The theme of the abominable, blood-thirsty creature hunting humans in dark, confined spaces is one that’s been used often to promote a claustrophobic feeling of horror in the readers or viewers, one of the best examples being that of the xenomorphs in the Alien franchise. Awakened multiplies this effect by creating a veritable horde of terrifying critters haunting the bowels of New York’s subway system.
Mayor Tom Cafferty’s crowning achievement is the implementation of the Z Train track connecting the city of New York with neighboring New Jersey by digging under the Hudson River. Despite a major incident during the construction – an incident that opens the book with an adrenaline-infused, and quite ominous, prologue – the ambitious project is finally ready for inauguration, and the state of the art terminal station is packed with guests and media people, and even graced by the arrival of the President.
The expectant crowd waiting for the first train is however first mystified by its delayed arrival after loss of communication, and then shocked by the appearance of the wrecked, empty cars, gruesomely drenched in blood. The first hypothesis of a terrorist attack is strengthened by rising levels of methane gas that could kill the attending crowds in a short time, and the situation is made worse by the total lockdown imposed by Secret Service agents bent on protecting the President’s life. It soon becomes evident, however, that the attack on the train was no terrorist strike and that the so-far untapped depths under the city are home to an ages-old menace that’s been disturbed by recent human activities and is now out for blood…
Awakened is the kind of “popcorn thriller/horror” that relies heavily on plot and does not care much about characterization, and as such it could have worked very well for a total immersion in a scary, monsters-of-the-week story asking only for a modicum of suspension of disbelief. Unfortunately the authors choose to reach beyond the parameters of this kind of narrative and added further elements, like a decade-old secret organization born out of a former Nazi’s plans, or a conspiracy theory linked to this organization and involving various world governments.
On the positive side, I enjoyed the mounting terror experienced by the people trapped in the subway station, and the escalation of the stakes building against their survival, and even though the characterization was somewhat stereotyped, it was of the kind one can expect in this kind of narrative environment: from the quiet guy turning hero to the unexpected double player who betrays the others, to the estranged wife seeking solace elsewhere – the downside is, unfortunately, that the reader is unable to bond with any of them and rarely cares about their survival or early demise. The environment of the oppressive subway tunnels is made even more disturbing by the awareness of the tons of water under which the galleries run, and together with the other elements – the monsters, the methane levels, the impossibility of using conventional weapons because of the explosive danger – makes for a compelling story that simply begs to be consumed quickly.
The negatives, however, gather more and more weight as the novel progresses: the harvesting of pregnant women by the creatures is never explained, and the scene of one of them slowly opening a victim’s shirt with a talon feels more ludicrous than scary; the monsters themselves generate a lot of unexplained questions: we are told that they are intelligent and quick learners, for example, and yet they seem little more than pack animals grunting their way toward the intended victims, while in other instances they exhibit the ability to perfectly mimic human voices to lure people toward their demise. These are minor annoyances, still, in the face of bigger ones like the representation of the shady Foundation for Human Advancement, which for decades has been keeping the creatures at bay while blackmailing governments for funds: this truly baffled me, because no one seems to be aware of those demons’ existence, and yet politicians have been funding the organization for decades on the basis of pure… faith, for want of a better word. And let’s not go into the Nazi origins of the group, because it feels like such an overused trope, the kind that worked well in the early Bond movies and here is resurrected, complete with the required scene in which the evil guy details his dastardly plans to the heroes while gleefully twirling his mustache.
It was disappointing to see how a novel with the potential to be a good – if somewhat predictable – science fiction/horror story slowly downgraded into a clutter of ideas haphazardly thrown together with little rhyme or reason, which in the end defied its initial purpose. As Coco Chanel was fond of saying about her dressing philosophy, less is more, and it’s a pity that the writers decided to ignore this little piece of wisdom, burdening their story with so much unnecessary baggage.