In Chuck Wendig's new novel Blackbirds, protagonist Miriam Black is a young woman with a superpower. Only, it's a terrible superpower – when she touches someone, she can see the exact date, time and method of their death, in a vivid and morbid vision. And there's nothing she can do about it.
I first encountered Wendig's work in White Wolf's World of Darkness role-playing game books. There, his technicolor descriptions of horror and weirdness set off the drier elements of RPG rules, creating memorable images that inspired many a game master. Blackbirds is his second novel.
There are a couple of different ways you could handle a character like Miriam. I can imagine her as a hippie gypsy, at peace with the inevitability of the deaths she foresees, traveling the country and guiding people easefully into the big sleep. Here's how Wendig handles her: She's a booze-soaked, promiscuous grifter in a dirty white t-shirt, hoping her lack of a bra makes hitchhiking a little easier. She keeps careful track of where and when people are going to die in her notebook, then shows up at the right time to bear witness. And rifle through their pockets. It's how she gets by.
As Wendig explores Miriam's troubled past, you come to realize that she couldn't be any other way. Every handshake or hug, every accidental brush of a waitress' hand is a litany of broken necks, eaten bullets, gasping heart attacks, pathetic final breaths in nursing homes, bloody car wrecks and worse. So she drifts from motel to motel. She doesn't have any friends.
The specific plot of Blackbirds revolves around what happens when Miriam meets some people who end up entangled in her weird life on a slightly more long-term basis. There's a pair of mismatched hired guns and their creepy boss, a big-hearted trucker destined for a gruesome end, and a charming greaser who sets off fireworks in Miriam's head when they have sex.
Speaking of fireworks, some novels might take these disparate storylines and let them wind around each other for a while, gradually closing a noose. Not Wendig. His character arcs are more like lit bottle rockets. There's a lot of violence in Blackbirds — really brutal, vividly described violence. I'm tempted to throw out the phrase, "Splatterpunk revival." The characters, including Miriam, are not terribly nice to each other.
In terms of style, Wendig reminds me most of Stephen King. There's a way of using somewhat fevered, rugose prose to describe both the beauty and horror of the mundane, then switching to a plainer mode when describing the outer limits stuff, that brings to mind King's 80s and 90s work. At times, the writing can get a little too manic, and Wendig occasionally fails to get out of his own way during the more elaborate descriptions. But then, some people may love those passages for their sheer over-the-topness.
He blinks. "What time is it?"
"Nine-thirty. Ten. Shrug."
"Did you just say shrug instead of actually shrugging?"
Miriam ignores the question and instead holds up the two boxes for display, one in each hand. "Check it out. Blackbird Black. Vampire Red. Pick one."
"Pick one what?"
She makes an exasperated sound. "A candidate for the presidency of the Moon and all its Provinces."
He stares, confused.
"A hair color, retard. I'm dying my hair. Blackbird Black–" She shakes that box. "Or Vampire Red?" She shakes the other box.
He squints, face slackened to indicate minimum investment or comprehension. Miriam growls and stomps over to him, dropping her bag. She thrusts the two boxes up under his chin and makes them do a little dance, like the Let's All Go To The Lobby parade of treats.
"Black, red, black, red," she says.
"Yeah, I don't actually care. It's too early for this shit."
"Heresy. It's never too early for hair dye."
"I dunno," he croaks. "I'm not really a morning person."
"Let's go through this," she says. "Vampires are cool. Right? Modern vampires, at least, they're all black leather and sexy moves and pomp and circumstance. Plus, they're pale. I'm pale. Except, vampires are slicker than goose shit on a glass window. Suave. Sultry. I'm neither of those things. Plus, I don't really feel like being one of the slag-whore bitches in Dracula's brothel, and all that Goth and emo shit gives me a rash."
She holds up the other box. "Blackbirds, on the other hands, are cool birds. Symbols of death in most mythology. They say that blackbirds are psychopomps. Like sparrows, they're birds that supposedly help shuttle souls from the world of the living to the world of the dead." A little voice tries to say something, but she shushes it. "Of course, on the other hand, the genus – or is it species, I always get them mixed up – of the common blackbird is Turdus, which, of course, has the word ‘turd' in it. Not ideal."
Ashley watches and listens. "How do you know all this?"
You'll ultimately find yourself liking Miriam, really rooting for her, despite and because of her flaws. She's chatty and hilariously vulgar, witty in a Whedonesque sort of way (if Joss Whedon had the vocabulary of sailor). The book's title refers to her, of course, but also to the fact that blackbirds are considered harbingers in some traditions. Although it's not mentioned in the novel, blackbirding was also slang for the practice of setting fake signal lights to run ships aground, there to loot the cargo – the climactic scene happens to take place in a lighthouse. And even though both Miriam and the reader know for certain who lives and who dies (and when), there's still a building tension and momentum leading you to the final outcome. That's really the crux of the story — is the fate that Miriam foresees inescapable, or does Death always find a way, Final Destination style?
Perhaps it's cheating a bit to mention that Miriam will be back in the sequel, Mockingbird, but I'm looking forward to it. That girl really got stuck in my head.