Ryan Harding and Jason Taverner
December 8, 2015
Reviewed by Kelly Robinson
For reasons hard to pinpoint, slasher horror may be the most popular film genre to lack a thriving literary equivalent. Sure, there are some authors that will spring to the minds of the most hardcore horror fans, but none that would qualify as household names. Small horror presses have been a godsend to those with niche tastes, but there just aren’t many writers working with the traditional slasher set-up. The fact still remains that there’s a thirsty community of slasher fans eager for reading material that captures in print what they love about the films.
Reincarnage should go a long way toward slaking that thirst.
Ryan Harding and Jason Taverner are two writers who clearly not only love the genre, but also have the skills to do it justice. They’ve created a hell of a supernatural killing machine in the form of Agent Orange, a crazed Vietnam vet who went on a series of murder sprees in the 1980s and can’t stay dead, no matter how many times he’s decapitated, blown to pieces, or even burned. (“Wikipedia lore put the total between twelve and seventeen times by that point, citation still needed.”) With no other options, the government has evacuated and walled off the entire town of Morgan Falls and its surrounding woods.
The action begins when a seemingly-random group of people from various parts of the country wake up in an abandoned hotel with no memory of how they got there. They soon find gruesome signs that make it clear that they’re on Agent Orange’s stomping grounds, transported there by someone (the government, perhaps?) who means for them to satiate the crazed killer’s bloodlust, just as public hunting areas are stocked with game for hunters. Their terror is palpable as they realize what their fate is, and the authors have crafted a backstory for the villain that makes him seem ominous before we even see what he can do.
“Lawrence didn’t hear anything, but he felt something; a tightening in his guts.
Why did the birds go quiet?
Then it was like an avalanche in his senses with a light scattering of rocks before an entire ridge broke off and cascaded down the base of his spine, goosebumps rippling across his arms and back with revelation—Agent Orange is here.”
Part of what makes it all so pulse-poundingly real is the thought put into the characters, whose deep points of view make every action scene all the more intense as they desperately fight for their lives. These are no mere stock slasher characters, set up just to knock down (though they will be knocked down). Even the female characters, often brainless eye candy in slashers, range from feisty to downright fearsome as they take each take on Agent Orange in their own way. Each character’s level of fear, means of coping, and method of attempted survival is filtered through a unique perspective. Point-of-view switches throughout the book keep things changing. What never changes is the brutality of their deaths.
Reincarnage may be a throwback to ‘80s horror, but it’s decidedly modern. There’s certainly nothing old-fashioned about the kills, which would give seizures to a film ratings committee. Fiction has allowed the writers to go beyond what a slasher film can do. That doesn’t just mean deeper characterization and clever writing that is sometimes downright philosophical. Harding and Taverner never stray from the action for very long. They know why you’re here. That’s why they make certain to illuminate every kill in evocative—sometimes downright nasty—detail. And, since the reader gets to experience how it feels to the victim, it’s far more lurid than anything you can merely see. Each twist of a blade or pop of an eyeball is relished. Be prepared for a variety of beheadings, impalings with some surprising objects, and at least one kill that is literally visceral: a disembowelling that gives Chuck Palahniuk a run for his money.
Adding to all of this is the attention to detail Harding and Taverner have given to building this world. It all takes place inside the walls, but the outside has been just as well thought out, from the government’s tactics to cover up what’s really going on to the Stalkers who help opportunists quickly in and out of the Kill Zone to grab items to sell to serial killer memorabilia collectors. Agent Orange’s contributions to popular culture—which any real killer of his caliber would make—are not neglected. Some of the characters have even gleaned potentially helpful survival information from news broadcasts, books, collectible maps, or even from playing an Agent Orange video game.
Through it all, there’s a dark sense of humor that keeps things moving along without ever feeling like a spoof (some of the characters spout wisecracks you’ll be saving to re-use later). By the end of Reincarnage, the Kill Zone is littered with body parts and one victim is left to take on Orange in a breathless chase. The ending is beautifully satisfying, yet manages to be open-ended enough to warrant the sequel readers will likely be drooling for. (Honestly, there’s so much intriguing backstory to Agent Orange himself, that a prequel would be just as welcome.)
A word should be said about how seamless this is for a collaboration, so there must be some kind of synergy between Ryan Harding (author of Genital Grinder and collaborator with the likes of Edward Lee and Jack Ketchum) and Jason Tavener (newcomer to the Deadite stable). These guys have come up with a clever concept and executed it as perfectly as one of Agent Orange’s kills. Are you listening, movie producers? Because Reincarnage would make one hell of a movie. It sure makes a hell of a read.