Book Review: Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

Posted October 6, 2019 by Maire in Book Reviews / 0 Comments

Book Cover: Wanderers by Chuck Wendig. A person walks down a midwestern road next to a water tower.

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig is the latest book to make an attempt at stealing the apocalyptic biopunk doomsday saga crown from Stephen King’s The Stand. Unlike other contenders, Wendig not only takes the crown, he giggles and chortles madly as he runs away home with it.

For those who aren’t familiar with The Stand (who are you?):
A military science lab has an oopsie, releasing a 99% fatal strain of flu into the immediate atmosphere. If the guard at the gate had stayed at his post, he would have died and everything would have been tidily contained. But he doesn’t. He rabbits with his family, and they’re most of the way across the country — having infected almost everyone they meet on the way — before the virus finally finishes them off. The book deals with the consequences of the flu and how the remaining Americans re-group into polarized camps to decide each others’ fates.

When Joe Hill released The Fireman in 2016, it was heralded as the natural successor to King’s masterpiece. After all, Hill is King’s son, and who better, right? Again, a strain of superflu wipes out humanity, and the survivors are left to pick up the pieces. Hill’s virus is, quite literally, fantastic. It even includes scales and a fiery ending. I can see why folks were saying it was a good response to The Stand.

Well, it’s a perfectly good book (I can see I need to write a couple more reviews now). I enjoyed the heck out of it. But it wasn’t Wanderers.

A challenger has entered the ring: Wanderers vs. The Stand

I’m of two minds when it comes to audio books. I liked listening to them when I was driving to and from work every day. We’ve kept the Audible subscription (for how much longer, I’m not sure — it’s a luxury), but I’m finding that more and more, I’m getting bored? impatient with just listening to the audio and need to actively read the text on the page. Sometimes this is because I really need to concentrate on what I’m reading. Once in a while I just can’t grasp the spoken word no matter how many times I rewind (oh Karen Memory, I really wanted to listen to you). Other times, it’s because I read Really Damn Fast and the audio book is too slow. Sometimes you want to experience the story NOW.

Wanderers was one of those stories I needed to bolt through, ahead of the recording. It’s a huge book – over 800 pages – and I felt the audio recording was holding me back after the first couple of hours. Nothing against the narrators: Dominic Hoffman’s and Xe Sands’s voices transferred into my brain while I was reading. Easy peasy lemon squeezy and all that stuff. I’m definitely going to enjoy a more relaxed listen to it at a later time. Their performances are wonderful.

As mentioned, the book is well over 800 pages in eBook form. The Fireman hit about 727 pages. My old paperback version of The Stand clocks in somewhere around 1200. This puts Wanderers right in the middle, and at the right word count for a story of this magnitude. I just can’t see how you could jam all the cogs and gears of this kind of story into a normal 350-page novel. It just doesn’t work.

“the sound coming out of Nessie became something otherworldly”

The story begins with the sleepwalkers. Rural farmer’s daughter Shana wakes up one morning to find that her sister has disappeared. She’s soon found, unresponsive to the world around her, walking down the road as if with a purpose. Attempts to stop or re-route her are met with violent resistance. Shana determines to follow her sister and protect her if need be. She’s soon joined by their father, other sleepwalkers, and other protectors of the growing flock.

At the same time, a former CDC researcher is approached by a computer scientist who claims her AI has correctly predicted an impending apocalyptic event. The AI has specified that he needs to be part of the investigating team, despite his dodgy past.

What follows is a cross-country hike on a massive scale, with a mass of “shepherds” following the flock of sleepwalkers who seem immune to the deadly virus also now sweeping the country. As they proceed on their incessant pilgrimage, an undercurrent of fear and resentment from the religious right builds to a violent climax.

Comparisons between Wanderers and The Stand

Wendig’s story is a worthy successor to The Stand. King built his story on a rising fear and distrust of the American Government and its shadowy military departments. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the US was still reeling from the aftershocks of the Vietnam War and dodgy Nixon government. The Cold War had not yet ended, and many adults were still attempting to parse the events of the recently past McCarthy era. The American people were certain the military were hiding secrets. What happened at Roswell? What was happening at Area 51? Were military scientists making super toxins and testing them on their own people? The atmosphere was the perfect breeding ground for stories like The Stand, and later TV shows like The X Files.

