Pros: Enjoyable horror tale about nightmares come to life
Cons: Not wholly coherent
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Luke Walker’s horror novel Ascent starts in the moment of the explosion of a nuclear bomb. Five people inside an office building are knocked off their feet by the blast, but then they stand up to find that they’re unharmed. Everyone else is missing, however, the phones don’t work, and the doors to the building are all locked. Something deep beneath the building stretches and wakes, and it holds them within this moment to feed on their fears. Kelly’s guilt about something she did on her birthday is eating her up inside. Kelly’s sister Alex starts seeing images of her dying father begging to be taken off of life support. Dao keeps hearing his young son Yang screaming in pain. Older man Rod encounters the pedophile from his childhood. And Simon… well, Simon is the only one not seeing any of these things.
I have to say I like that it’s an older male character who gets tormented with his weight and his thoughts of overeating and drinking–it breaks a stereotype quite nicely. Also, each person’s fears have stages and layers. I thought Kelly’s got drawn out a bit too far and started being more frustrating than teasing, but by and large it works. Since the creature trapping the five is feeding on fear, it also makes sense that it does its best to prolong the events rather than rushing to kill everyone off. After all, it just went to some lengths (presumably) to keep them alive for this.
There are a bunch of little details that never entirely add up for me. There’s a weird thing where a bunch of relevant dates related to their fears line up perfectly, but there’s no reason given as to why that’s somehow important. I mean, why would an anniversary matter to this being that’s supposedly older than the Earth? I also never understood why sometimes the streets outside look normal to the trapped five (ie, people go about their business as usual) and sometimes it’s completely deserted. I never entirely understood what the deal was with Simon kind of having fears in his past, but not, and if so, why did the creature include him in this? There’s also a late-arriving ally that goes entirely unexplained, and the ending was kind of out of left field and left a lot of room for interpretation. Even after Kelly’s reveal I never understood why her guilt manifested as fear of a certain person.
The characters are interesting, though. The events are scary and suspenseful. The action gets a little confusing when things heat up, but the general beats are good. I’d be curious to see what Walker would do with a couple more books under his belt.
Content note for lots of gore as well as some pedophilia.