Ominous titles portrayed on stunning covers that fill me with a sense of dread are a sure fire bet to getting my attention. Whether the book is a science fiction epic, or short jaunt through a fantastical realm, I’m always game when that lethal marketing combination is aimed my way. Malcolm Devlin’s tale of horror was no different. And Then I Woke Up is a terrifying and uncanny portrayal of how one’s perspective can be distorted and weaponized to split reality, causing untold harm to the masses, and forever damaging the individual.
Spence is living out his days amongst the cured. Not that long ago, he had fallen prey to a weird plague that had been sweeping the nation. One night, while working at the restaurant, something horrible happened. A strange stench of rotting meat permeated the air, and the customers began to take on a monstrous form. Spence, along with a group of his coworkers, fought their way out desperately, and ran off to scavenge in this new hostile world. Or so he thinks that’s what happened. He, along with others at Ironside rehabilitation, are quite confused as to what is real, and what isn’t. And when a new patient shows up, and asks him to help her escape and find her old crew, he worries being “cured” may not be what he thinks. And so he sets out in search of a redemption he desperately craves, but what he finds may never scratch that itch.
I did not know what to expect when I picked this book up, but as soon as I entered Devlin’s domain, I was hooked. Spence was an engrossing narrator, dancing between hard facts and his subjective perspective with the ease of a drunken marionette. Devlin made it hard to trust him right away, and it set up a pervading sense of unease that only grew as the story wore on. The slow reveal of Spence’s journey to being cured was handled well, framing it to be a group therapy session that’s been rehearsed, but with the cracks slowly starting to show. Spence’s recitation of his story is both fascinating and stomach churning as he lists explicit details and questions his own motives and perspective. The story never steps away from Spence’s version of events, letting the reader steep in his shattered mind.
The “narrative” as the plague came to be called, is a devilish idea. It’s not fully understood by those who never experienced it, and it’s an even darker ocean for those “cured” of it. Devlin has Spence walk the reader through his conception of it, parroting the sterilized medical and psychological explanations to induce goosebumps. But Spence’s layman translations are haunting and bone deep. They seem silly at first, invoking internet memes years old. However, their implications about our limited knowledge of how the brain works is almost paralytic. I don’t want to get into it too much here, as discovering it through the story is part of the fun. And who’s to say I can even relay it truthfully?
One of my favorite aspects is how Devlin plays with some more recognizable zombie horror tropes and blends them nearly seamlessly with psychological horror. Zombies have been burnt out for a while, and this novella finds a refreshing use for them. And while diving headfirst into the hyper individualistic attitudes that dominate the genre, he questions their utility. Devlin’s counter to the narrative is subtle and and in some ways radical, involving community efforts on a level I rarely see in such stories. It isn’t bright, or flashy and doesn’t wipe away the pain. Instead, the hope it provides is the shadow at the top of the stairs surrounded by light, reaching a hand out to remind you that you’re not alone in the harsh light of reality.
And Then I Woke Up is not for the faint of heart, nor the ironically detached. It seeks to fill one with dread, but a dread that underlies the present human condition. It examines the nature of storytelling, offering sobering observations without over-simplifying and playing the blame game. Devlin nails the horror of isolation and alienation due to the endless waves of competing narratives in a sea of hyper-individuality. The ending reminds the reader, it’s truly hard to trust anyone, especially if you can’t trust yourself, but it’s what one must do. Can’t live otherwise.
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.