Movie poster: Outbreak (1995) featuring Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman. Portraits of the three headliners are juxtaposed down the left side of the poster with the movie's title and a picture of a screeching monkey on the centre-right.
Outbreak (1995)

One could argue that Wanderers has come out at a similar point in history. The US is on the brink of impeaching another President. Technology has reached a point where we’re no longer certain whether it’s assisting us, or spying on us, or both. Fascism and white supremacy have gained a foothold in North America, fostered by growing fear and xenophobia from alt-right forces in the States. Above it all is a deep-seated hatred of change at a time when we all really need to examine whether our collective sacred cows are all that healthy for our future.

In The Stand, we are aware of the plague’s source right from the beginning. A virus escapes from a lab and wipes out civilization as we know it. In Wanderers, Wendig sets up a mystery that unfolds over the course of the story. Unlike The Stand, where the CDC are mid-level villains, Wendig’s CDC are proactive, openly trying to help the American People. It’s a contrast that speaks to how things have changed over the past thirty or forty years. Movies like Outbreak (starring Dustin Hoffman as a military virus researcher) now portray CDC teams in more heroic terms.

Mother Abigail and Diversity

Actress Ruby Dee in costume as Mother Abigail in the 1994 mini-series "The Stand". A black and white photo of an elderly black woman in a modest dress and cotton apron. She is seated with an acoustic guitar on her lap.
Ruby Dee as Mother Abigail (1994)

King’s work is still centred fairly firmly on the middle class white American. This isn’t surprising – Stephen King is a white American who rose from a lower-middle class background. I’m not going to criticize that. Some might argue that The Stand, for all its faults, is diverse for its time. Yes, there are problematic scenes built on racial ignorance. There are slurs and insults thrown around at a rate that hasn’t been seen since younger GenX were in kindergarten. But one of the major motivational characters in the book, is an elderly black woman, right?

While I could probably research and dissect all the problematic aspects of the Magical Black Person trope, this review is going to be lengthy enough without it. I’m just going to say that King probably meant well. I’m not sure he realized he was writing a Great American Book at the time. I think he figured it was just more grist for the Horror genre, and was just happy they weren’t making him cut the book down further than it already was (for the original abridged run).

Diversity as world-building

By contrast, the diverse cast of characters in Wanderers also serves to place the setting in more modern times. The main characters are a rurally raised woman and a black male epdemiologist. There’s an ageing rock star so far in the closet, he can see Narnia. There is good representation here without relying too heavily on cheesy tropes. The diversity isn’t heavy-handed. The people in this book are the same kind of folks you see every day, walking down the street. In comparison to The Stand, it’s a noticeable difference, and one that’s not unwelcome.

King has often said that if he can’t scare with mood, he’ll go for the gross-out. I’d say that applies to his language as much as the imagery. Wendig might go for the gross-out at times, but he’s more aware of the social impact his words have these days. Is it fair to compare the social norms of two books written during entirely different generational shifts? I don’t know. King has grown and changed over the years, as evidenced by his continued publishing success.

For all that Wanderers does right, however, there are some places it falls down. Realizing that the book is hefty enough as it is (and it’s a biggun. I checked it out at Chapters the last time we were there. That book is a Big Boy), there are still some issues left unaddressed. Some of them are the same questions I have with The Stand.

For instance: What about the rest of the world?

Any time you introduce a virus that impacts on a global scale, you have to start thinking on a global scale. It’s all fine and good to tell me that infected Americans boarded a plane for Europe and took the superflu on holiday. What did it do to France? In the case of The Stand, did the Irish suddenly have an urge to swim to Hemingford Home, Nebraska? China has a pretty large population…did they have Wendig’s sleepwalkers?

A man in a dark jacket and faded blue jeans walks up a dirt path toward an amazingly blue sky with fluffy white clouds (Nose Hill, Calgary, Alberta, Canada)
Just when you thought you were there, there’s more.

