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Radio Dark by Shane Hinton2 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsShane Hinton’s debut novella Radio Dark certainly has all the hooks of weird fiction, starting with an everyday suburban setting in which the world quickly begins not making sense and people do their best to adapt and pretend none of it’s out of the ordinary. But even weird fiction works for the same reason conventional fiction works: when it has something to say. And Radio Dark lacks that. It’s an apocalyptic story that keeps you wondering what it’s all leading up to, only to reveal that there was no “there” there after all.

The story is set in a nameless Florida suburb, where people, without any apparent reason, are starting to slip into a catatonic state from which they never recover. It all begins eerily enough when our viewpoint character, Memphis, a janitor who works at the local radio station, encounters one such woman frozen in place at the supermarket, and watches as the staff quickly wheels her away on a hand dolly as if it were no more unusual than anything else. Soon the affliction spreads to nearly everyone. We realize it’s a national and possibly global crisis when an FCC agent calling herself Cincinnati turns up to commandeer the radio station.

Abandoning the radio station when the power grid goes down, Memphis returns to his cul-de-sac home with the station’s DJ and Cincinnati, who tries to maintain a sense of order by constantly reading aloud from her government manuals. They soon discover that the catatonic bodies of all the neighbors can act as a transmitter when wired together and hooked up to car batteries. Their limited broadcasts attract unaffected survivors to the street, most bringing along their affected family members. The houses are repopulated as a small community forms, and in the middle of the cul-de-sac, the human “transmitters” are eventually built up into an actual radio tower as more bodies are piled on.

The radio tower made of lashed-together human bodies is some fantastic surreal imagery, almost like something out of Junji Ito, as is the way the story depicts the survivors assembling it with a system of scaffolding and pulleys, not really remarking on the fact they’re using zoned-out human beings as building materials. But past that, the story fails to go anywhere meaningful. None of the characters is especially relatable, most aren’t even presented to us as anything other than distant figures in the background. The only two who have names are Memphis and Cincinnati, and if Hinton had some commentary in mind by naming them after cities, it remains cloaked in mystery. There is even a preacher character who piously condemns the tower, showing up on the street on occasion to pontificate about evil and lure away one or more survivors into his congregation. But while Hinton laudably never fully makes this character the clichéd antagonist you might expect, he doesn’t do anything else with him either. Eventually he just wafts away.

And that’s really what this story is portraying, the entirety of human civilization simply running down, like an old car battery, and wafting away into nothingness like a puff of smoke in a breeze. The story follows somewhat in the tradition of the “cozy catastrophe” genre, except this one eventually abandons the cozy. Hinton is a fine wordsmith, and his prose is capable of moments of real poignance when discussing the loss of daily human activities and habits, the interactions and relationships we all take for granted and only realize how much we cherish when they’ve disappeared. Reading this story in the post-COVID-19 world only gives these passages more gravitas. But even Cormac McCarthy’s The Road didn’t deliver such unrelenting bleakness as this story. An event at the end that, I imagine, is meant to signal hope, doesn’t, because we’re given no reason at all to think it will change anything.

Perhaps the goal of Radio Dark is to remind us of the fleeting nature of life itself, that it could all go away in a moment. Where will you be if one day there’s no more food in the grocery store, then no more grocery store? When the lights go out and water stops coming out of the tap for the last time? A world, as Hinton puts it, with no room for art, for music, “an era of extended silences” where you eventually end up alone, until you too fade away like a distant radio signal? Well… yeah… it would suck. Got it. Thanks, I guess?