin color to inherit the earth.
I have to hand it to Wendig. The man knows how to craft characters that you’ll either love or love to hate. My top two being aging rockstar Pete Corley and Ozark Stover, the big bad.
Pete Corley starts off being an all-eyes-on-me character, intentionally embedding himself into the flock as means to garner attention for himself while running away from his responsibilities; however, as the pandemic grows and the world begins to crumble, that rockstar facade, though never really fully shed, becomes more a quirk. Rather than running away when things go grim and dark, he throws himself into savior mode in order to protect those he has come to respect and (in a way) love. While Corley never truly becomes a Larry Underwood type, he does hold up on his own. And even though his penchant for running away arises several times throughout the story – up until the end – he always comes back when he is needed the most.
Ozark Stover, on the other hand, shows no growth. Villains rarely do in these stories. Homophobic, but does not shy away from using me for his pleasure, as a way to force them into submission, racist, misogynist, anti-science, and pseudo-Christian, Stover is the embodiment of today’s Republican Party. When we meet him, he is deemed someone who might just run a junkyard. But as his world begins to be explored through the eyes of Pastor Matthew Bird, we learn that there is more than meets the eye. Stover’s good fortune comes from shady dealings. He sells prescription drugs under the table. He is growing a hometown militia, and brags about having the police under his thumb. When Matthew stands up for himself, Stover makes sure to knock the man down and, well, robs what little innocence the pastor had left. Stover becomes a member of de facto president Ed Creel’s army, made up of white supremist groups coming together. And his one goal is to ensure that when the fungal pandemic ends, it is white people who inherit the earth.
The book is powerful, well-written, and filled with raw emotion. It’s one part end-of-the-world horror, one part AI science fiction, and one part gritty realism. And after re-reading it in preparation to read its sequel – yes, its sequel – Wayward, I have come to terms that The Stand is no longer my favorite book of this subgenre.
Until next time, keep on huntin’.