And what about Canada?

Yes, of course I’m bringing Canada into the equation. I’m Canadian. I’m sure that if I were Mexican I would be asking the same question. We’re the most direct neighbours to the USA, sharing the same large land mass known as North America. Did Randall Flagg have influence over the people struggling to get out of Toronto, Ontario? What about Vancouver? Did a group of sleepwalkers make their way through the rural religious towns near Lethbridge, Alberta? What about the Northwest Territories? When you tell me there’s a global superflu, these are questions that go through my mind.

Of course, the books are long enough that I might have missed it, so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

Two different stories, two different villains.

When it comes to The Stand, we have a pretty straightforward story of good-vs-evil. Mother Abigail is good to the point of being saintly, and the good folks want to be with her. Flagg is the bad guy, and all the people of questionable morals and motivations flock to him. In Wanderers, it’s not so cut-and-dried.

The villain is humanity. You could argue that it’s a nebulous, militant libertarian front used as a pawn by a cagey and dangerously mischievous alt-right puppet master…but that doesn’t fully explain the fears and concerns of everyday people watching the parade of sleepwalkers passing through their small midwest towns. Not all those people are ignorant racists, as evidenced by the female main character just yearning for the chance to untether herself from her small-town life. No, the racists are a red herring for another, smarter foe.

….a foe I will not talk about because it gives away the whole “oh crap” moment of the book.

In the meantime, we shift in the wind, waiting for the other shoe to drop. There is a plot line featuring a well-meaning small-town pastor who finds himself somehow at the heart of the whole power-hungry militant organization bent on taking control in the aftermath of the plague. I had some trouble with it. I can understand getting caught up in a situation and feeling powerless to leave, but the extent to which this character was tortured was…a bit over the top.

The case of the strangely competent villain

Jamie want big boom - Jamie Hyneman of the Mythbusters carries a big-boom inducing device.
Jamie want big boom.

The almost unnatural competency of this group was a bit of a contrast to the enemy forces of The Stand, in that there are few “accidents” to derail the whole scheme. In The Stand, King builds in some very human flaws. Troops get bored and wander off. The lieutenants wonder why they need to share their power. The broken avatar of Jamie Hyneman drives a nuclear weapon into the town square. I don’t see that in Wanderers.

In the end, what it seems to come down to, is that Wanderers questions the ideology of American Exceptionalism. It’s asking where the US is going as a country, as representatives of the best humanity has to offer*. The Stand, in comparison, comes across as a calculated game of chess played by children. Very smart children, but still prone to making chaotic moves & changing the rules to accommodate the odd action figure.

To sum up:

I thoroughly enjoyed Wanderers by Chuck Wendig. I’d previously tried to read his book Zeroes with no success, so I was very happy to have found myself so quickly immersed in the story. I simply hope my review has done the story justice without sounding too negative, or too focused on the obvious comparison.

There were times, particularly toward the end of the book, when I felt some actual dread. As a Canadian watching the political climate in the US over the past three or four years, it’s hard to avoid the thought that a future much like the one Wendig has built could come true. It’s sad and it’s scary.

Which, I suppose, is the point of good horror.

Well done, Mr. Wendig. Well done.

* If you ever want a practical demonstration of this American quirk in action, find yourself in the position to watch both American and Canadian coverage during the Olympics. The Americans are insulted when they lose, and the Canadians are just happy they were allowed to show up. Except when it comes to hockey, because, well, it’s hockey.

5 Stars

TL;DR Chuck Wendig wins the plague/outbreak apocalypse competition and runs away, giggling madly, with Stephen King's crown. Yes, I liked it. I liked it a lot.

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
Narrator: Dominic Hoffman, Xe Sands
Published by Del Rey
Genres: Horror, Science Fiction, Technothriller, Outbreak, Apocalyptic
Pages: 800
Format: Audiobook, eBook
Source: Purchased
Amazon | Kobo | Audible

This post contains an affiliate link (to Amazon) you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.

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