Beneath The Mask is a recreation of a prior Stephen North story, a re-envisioning of his first book with the same title. Sergeant Alex Cray of the Florida National Guard is dealing with what appears to be a biological attack on the Tampa Bay area. He and the rest of the soldiers facing the situation have seen people dying from some sort of plague that leaves them with sores on their faces and a homicidal streak that borders on madness. It is clear that this situation is spreading to other parts of the country and globe and even more shocking, it is perhaps coming from something beyond our world.
Strange events unfold with little explanation around Alex. While the citizens in the area are desperate to survive, there are others who appear in the area that look human, though they seem transformed and almost alien in their physical perfection. Sergeant Cray is forced to kill to defend himself and the various people he comes into contact with that he feels are worth saving as things continue to deteriorate around him. At first he fears the plague that has permeated the area and like the rest of the soldiers, is supposed to continue wearing his MOPP suit-the protective bio-containment outfit that prevents airborne viruses from infecting you. But it doesn’t take him long to realize that life behind the mask is no longer worth living. After stripping his containment suit, Alex is forced to continue stripping away other masks that civilization has put in place for him. He puzzles over the deterioration of his and others humanity while seeking answers as to what the truth is behind the strange people and strange vessels that have arrived in the area that look like nothing anyone on earth could have created.
Beneath The Mask has been transformed from a traditional first day apocalyptic tale of survival into a story that combines elements of this and that of a futuristic thriller. The author wrote another story, The Drifter, which had a noir/Blade Runner type flavor to it, though it mostly takes place elsewhere and else when and there are hints here that these two sagas will be tied together in a series of adventures, as elements from the second book have bled through here, in Beneath The Mask.
Stephen North’s writing preference is typically first person, present tense, and this story is written in this format. While there are some challenges with this style, because the reader can only see what Alex sees and hears in each instance, it steeps you in the moment, dealing with everything the main character faces with no additional time to react. There is no time to debate whether to pull the trigger or to leave someone for dead when things are constantly shifting and moving all around you. The story is not driven by one particular objective, although Alex’s instant to instant reactions are shaped by the strange realities he has discovered and must come to grips with, which drives him to focus on certain objectives-most of which have to do with staying alive. His alliances are also driven by gut instinct and the desire to retain a kernel of humanity within him, even while he is forced to do mostly unspeakable things to keep himself and those he cares for alive.
The author has created the start of a rollicking adventure tale that has the potential to transcend timelines and realities. Alex does seem almost too reactionary in this story-pulled by outside forces in different directions on a constant basis, rather than focusing on anything beyond moment to moment survival. Of course, the author puts a steady flow of roadblocks in front of him to provide him with all sorts of adventures, but he is almost philosophically detached from one of the only overriding objectives he returns to throughout the book-the desire to see if his parents are still alive. Of course, there are far greater missions for Sergeant Cray to involve himself in, but I would have liked to see him push a little harder in an effort to achieve this objective. Despite this minor concern, the author has created an all-to-human hero that fails as much as he succeeds, still tries to do what is right even when nothing he does seems to matter, and still is able to fight to retain a grip on what makes him human even if at times there seems to be no good reason to do so anymore.
Beneath The Mask can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Beneath-Mask-Drifter-Book-1-ebook/dp/B00QL64P8A/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1421418407&sr=8-3&keywords=beneath+the+mask
The Undead Haze is the follow up to the author’s first novel, The Undead Situation, where we were introduced to self-proclaimed sociopath, Cyrus V. Sinclair. Cyrus is the narrator here, as he was in the first book, and thus we get to see the world only through his eyes. His claim of being a sociopath are dampened from the get go here, even by his own admission. In reviewing the first novel, I made it clear that it was debatable whether he was truly a sociopath. But since the story is told by the main character, we only have his proclamation to go by as to whether it is true or not.
Here, it becomes clear that Cyrus’s feelings for Blaze, the woman he lost track of before the end of the first book, don’t jive with that of a true sociopath. It is more likely that Blaze is closer to a text book definition of sociopath, at least based on how she acted and reacted to others, including Cyrus, the first book. The majority of this novel is spent with Cyrus wanting to find Blaze because of the feelings he has developed for her. Naturally, because of the state the world is in, there are some tremendous perils brought on by both the living and the dead. Cyrus crosses paths with someone who has the potential to help him find Blaze, if she is still alive, though he will have to go through hell on earth in the process.
Much of the criticism I saw in reviews of the first novel were due to Cyrus’s proclamation that he was a sociopath when there were aspects of his personality that left that up for debate. Much of the criticism I have seen in reviews of this novel are due to the fact that Cyrus shows far more vulnerability and humanity than a sociopath ever would. He works hard to convince himself that he has no need for others, that he is still using them, and is purposefully callous on occasion, but he shows far more fear, a willingness to open himself up to others, and more of a desire to help others than ever before. Again, since both stories are told in first person, all the reader has to go on is Cyrus’s proclamations about himself, rather than based on any truth that may have been revealed had his story been told in third person. The only thing for certain is that Cyrus V. Sinclair is a bit more complicated than a one word description of his personality type.
