White Fire by Brian Keene
Publisher: Deadite Press | Release Date: Oct. 30, 2018 | Pages: 81 pages
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
White Fire, by Brian Keene, is a smooth, solid horror novella that, coming in at less than 100 pages in ebook format, moves along at a rapid clip but suffers a bit from its brevity.
Army Captain Tom Collins and Phil McLeod, a civilian contractor for the CDC, are transporting a bio-hazardous agent by van through a rural stretch of Illinois when a severe storm hits. The van is knocked over by a tornado ripping its way through Godfrey, and the top-secret cargo the men are hauling is unleashed — a deadly pathogen known as White Fire.
Keene delivers a pretty straight-forward story of viral contagion hitting a small Midwestern town but, oddly, it feels kind of sedate. Even though the plot has a built-in ticking time bomb in the form of a lethal virus, White Fire lacks the frantic, balls-to-the-wall feeling of unrelenting danger of other Keene works, like The Complex or The Rising. Instead, Keene takes a more deliberate approach, showcasing the strengths of trained professionals responding to a disaster, rather than focusing on the various ways in which society and its systems could collapse under apocalyptic pressures. People die, but that’s to be expected, and while the body count is particularly high, it’s mostly a numbers game to give scope to what otherwise feels like a strangely minor event. Most of the victims we do meet are short-shrifted in terms of development, and we don’t get to know them intimately enough to feel their losses, an unfortunate side-effect of the book’s slender page count.
While the conceit of the pathogen is welcome, the horror aspect feels a bit shoehorned in and didn’t quite work for me on the whole. Although I did enjoy the references made to Keene’s overarching mythos, placing White Fire within the context of Keene’s broader body of works, I couldn’t help but find the story itself a bit unbalanced with the competing threats demanding our attention. These elements might have worked in a longer form, but the veering between dual threats and victims felt a bit unwieldy. I did get a kick out of spotting familiar subjects like Black Lodge, Ob, the Thirteen, and the Labyrinth, though.
Keene’s at his best here introducing us to Collins and McLeod, and describing the trail of destruction caused by the tornado, giving us a God’s eye view over a ruined Godfrey that felt reminiscent of Stephen King in some ways. I couldn’t help but laugh at this particular passage, which struck me as being particularly King-inspired: “A stop sign became a torpedo, spearing through a smiling politician’s billboard, leaving a large, gaping hole in the politician’s face. Later, some residents would agree that it was an improvement.” I also appreciated the character of McLeod and his increasing panic and trepidation over the hand he and Collins are dealt in the wake of the tornado that has left them stranded.
Although it lacked the visceral horror, tension, and sense of dread found in many of Keene’s other works, I still found White Fire an entertaining way to burn off a few hours. Ultimately, I think I expected a fair bit more from the story than it delivered.