Pity David Oppegaard. His debut novel The Suicide Collectors - about almost everyone deciding to commit suicide for mysterious reasons - just came out, while memories of The Happening remain pungent. But it's worlds better.
Oh, and there are spoilers, although I won't give away the novel's ending or anything.
As in The Happening, people start killing themselves for no reason. Oppegaard's novel, however, starts five years into The Despair, when most of the world's population is already long dead. The last survivors are just barely hanging on, but people still kill themselves all the time. And whenever someone dies, the Collectors - mysterious black-robed figures - show up and carry the body away. Norman's wife, Jordan, kills herself at the start of the book. When the Collectors show up, Norman snaps, threatening them with a gun and then shooting one of them. And then Norman hears that Seattle is rebuilding civilization, and maybe even developing a cure for The Despair. He and his best friend Pops take a postapocalyptic road trip, confronting survivalists, feral children, packs of wild dogs and the wrath of the Collectors.
It's all written in a stark, pulpy style with the occasional stab at literariness. That makes for a quick read, and the novel's pace never flags. The characters may stare into the heart of human misery and self-destruction, but they don't linger on it, which is probably for the best in this instance. A long, unblinking gaze into a world where most of the population had offed themselves would be pretty hard to take.
Instead, you have some horrific imagery, mixed liberally with a sort of fast-paced adventure novel. Norman and his friends keep up the gallows humor, even when they're seeing, or hearing about, things like a wild dog running along with a baby in its mouth. Or a preacher shooting himself in front of his congregation, who all shoot themselves as well, until the preacher's gun runs out of bullets. Or the Utah suicide cult, whose appointed victim slashes his own throat in front of the others. Each horror passes in rapid succession, like slides in a viewmaster, and in between there's a curious warmth from the few humans who remain alive. The urge to self-destruct is always present, in every character you meet, which amps the tension and makes a miracle of mere survival.
The last quarter of the book turns into more of a standard adventure thriller, as Norman finally gets some answers about the Despair and gets sent on a secret mission to the heart of the Collectors' territory. (A place in Alaska which Norman's friend Zero, an eleven-year-old girl, dubs "Death Island," as if it was a theme park.) Norman starts pulling magical gadgets, which we didn't know he had, out of his pockets, and it gets a bit silly. But then it goes back onto the rails, and the ending is actually pretty great.
The Suicide Collectors may be the first novel ever to have a blurb from Marvel Comics' Stan Lee and reviews comparing it to Cormac McCarthy's The Road. But it sort of fits. It's a serious post-apocalyptic novel (without hardly any cheesiness or self-mockery) but with some very Stan Lee-esque plot twists and derring-do. And that's not at all a bad combination. [Amazon]