Author: James DeMonaco, B.K. Evenson
Publisher: Blumhouse Books
Three years after a viral outbreak turns all men on Earth feral, a young woman discovers the creatures may be evolving into an even deadlier threat.
James DeMonaco is no stranger to bleak visions of what our future could look like. As the puppet master pulling the strings on Blumhouse’s “The Purge” franchise, DeMonaco’s dark takes on dystopian fiction have permeated pop culture since the first Purge film hit in 2013. Teaming up with B.K. Evenson to co-author the novel “Feral,” DeMonaco takes post-apocalyptic terror to new extremes with a unique human versus infected scenario doubling as a faceoff between the sexes.
It’s been three years since a devastating fire at a gene engineering lab pumped a virus into the sky, turning the entire planet’s male population into a pack of four billion snarling madmen with only one thing on their minds. Tearing apart any women they smell using their teeth and bare hands.
In that time, Allie Hilts went from virginal high school lacrosse star to a 19-year-old Ellen Ripley. Allie narrowly escaped the savagery that consumed her school and rushed home in time to save her younger sister Kim from their feral father, although not before he killed their mom.
Allie and Kim eventually made a new home in West Staten, one of several scattered camps where survivors subsist as a dying species while figurative wolves prowl a fortified perimeter of land mines and guard towers. Allie earns her keep as the camp's top scout, fighting off ferals on regular runs to scavenge supplies from the ruins of what used to be civilization.
Ferals have always been predictable, with no more method to their madness than sniffing the air and pounding the pavement in a mad rush to rip female flesh. Lately however, Allie has noticed new behavior. Ferals are assembling in large groups and seemingly being strategic about how they attack. It shouldn't be possible for mindless monsters to become organized, but it's happening. And Allie doesn't know what's worse. The fact that she doesn't know how or that she doesn't know why.
Conceptually, "Feral" plays with the premise of Brian K. Vaughan's "Y: The Last Man" comic book series and puts it in a horrifying landscape from "The Walking Dead." DeMonaco and Evenson have a perfect plot for hitting a hook of how frightening the transition into adulthood can be, particularly when that evolution is forced by grim realities of a brutally ravaged world.
"Feral" spikes its largely third-person narrative with an occasional first-person chapter presenting more introspective looks into the minds of the main protagonists, specifically the two sisters. Allie confronts striking a balance between being the camp's reliable resource gatherer as well as Kim's overprotective guardian. Kim's younger age means she is forced to grow up even faster, struggling to understand who her sister has become while simultaneously wondering what kind of woman she should be too.
"Feral" is thick with descriptive text, which works well in early scenes when the ferociousness of the ferals comes across in boldly bloody detail. Energy is raw, frightening, and full of viscerally charged scenery involving bodies torn in two in spectacularly awful fashion.
When mood isn't electrified by feral action or personal reflections, chatty narration isn't as lithe. Long-winded specifics of fluttering curtains or food table spreads describe settings without really establishing atmosphere. I'd rather envision feelings and tone than get a grocery list of what Allie ate for breakfast on a particular morning. The only value in knowing that Carla, a character I don't think comes up again, has a recipe for making dense bread is padding paragraphs with inessential asides.
It takes DeMonaco and Evenson a while to warm up the personalities. Initial oddness comes from knowing two grown men are writing in the heads of teen girls discussing sex tapes and talking about "emo" as if that trend is still current. When 12-year-old Kim muses in first-person how lax federal regulations of a pharmaceutical company could be blamed for the outbreak, you get the sense they are concerned more with what narration needs than in truly differentiating the mindset of a prepubescent girl, who I can't imagine would ever give thought to FDA culpability in creating a world full of human werewolves.
The authors also resort to writing that comes off as pushed against a wall with no more creative way of breaking free. We know that Jacky is the hard-assed head of camp security because of plentiful obscenities littering every other sentence in her segments. "Motherf*cker" this and "motherf*cker" that is such a rudimentary way of portraying her character type, one wishes for something with more depth.
And even though the line comes from someone young who legitimately doesn't know, I can't help but think of what Stephen King said (“Find another way!”) when a character remarks, "for some reason, the virus only affected males." Other uninspired dialogue includes "close call. A little too close" and "it takes one to know one."
However, DeMonaco and Evenson hit a groove down the back half that gives their novel a much stronger stride. With a better handle on which main players matter, secondary people fall away while a major plot point’s introduction turns the intrigue faucet back on full blast. Once the authors find this reliable rhythm, first-person segments stop being intrusive diversions. Frightful atmosphere also amps up, with action and a firm focus on developing core characters swinging the spotlight and keeping it there.
"Feral" can come across like it is fighting to add the descriptive detail necessary to be a novel. It is little surprise that a filmic adaptation is in development, as a leaner cut of the material might make a better fit for a 100-minute movie than a 320-page book. No matter what though, the framework for "Feral" is a gripping idea on its own. DeMonaco and Evenson don't take the shortest or the smoothest route to fleshing out their fearful world, but there is more than enough horror on hand to make this story an enticing read.
Review Score: 70