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The Loop by Jeremy Robert Johnson3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsThe Loop is a bloody little morsel of science fiction survival horror that absolutely shreds. And if we’ve seen its tropes a hundred times before, the book deserves credit for knowing how to put them together for maximum rush. Jeremy Robert Johnson set out to write a splatterpunk version of a Michael Crichton novel, and he’s delivered one that reads like George Romero’s The Crazies recast with the teenage stoners from Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. And what’s charming about it, if “charming” is even a word we can use here, is that The Loop wants us to imagine a world in which conspiracy theorists, podcasting away in their tiny apartments in the dead of night, really do have it all figured out.

Conspiracy theories are well known to be a psychological coping mechanism for navigating a world wracked with chaos and uncertainty, but they require an almost quaint commitment to the idea that there’s such a thing as accountability for evil powerful people who use their power to harm the powerless. The reality of 2020 is that evil is simply done right in the open, with an impunity that’s virtually impossible to keep up with, because there is no accountability any longer, and the evil and powerful know it. Amoral leaders aren’t hiding in smoke-filled back rooms or hatching their devilish plans to control us from secret science labs. They’re right there, gloating on national television and in their Twitter feeds. And as for conspiracy theories? If they have any utility whatsoever in the world after 2020, they’re just a great way of distracting the easily misled. When extreme gullibility is reframed as some kind of power-leveled critical thinking, imaginary crimes outrage people so effectively they don’t bother noticing real ones.

And this is precisely why The Loop, for all of its tension and extreme gore and anguish, is ultimately a reassuring story. It gives us back a world where accountability exists, where the oppressed can take the fight to their oppressors, where moral conscience can triumph even if it takes the ultimate sacrifice. Horror may be a genre all about blood and shocks and tension and fear, but it’s ultimately about empathy, about rooting for the underdog to turn the tables on those who would do them harm.

Our hero is Lucy Henderson, a teenage adoptee originally from Peru, whose lost her birth parents in a tragic accident. She and her Desi best friend, Bucket (a bastardization of Bakhit) Marwani, are the only two brown kids attending school in Turner Falls, OR, a town already heavily gentrified between the sort of folks unkindly referred to as “white trash,” and the nouveau riche McMansion dwellers who are mostly employed by IMTECH, a secretive biotech firm that has been raising startling amounts of capital at a record-setting pace. It is, to put it plainly, the kind of picture-perfect American town whose veneer covers a whole lot of ugliness, and it’s about to get much worse.

Not long after the town is shaken by reports of the murder-suicide of a local mother and son, a boy appears to go mad in a robotically creepy way at school, seriously injuring a fellow student and bludgeoning a teacher to death right in front of Lucy’s entire horrified classroom. Needless to say, this puts the town on edge looking for explanations. But everything escalates in a big way the night all the kids throw a huge party to celebrate the end of the school year. A night that starts out in the spirit of restoring a sense of normalcy to life, with plenty of booze and weed and music and making out, quickly erupts into an orgy of carnage as many of the kids, most of them from the town’s richer families, attack their classmates as if possessed by some unimaginable evil force.

Long story short, yes, this all has to do with some sinister experimental biotech from the IMTECH labs gone horribly awry. Following the party, we are rapidly propelled into a “survive the night” scenario, in which Lucy and Bucket — along with Lucy’s new boyfriend Brewer, and a ragtag crew including their friends from a local music store, a conspiracy theorist podcaster who imagines himself a techie Hunter S. Thompson, and a remorseful IMTECH scientist — must figure out what’s going on and how to stop it before the body horror kills them all and spreads throughout the world. It’s a classic trope — the misfits taking on the forces of evil that threaten the very society that has rejected them as misfits — and I’m here for it. The Loop is a story that John Carpenter, back in his 1980s heyday, could have turned into a movie so awesome that today we’d have no fewer than 18 blu-ray special editions to choose from.

And the reason it’s so engaging is that Johnson has handled his teenage characters masterfully. They are absolutely believable as kids, and while this might not be a very popular notion, I think Johnson’s approach stands in contrast to a lot of YA fiction out there (which this is emphatically not) written by adult writers who make their teen characters too idealized, with their heroism coming from that idealization and not from realism. I believed everything about Lucy and Bucket and Brewer, who seemed to me like people I could actually meet or have met when I was that age. I especially liked Brewer, an easygoing stoner who has the natural empathy most of the more well-heeled kids in school completely lack, despite coming from a harder home life than I would wish on anyone. Now, is that idealized? I don’t think so. I’ve known people like Brewer, who’ve lived hard lives but come through it as decent people nonetheless.

But Lucy is the star here, and I admired the dimension Johnson gives her. She experiences a full range of emotional responses to the ongoing crisis — anger, terror, guilt, grief, determination, and there is even a moment where she lets off the pressure by collapsing into a fit of uncontrolled laughter. She’s always regretted never being comfortable enough to fully reciprocate the love and support her adoptive parents have shown her, despite her gratitude for the way they pulled her out of a life of abuse. And when it comes time to make hard decisions, Lucy makes them out of pragmatism, not any kind of superhero stoicism.

The book isn’t perfect, of course. The remorseful scientist, Steve, seems to exist mostly to drop pallet-loads of expository dialogue over-explaining everything IMTECH was up to, and I found myself thinking it might have been more effective just to leave a lot of things mysterious, without interrupting the flow of the action. It’s enough for us to know “mad science experiments went sideways” for us to get hooked into the story, because the characters give us our emotional investment. The Loop is best enjoyed by readers with strong stomachs, eager to celebrate Halloween with a fast and furious rollercoaster of a thriller. And while I appreciate how it gives our underdog heroes strength in their battle to even the scales of power, in the end, you don’t need to take any important messages from the story to have a good time with it — except, perhaps, don’t let Elon Musk putting a fucking chip in your head.