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Spotlight on: They Hunger by Scott Nicholson

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They Hunger by Scott Nicholson Scott Nicholson, They Hunger

A hiking, camping, and rafting expedition — led by Bowie Whitlock of ProVenture, an outdoor supply company to test their new products in real-world mountains and rapids — leads to an unexpected run-in with some really unsavory creatures, both living and dead. Among the other five guinea pigs in the group are C.A. "Okay" McKay, a famous athlete considering an endorsement deal, and Dove Krueger, a photojournalist there to document the trip for her magazine Back2Nature.

Elsewhere along the Unegama River, Robert Wayne "Ace" Goodall (publically known as the 'Bama Bomber for his explosive work involving abortion clinics) is hiding, with his latest conquest Clara, from two FBI agents in pursuit. What none of them yet know, but a few will soon find out, is that there are also others in this mountainous wilderness. Nonhuman others that can fly quickly, and that cast dark shadows as they swoop down and carry fully grown adults off to their "nests" for food. They screech and they attack, but most of all ... (wait for it!) ... They Hunger!

Like Scott Nicholson's other recent novels (The Farm, for example), They Hunger is more than the rollercoaster ride its cover suggests (it's also Nicholson's first title without the definite article The). Nicholson delivers on the suspense, but his forte leans more toward character than carnage, making him by far the most literary of the paperback-original horror writers. After the appearance of the first mysterious black shape, these vampires are absent for a good portion of the book, though their presence is felt throughout the story in anticipation of their return.

And these vampires aren't the sexy whiners that even the most devoted readers are beginning to tire of. These night flyers are the epitome of the undead, splashing icy gray blood when wounded. Nicholson also adds another layer by making them virtually indestructible: nothing seems to stop them, even the loss of their heads. They're like zombie bloodsuckers.

Nicholson fills the space between attacks by letting us in on the equally tense relationships among the explorers, through his highly developed skill at deep characterization, including at least two real surprise revelations in a single chapter. I especially admire how he is able to offer a full portrait in just a few pages while the tension mounts. (See Chapter 6's description of Robert Raintree for a prime example.)

Ace Goodall, the human villain of They Hunger, though utterly despicable, is a terrifically drawn person. We are obviously meant to hate him, but at the same time, Nicholson makes sure that Goodall's motives are clear, and his behaviors explained thoroughly, so that we understand him as much as possible while reviling him. This makes the investment in the character so much richer than the usual cardboard horror villains. But even the "good" characters, like Farrengalli (who won his spot on the trip via a reality show), are more complex than they seem at first. Especially keep your eye on Clara, and watch her as she goes through several fascinating changes.

In addition to a tense reimagination of the vampire legend, Nicholson devotes a good amount of space to the setting. We are treated to a wonderfully detailed view of a beautiful (and potentially lethal) area of nature: the Unegama Wilderness Area, a fictional version of the wilderness in and around Linville Gorge in North Carolina. The majority of They Hunger (excluding the parts where people die, of course) could easily be used as promotional material for this popular destination, located in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. It is just one more aspect that makes this book a really solid piece of intelligent horror fiction.

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