Good horror will send a shiver down your spine. Great horror will revisit you in your quiet moments, reminding you that you’re never quite safe. But the best use of horror is the one that both frightens its audience and shows that the things that go bump in the night are nothing compared to what lurks in the human mind. Alma Katsu’s alarmingly relevant new book, The Fervor, does the latter spectacularly.
Meiko Briggs, whose marriage to a white Air Force pilot has done nothing to shield her and their daughter, Aiko, from the anti-Japanese sentiment raging through 1940s America, is trying to make the best of the Japanese internment camp in remote Idaho. The increasing outbreaks of a mysterious disease that makes the infected violent doesn’t help, nor does Aiko’s obsession with creepy Japanese folklore and her creepier insistence that something very, very bad is coming. Meanwhile, Archie Mitchell, a whiter-than-Wonder-bread minister in Oregon, is eagerly awaiting the arrival of his first child with his wife, Elise. After a Sunday picnic gone very, very wrong, Archie adjusts to his sudden status as a widower, and has to deal with the dark and twisted feelings that grow with suspicions that Elsie’s horrific death might have been from a Japanese attack.
Out east in Nebraska, Fran Gustwold, a one-time foster kid and now-plucky journalist, has her romantic getaway with her married editor marred by a mysterious explosion and the suspicious-looking remains of a balloon left at the epicenter. Fran knows there’s a story behind the pieces of the balloon, especially when she keeps seeing reports from around the country of people acting erratically around where balloon pieces were located. When her editor begins acting erratically and then fires her, Fran takes her notebook on the road to find proof of whatever it is causing chaos across the Western U.S. And periodically between these threads is a voice from the past in the form of journal entries by a Japanese scientist.
Though these threads seem disparate in character and place, a few knots tie them tightly together, chief among them their respective connection to these strange balloons with Japanese writing upon them. Also consistent throughout the accounts are sights of tiny, transparent spiders, a Japanese demon appearing as a woman in a kimono holding a baby, and a whole lot of racism and xenophobia—and a creeping sense of dread that won’t stop.
There’s risk and reward to be had with having multiple points of view in a story. Sure, there’s the opportunity to show different facets of a plot or weave different threads that will ultimately come together for a more exciting ending, but there’s also the chance that readers will find one character significantly more or less interesting than the others. In the case of The Fervor, I definitely disliked one character over the others, but was still fascinated by that account—even if I wanted to give that character a swift punch to the jaw. Katsu never lets us go too long without another contribution from one of the characters, creating a narrative that feels cohesive instead of chaotic. If there’s an exception to this, it is in the last few pages with a resolution that felt almost illogical. Two of the characters face significant injustice at the hands of the powers that be, yet quickly agree to trust another person within that same establishment, albeit from a different corner of it. Spurred out of desperation, perhaps, but in a world of demons and dreams, it was the first thing to feel unrealistic.
I am unabashedly a fan of Katsu’s, and am consistently amazed and uncomfortable at how she twists human frailty with supernatural dread to make a multifaceted spine-tingler. When I reviewed her second dip into historical horror, The Deep, I said it was great but not as good as her first, The Hunger. In the case of The Fervor, I cannot bring myself to compare it to that first knockout hit. The Hunger, about supernatural horror overlaid on a disquieting imagining of the Donner Party’s doomed journey, gave me plenty of shivers about what might be creeping out in the desert around where I grew up. In The Fervor, though, terror is tied to no location—and, in a sense, no period of time. The rhetoric spewing from the mouths of racists and white supremacists sounds all-too-familiar to modern ears, particularly given the rising violence against Asian-Americans.
In this, Katsu is a bit kinder than perhaps she needed to be. The seed of that hatred was always there to begin with, she writes, but it was given power by fear and amplified by the sickness. I suppose we have enough fear in our world to lead some to hate, but the illnesses we have tearing through the population haven’t yet been found to amplify violence. It seems the violence we create can’t be blamed on anything or anyone but ourselves.