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October 28, 2012

MRP Day 26 – Review – Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig

I reviewed the first of Miriam Black book, Blackbirds, back at the start of the Month of Relentless Positivity, so it makes sense – to me – to bookend the series, as it were, with a look at the sequel. I read it (on the Kindle) while I was away at Margaret River, sipping wine and sampling chocolates while I chowed through a story even more violent and sinister than its predecessor. So, just a warning for anyone who may be confused by my lauding a deranged horror-thriller under the MRP banner – I’m doing that again.

I adored the squirming rank guts out of Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds – its spiteful arch protagonist Miriam Black with her malign visions of death, its black comedy, its psychopathic bad guys. I loved its bruised and buried but still-beating sense of hope unquashed and fate defied.

The sequel, Mockingbird, somehow manages to find darker places to drag poor Miriam. Unable to face the compromises of an ordinary existence, she reluctantly takes an opportunity to make some semi-legitimate money from her unfortunate affliction – the ability to see how a person she touches will die, in precise and vivid detail. But Miriam being Miriam, she sees more than she wants to and finds a way to make a bad situation worse. Before long she is trying to save the students of a “school for bad girls” from a very sick serial killer. Worse than that, she’s suffering increasingly regular visitations from something dressed up as the ghosts of her past, which may or may not be the thing that gave her the death-visions. And worse than that again, she may have to confront the mother she walked out on years ago.

The actual plot is terrific – a serial killer hunt more tense than a tow cable and twisting like a cut snake – but the real meat of the story is in Miriam’s confrontations with what could be a spirit guide or a taunting revenant or her own guilty conscience. Her self-doubt, dark sarcasm and a regular one-two punch of instinctive lying followed by the telling of blunt unpalatable truths keeps friends and allies at arm’s length, but she can’t avoid the uncomfortable revelations that come out every time she closes her eyes (and even a few times when she’s awake). She is faced with the horrible realisation that there might be more to her visions than just some spiteful curse; she may be burdened with the unbearable horror of having a purpose.

Mockingbird dashes along like a fox with the hounds at its heels, though many of its worst horrors are reserved for the moments of breath-catching contemplation. The antagonists of Blackbirds were vicious and deranged, but like cartoon monsters compared to the monumental sickness that Miriam has to deal with here. The characters are rounded and distinct, but often defined more by their flaws than any possible virtues. Miriam remains a compelling lead, wounded and sharp-tongued and incapable of surrender, but thankfully this time out her truck-driving man Louis gets a bit more depth as well.

The smart dialogue and prose rolling out with belligerent ease make it easy to read even the more confronting scenes, many of which are more emotionally than physically brutal. Wendig reserves some of his best, most evocative writing for the death-vision sequences, which are even more beautiful and dreadful than in the previous story. There is worse stuff than red balloons in this one. The language is, of course, Wendig-esque – the man loves a colourful turn of phrase, and his palette favours blue.

Mockingbird is a supernatural thriller that wanders close to the border with horror more than once, but never commits itself fully to hopelessness and despair. For all her darkness, Miriam Black is a survivor with a streak of nobility to go with her self-loathing and remarkable instinct for making the most destructive choices in life.

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