When the Devil Climbs by Drake Vaughn
After a decade lost to addiction and criminality, Russ Grote is given an opportunity by his jilted ex-wife to reconnect with his son. On the day before the scheduled reunion, Russ’ work crew of ex-convicts are attacked by a horde of savage pigs infected with a mysterious virus. While taking refuge atop a billboard, the brutish men grow increasingly desperate and willing to do anything to survive.
When I first read the description of this book, I was expecting a typical horror story – virus-infected pigs with a strong determination to attack and kill (and eat) humans? But this book is anything but a typical horror story. Instead, the horror elements are used to guide what’s largely a character study of the protagonist, Russ Grote, and his co-workers. Russ is a recovering addict with a criminal history and a failed marriage in his past. As the story begins, he’s on a work crew with three other ex-cons heading out to change over a billboard sign. But something strange is going on with the pigs, and the crew ends up trapped atop the billboard with no food, no water, and no way to call out for help. This novel digs deep into the four characters, slowly revealing their pasts and how Russ ended up divorced, alienated from his teenage son, and trapped 80 feet above an infected horde of carnivorous pigs. All four of the men made some extremely bad decisions that twisted and turned escalated into their current predicament, pasts that are revealed as the men – with nothing else to do – reveal their past transgressions to one another (although much of Russ’s history is told through his memories rather than his conversations with his fellow ex-cons). Despite the fact that Russ an ex-con who did many terrible things in the past, you find yourself rooting for him to escape so he can have the chance to reconnect with his son and get his “second chance.”
Since the story is largely character driven and only secondarily plot-driven, it may seem draggy in places for readers who are expecting a fast-paced horror story with lots of action. But the writing is very well done, and the storytelling is fascinating. I was also impressed with Vaughn’s use of dialect, not just in the character’s actual speech, but in the overall narration of the book (which is first-person from Russ’s point of view). Vaughn doesn’t revert to standard grammatical narration between bits of dialogue, but stays in character throughout. You don’t feel as much like you’re reading a story as you feel like you’re reading Russ’s thoughts as he thinks them.
This is not a book for the faint of heart, or for the weak of stomach – there are definitely some strong gore elements both in the “current” setting of the billboard and in the characters’ pasts. But if you enjoy unusual stories and peeking inside other people’s pasts and seeing their mistakes and motivations, then you should definitely check this one out. This is the first book I’ve read by Drake Vaughn, but it certainly won’t be the last!
*I received this book for free in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.*