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FantasticLand by Mike Bockoven4 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsIf the logline for this story sounds familiar, well, of course it does. It’s Lord of the Flies in a Florida theme park (which, if you’ve been to any given Florida theme park on a busy weekend, might sound like a typical day). This notion of in-group, out-group violence has fascinated storytellers ever since William Golding inflicted Lord of the Flies upon the required reading lists of every high school English class in existence. A big question has always been whether or not that book’s dark and cynical assumptions about human nature are in fact accurate. Would people — not just young unsupervised boys but people in general — really descend into brutality and savagery so quickly? Would the loss of civilization’s daily norms just completely cut the brake cables on our empathy while pushing the accelerator on our survival instincts?

Two years after Lord of the Flies, Robert Heinlein wrote a rebuttal to it with one of his famous juveniles, Tunnel in the Sky. In this book, a group of high school students stranded on another world during a field trip gone wrong manage to construct such a successful, if imperfect, working society that when they’re finally rescued, a few of them are kind of reluctant to go home and some even demand that their new nation be formally recognized by the governments of Earth.

The whole premise of these stories about the fragility of human society has its roots in an actual, if flawed, scientific study. Realistic Group Conflict Theory is a psychological model of intergroup conflict that took shape as the result of a 1954 study in Oklahoma called the Robbers Cave Experiment, in which researchers guided two groups of adolescent boys through a series of steps designed to first create and then mitigate hostility between them. If something about that setup sounds ethically fishy to you, yeah, you’re pretty much right, and the methodology of the experiment has come under harsh criticism for decades. But the results concluded, plausibly, that cooperation between hostile groups only mitigates their shared hostility once a superordinate goal — something that all groups need equally if any of them are to survive — is identified and pursued. (You can see this borne out during the Cold War, when two deeply hostile nuclear superpowers never actually got around to pushing the red button, due to the obvious fact that mutually assured annihilation would have been unavoidable.)

All of which brings us to FantasticLand, a horror thriller by Nebraska author Mike Bockoven, that seems to examine Realistic Conflict Theory more carefully than most genre stories that are simply content to show civilization crumbling and people turning into monsters for nothing more than superficial, exploitive thrills. Mind you, it is a horror novel, so if it’s the exploitation content you’re here for, the book absolutely does not disappoint in the gory carnage department. But Bockoven also has an honest interest in causes and not merely effects.

The book is written in the form of interview transcripts taken down by an investigative journalist, Adam Jakes. Jakes is a character who serves as a reader surrogate, the outsider trying to wrap his brain around something inconceivable, the way people did watching events like Jonestown and Waco unfold on TV. He’s also like the journalist character from Citizen Kane, spending the whole movie trying to learn the meaning of Rosebud. The only difference there is, we learn the meaning of Rosebud, and the journalist never does. Here, we aren’t handed a clear meaning wrapped up in a single show. Through Adam Jakes and the many interviews, we’re given a lot of perspectives, but are ultimately left to draw our own conclusions, with Jakes ultimately telling us in the end that he’s not any closer to an understanding than he was when he started. Perhaps that’s inevitable. Perhaps it’s why history repeats. Too many people can never understand, and anyone who might is not likely to be in a position of power to influence change.

Everything happens in the aftermath of a hurricane of Biblical intensity that slams into Florida so hard that it causes greater damage much farther inland than any previous storm on record. The very first chapters provide background on the founder of FantasticLand, a prototypical dreamer from an immigrant family styling himself Johnny Fresno. Bockover cannily sets up the group dynamics that will influence the story’s events. One of Johnny Fresno’s brilliant ideas was to encourage the park’s various sections — the Pirate Cove, the Fairy Prairie, and so on — to operate as almost autonomous entities, each one establishing its own immersion, its own identity, so that visitors to FantasticLand could truly feel as if they’d spent the day not at one theme park but many different ones. This has the effect of creating competitive subcultures among the staffs in each section. Also, most of the staff are kids, older teens or early college age at best, with limited experience of the adult world and largely sheltered in their backgrounds, with no reason to ever expect their jobs to be anything but seasonal summer fun.

Hundreds of them end up sheltering in place at the park, intending to ride out the hurricane, thanks to safety measures that were built to exceed baseline safety codes to a nearly fanatical degree. A great idea, but when the expected 2-3 days of sheltering turns into weeks and weeks — due not only to heavy flooding keeping anyone from escaping, but also, chillingly, reassurances from the park’s corporate owners to local law enforcement and the National Guard that the kids would be perfectly safe and well-fed and there’s no reason to prioritize their rescue — things go straight to hell very quickly.

I admit, I am personally a sucker for horror stories that style themselves as ersatz nonfiction, and though I usually think they work best in short form, FantasticLand is just the right length, at just under 300 pages, that the gimmick doesn’t overstay its welcome. Bockoven is able to create incredible slow burn tension by giving us a window into the events through the eyes of mostly traumatized survivors, but also some who desperately need to justify their actions, like the feckless and cowardly manager Sam Garliek, as well as the leader of the Pirates, a stone-cold psychopath named Brock Hockney. Bockoven impressively avoids turning Hockney into a one-dimensional villain by conveying the way truly evil actors use charisma and manipulation to cement their control over frightened people looking for a leader, only employing violence and terror when they’ve gauged the time is right for a show of force to make that control absolute. It’s all rather disturbingly timely.

I’ve seen some critics take on the book for presenting a shallow depiction of youth as being overly addicted to their phones and social media and essentially incapable of functioning without them. Smartphones are banned items for park staff while on duty, so much of the characters’ isolation does stem from not having access to those things. But if you read carefully, you’ll see how it’s the bad actors among the characters — people like Garliek and Hockney — who mention “kids and their stupid phones,” and it’s obvious these are just the excuses they’re making to minimize their own culpability in the overall tragedy.

FantasticLand — despite the ease with which it could have easily slid into being nothing more than a latter-day clone of not only Lord of the Flies but such stories as The Hunger Games and Battle Royale — rises to the challenge and offers itself as a horror story as thought-provoking as it is intense and horrifying, wisely offering no facile, simple-minded answers, content to let us do that work for ourselves. Sure, a hurricane as a metaphor for the human condition might be a little on-the-nose. But real life offering us nonstop examples of our fellow citizens’ eagerness to give into their worst, most depraved impulses means, sadly, that there will always be a need for fiction that interrogates the part of our natures that’s not all ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds.