First things first: Skitter is the second book in a series that began with The Hatching back in 2016. If the titles don’t fill you in, the covers of each book more than suggest what you’ve got on your hands here (and as you read these gleeful exercises in monster-horror, your hands will itch and pretty much every part of you covered with skin, as if… tiny, feathery legs… are crawling… over you). Ah, you might think, is Boone a 21st century James Herbert? Or a 21st century Shaun Hutson? So far, his books are on nodding acquaintance with Herbert’s Rats quartet (The Rats, Lair, Domain and little known graphic novel, The City) – in that, the creatures in question grow in size from book to book, but the writer to whom he seems to owe the most debt is Max Brooks, whose globe-trotting World War Z set the template for what Boone does here.
So what is Boone doing here? Well, as we said, Skitter is part two of the series and these are books that read like seasons of a TV show. It would be verging on barmy to start here. But – if you’re a horror aficionado – start with The Hatching and if you’re anything like me, you’ll tear through it and want to jump into Skitter instantly. That’s what I did. The Hatching one day, Skitter the next. Literally. There are a small cast of recurring characters – and, particularly in Skitter, an array of characters introduced either to die in colourful ways (it is a horror novel, after all) or – well, we’ll stick a pin in that ‘or’ for now.
Let’s talk about those recurring characters: as you’d expect, there’s a rough at the edges law enforcement representative, Special Agent Rich, dealing with fatherhood in the wake of a recent divorce as well as, you know, society having come apart at the seams in the first book; there’s Melanie Guyer, an entomologist with a direct line to the president – that’s President Pilgrim, the first female President (ah, if only, eh?) – thanks to her ex-husband, Manny, who is the White House Chief of Staff; there’s Kim, a marine, Gordo and Shotgun, a pair of inventive survivalists, Aonghas, Padruig and Thuy, an unlikely trio holed up in a castle on Caidh Island in the Outer Hebrides – and this time around, their ranks are swelled by conmen, would-be prophets, tetchy incendiary experts, promiscuous professors and gas station owners. The book roams across the globe – Delhi, Brazil, Hawaii, Japan, Norway, Peru, France, Germany, Italy, China – and, as you probably expect, all over the States.
And just as the novel wanders geographically so various skeins of plot (many carried over or initiated in The Hatching) take admirable time to reach where they are going: so we have a young TV producer studying crowd patterns in CNN, the aforementioned survivalists, bored by the end of the world, building flame throwers and then more ambitious weaponry, we have our harried entomologist scratching her head as the spiders evolve around her (various feeds coming in from Japan, rumours from Korea and elsewhere getting between her and her own actual research) – and we have the President fending off belligerent military sorts who want to nuke everything, offering up alternative, equally horrifying solutions to the arachnid menace. Boone is also confident enough to introduce characters and sub plots (a broody business lady taking an extended holiday, a guy building a fiery moat around his home) that don’t amount to all of that much this time around (we figure we’ll see them again next time around).
Boone emulates the folksy everyman (or everywoman – Boone has a lot of female characters) tone of Stephen King and he uses short chapters to create a sense of sweep. Just about the only cracks in his façade come in the shape of simplicity (the ease with which his significant characters either know each other or come to hear about each other takes some swallowing) and disparateness (sometimes, his flitting about does the book a disservice, sometimes things should take longer even than Boone wants to give – you want to say easy tiger, slow yourself down). More importantly, Skitter deals more in promise than delivery. Where The Hatching was ferocious, hordes – no, sorry, that should be clutters or clusters – of spiders, overpowering all who stood in their path, Skitter deals in puzzles – spiders who emerge from bodies to wander drunkenly around, large glowing egg sacs seemingly fed by the smaller spiders, people wrapped paralysed in silk who can hear something moving about upstairs…
But we get it. Skitter is an enticement. It’s (apparently) the middle book in a trilogy, it’s The Empire Strikes Back – and given how expertly Boone has manufactured suspense to this point (and how we chugged down his first two books as if they were cold beer), we think that his third book, Zero Day, will up the ante and give us all of the thrills we’re hungering for. Boone knows if we’ve read this far, we’re reading all the way to the end. And we so are.
Any Cop?: Of course there will be readers who wouldn’t dream of dipping their toe in a horror novel about spiders (seeya!); but if you like horror, if you can read an unfettered entertainment without worrying what people will think of you, if you like books that are fun, then Skitter (and by implication The Hatching) are right up your street.