The Undead Haze, is in some ways a more complicated story, like its protagonist has become, than the one found in the first book. Cyrus is forced further and further outside his comfort zone. He is beaten and bloodied for long stretches of this tale. He’s weak, vulnerable, and at the mercy of others who he must rely upon. He is obsessed with another person, feeling something akin to love, which becomes the driving force in his life. This is what drives this story and will likely determine whether a reader likes this book more, or less than the first one. Cyrus is still, for the most part, a disagreeable character, but one who is far more human than before. He questions whether or not what he seems to becoming is who he truly is, rather than the sociopath he believed himself to be in the past.
Naturally, this is a character driven story, with the events that unfold on its pages being secondary to how Cyrus experiences them. There are traditional zombie slow movers with a mix of fast movers (those that have recently turned) which are one threat to Cyrus, but they are not the worst danger for him. It the human dangers that are far worse.
The author’s writing has gotten sharper and she has nurtured Cyrus into something far more complex than the one dimensional, smug jerk he was in the first book. While in many ways he is still irredeemable, he has expanded greatly beyond what he was to begin with in this book. It will be interesting to see where he ends up going in the third act of his saga.
The Undead Haze can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Undead-Haze-Situation-Book-Volume/dp/1618680730/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1420788356&sr=1-2
The Tether. The name drums up an image of something that holds you in place, latches on to you, and links you to others that are also connected in a similar fashion. The Tether in The Phone Company is the name of the latest mobile device being offered by the eponymous organization to their customers. PCo, for short, didn’t make the Tether, but they have taken full advantage of its endless capabilities as a device to connect everyone to each other. Just sign up, get connected, and work to become one of the Top 12 of the PCo family. Its aps are remarkable, giving its customers almost magic-like abilities to peak into the world of their neighbors, to control machinery, and to retrieve virtually any information instantaneously.
PCo has set up shop in Cracked Rock, Montana, building a data center on the cemetery where the town founders have been buried. While there are protests about what they have done, most of the citizens are too excited about the free phones being offered to students and other members of the community to have a problem with it. Cracked Rock is a town that is hurting. Several years earlier a boy went on a shooting spree at the local middle school, tearing the town apart. While this was happening, Steve, one of the teachers in the high school, avoided his kids being victims because they were facing another nightmare at the local hospital: the death of Janice, his wife, due to lung cancer.
Steve and Bill, his best friend and a deputy sheriff in town, are about the only two members of the community not thrilled with the new Tethers and the increased presence of PCo. Both are given free Tethers as public servants, but Steve would rather stick with his old phone that both he and his wife used years before and Bill isn’t interested in agreeing to the background check the Tether requires to grant him access to all the neat law enforcement tools it has to offer.
It doesn’t take long for this thriller to migrate to more of a supernatural horror, with strange events occurring all around town. It seems that everyone is discovering unique aps on their phones, like JJ, Steve’s son, who discovers he can inhabit the bodies of soldiers and rebels doing battle in a variety of wars across the globe. Sarah, Steve’s daughter, realizes she has a popularity ap that not only gauges her popularity against the other girls in her high school, it also provides guidance on what she can do to claw her way to the top of the list.
If you have read the author’s previous work, The Pen Name, it becomes clear very quickly that both these tales inhabit the same eerie world. The mysterious publishing company from the first book pays a brief visit here, and the main character from that tale had been laid off from the phone company prior to being sucked into his own mystery. The author’s prior work seemed a bit more subtle as the world around the main character unraveled in bits and pieces. In Cracked Rock, things seem to tumble down the rabbit hole in a more abrupt fashion, though everyone seems fairly happy with the results. The mysterious Provider, who is behind the all-consuming need to be connected, is spoken about with a reverence bordering on religiously zealotry by the faithful.
This story, like its predecessor, has flavors of Lovecraft mixed in with King and begins as a thriller that migrates more into the realm of supernatural horror before the story is complete. The writing is solid though Steve, the main character, doesn’t feel as strongly developed as Ben was in The Pen Name. Perhaps because it felt like Steve didn’t seem to sense what was going wrong all too quickly in the pages of the story. He seems to be more of a passive reactionary to a great deal of what is happening, at least until everything has gone off the rails entirely. He is unhappy, discontented, but slow to engage with Graham, the ever present PCo representative, and all too willing to hope for the best.
Overall, The Phone Company is still a very intriguing story. It pokes and prods at how worthwhile it is to live in a world where we are hyper-connected to one another, where there is an ap for everything and our lives are on display for everyone via social media. We bemoan our loss of privacy and yet cannot look away, or stop contributing to the deluge of information shared with one another. The book takes that in a supernatural direction, turning the need for connection into a religious fervor that devours everyone who submits.
The Phone Company can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Phone-Company-David-Jacob-Knight/dp/1503361993/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1420306490&sr=8-1