Disclosure: I received an Advanced Read Copy from the publishers, via NetGalley, for an honest review.
I'm sitting here with my hand over my mouth trying to process one of the most incredibly poetic, haunting novels I have read. And it's about a zombie plague. Try and picture that for a moment. Harrison Demchick has written a beautiful and disgusting, wonderful and horrifying book with a strong voice and lyrical quality and it's about the Apocalypse.
14-year-old Daniel is living in an unnamed borough, (it's Manhattan,) that has recently become victim of a plague that causes the victim to rot inside and out. Outwardly, the disease manifests as red, pus-filled boils. Inwardly, with a violent dementia and decline in mental faculties. So it's zombies, but not the way you generally think of them. These "sickos" can talk, use weapons, even be reasoned with...right up until they can't. Right off the bat, that's a whole lot scarier than the usual genre.
I'd like to start out that this review is purposefully vague, because The Listeners is hard to describe. It's far less about the plot, (although there is a good, solid one,) and more about a slow decent into insanity. Large portions take place entirely in imagination and Demchick lets Daniel's mental state dictate the actual writing. As the Listeners exert control and the horror of the situation beats him down, the pace gets frantic with repeated words, asides, and violent imagery. This style will be very polarizing, but I found it effective and affecting. A scene when Daniel is inducted into the Listeners is particularly beautiful while being utterly tragic.
Daniel's mom goes out for supplies and never comes home. Three days later, corrupt cops show up to extort him for anything of value in the house in exchange for protection and a promise of food. They are followed by the Listeners, a cult that wants to take the city back from the police. They convince Daniel to come with them and join their ranks.
The Listeners are fishy from the start. Their prophet, Adam, is the only one with two ears. Everyone else cuts off their right in an initiation ceremony, to better hear the truth and not hear the lies. The live in an underground bunker that someone built under a supermarket. Like most cults, their morals are black and white, and they regard all cops as evil enemies to be destroyed. Daniel is conflicted, as his best friend Katie's father is in the police and he trusts him. Through isolation and manipulation, the Listeners convince Daniel, only 14 remember, that theirs is the only right way.
This is NOT a happy book. Just when you think you have the ending pinned down, another twist is thrown out. People die, graphically, and the people left don't have anyone else's best interests at heart. Maybe the people gone didn't either. The story is broken into two parts, each with a gut-wrenching climax. Part one is Daniel's ascension to Listener, with little in the way of action and sickos. Part two is more on daily life in the city, as he goes on patrol and searches for answers raised in part one. These parts are punctuated with "respites", chapters following other characters around the city. They give a welcome depth to the world. Despite following a vast range of people: a business man outside the quarantine, a family man inside, two police officers, an infected brother, an abandoned nurse, and a mother/reporter, all the respites explore the same themes of insanity and survival.
I have two issues with the book, though they're not enough to downrate it. First, on an island of a million people, even after a deadly plague, everyone seems to come together too nicely. Any character introduced, Daniel will run into later. On one hand, it adds to the isolated feeling. On the other, of course the newspaper writer mentioned in the first respite, the baby, and the homeless man, will all end up at the same place 20 chapters later. It's convenient. My second issue is I HAVE SO MANY QUESTIONS and the author doesn't say if this is a planned series or a one off!
The Listeners is moving and powerful in a way I've never known a horror story to be. It's not traditionally scary, building far more on dread than boos, but I found it creeping into my thoughts after dark. It brings up a lot of questions regarding who the monsters are and the morality of survival. It must be experienced.