Brian Keene,
The Conqueror Worms (Dorchester/Leisure, 2006)
published by Delirium in 2005 as The Earthworm Gods

Brian Keene must really hate this place. By "place" I mean, of course, this whole damned world. He keeps coming up with new ways to destroy it.

In The Conqueror Worms, it begins with a bad spell of weather. When the story opens, it's been raining for 41 days, exceeding by one day the biblical record and turning many of the populated parts of the world into lakes and oceans. For Teddy Garnett, alone in his mountaintop home in West Virginia, it's like the rest of the planet has vanished; he has no power, no telephone, and even his battery-operated radio has long since stopped receiving broadcasts. But of course this 80-year-old widower is not the last man on Earth, and soon enough he encounters a handful of other survivors.

And then there are the worms.

Every kid knows a good rainstorm will bring thick, juicy worms to the surface. So imagine what rises after so much rain has fallen that the soil is saturated to unimaginable depths. The worms from down below are bigger, meaner and, needless to say, hungrier.

Among the survivors Teddy meets are Kevin and Sarah, two refugees from Baltimore who experienced a wholly different kind of terror. Baltimore is entirely flooded, and creatures from the black deeps of the ocean are also on the move. The second third of the book is their tale -- which, according to some online sources, was previously published as a short story. Then it's back to West Virginia as the action catapults toward a bleak conclusion.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable horror novel, building tension through the first portion, action and terror in the second and outright cataclysm in the third. That said, the second portion felt like an entirely different book shoehorned in where it didn't really belong; Keene might have better served the plot if he'd saved that bit out for a sequel. Also, the horrific creatures from below became slightly less scary, slightly more silly, when Keene switched gears mid-yarn; instead of the Earth unleashing its hidden monsters, Keene fell back on his old standby: demons. And mermaids, too, of all things. Even Lovecraft's eternal Cthulhu gets a nod. The flesh-eating white fungus was scarier.

The book also suffers somewhat because Keene tells you in the beginning who's left, then flashes back a few weeks and introduces his main stable of characters. Watching their development is less absorbing when you know from the start who won't make it to the end. Keene even writes an especially poignant romance for two characters -- but, again, you know immediately not to get too attached.

Those few failings aside, I was unable to put the book down. Keene is a talented writer who knows how to destroy a world -- and make sure you never look at earthworms the same way again.

[ visit the author's website ]

review by
Tom Knapp

12 April 2008

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