Fiend by Peter Stenson

Fiend by Peter StensonReview: Fiend by Peter Stenson (Crown, 2013)

Ask anyone to name the three best TV shows of the past five years and I can pretty much guarantee that Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead are going to occupy two of those slots (with Game Of Thrones in the other). The meth-making exploits of Walter and company as well as the gruelling slog for survival against the undead have both firmly lodged themselves in the popular psyche. It seems then only natural to ask, what would happen if these worlds collided? Meth-heads versus undead? Thanks to Peter Stenson that question no longer resides in the realm of late-night pot-fuelled ramblings.

Chase Daniels was a Twin Cities white boy of privilege who  threw it all away to follow the path of crystal meth, abandoning family, study and work for a life of low-level dealing to support an ever-growing habit. Slumming it with his waste-of-space friend Typewriter (seriously), he wakes from a week-long, housebound trip to oblivion to hear a dog barking in his front yard. Investigating he witnesses a young girl approach the near-rabid beast, only to lunge at it and tear it’s throat out. Convinced he’s hallucinating on account of the drugs, Chase retreats inside the house, only to be pursued by the blood-soaked, giggling monster. Terrified and cornered, Chase and Type end up killing the child, torching the house and fleeing the scene, convinced they’ll soon make the news for murdering some poor family’s daughter while in the throes of meth paranoia.

Hours later and the blood is still on their clothes but something’s wrong. The streets are deserted. Where is everyone? An encounter with a kill-crazy, chuckling, Russian webcam sex operator (deceased) and a conversation with one of her former clients soon confirms the worst. The dog attack was no hallucination and the child was no innocent. The world has descended into a madness far worse than any head trip. Chase and Type are now confronted with two problems. Firstly how to survive the attacks of the giggling zombie hordes, and also how to ensure they can get their increasingly urgent meth fixes in a world apparently without people?

That’s as much of the plot as I’m going to give away but Fiend is so much more than that. Of course on the surface the concept is a ridiculous blend of horror and the darkest of humour. And yes, you can take it that way, but I only used the Breaking Bad/Walking Dead references to draw you in. Fiend is not so much a zombie/meth survival comedy as an almost unbearably bleak and intense examination of the nature of addiction and its effect on our psyches. Faced with the end of the world, Chase and his fellow survivors never for a second deviate from their true primary goal – the next fix. All other concerns are sidelined in favour of the pipe or the needle and friendship has value only inasmuch as it will lead to another rock.

This is never portrayed more clearly than in the narration itself. The entire book presents itself from Chase’s viewpoint and the writing moulds itself to his current mindset. Immediately following a fix he’s a hive of mental activity, sentences bursting out rapid-fire, jumping from one idea to the next. As the high recedes and the cravings return his thoughts, and hence the text, become darker, less coherent, more paranoid. This creates a truly unsettling experience for the reader, dragged along by Chase’s neuronal activity and at the mercy of his habit.

Of course there is plentiful humour to alleviate the tension and it is truly necessary. Without the incredibly dark humour splattered throughout Fiend it would be an almost impossible read. As it is Stenson keeps the atmosphere only just light enough to allow the reader to continue without choking on the addiction, violence and betrayal which spill off the pages. At least he does until the climax which will leave you feeling like you’ve just intentionally pounded your skull with a hammer for a couple of hours.

Cards on the table time, Fiend is hands-down one of the best books I’ve read in a couple of years. From the first few pulse-racing pages it snatches you up and proceeds to force you through an emotional grinder before crushing you under its heel like a cigarette butt at the inevitable and cruelly abrupt ending. It’s relentless, violent and horrifyingly real but nonetheless thoughtful, intelligent and beautifully written. It’ll raise your heart rate, crush your faith in your fellow man, make you examine every possible source of addiction in your life and still entertain you. That’s something special.

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