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The latest book from Drew Magary, his second novel The Hike, immediately and unceremoniously takes readers on a series of eerie mini-adventures that unfold at breakneck pace. In its stutter-step movement from one scenario, challenge—or monster—to another, it feels like an unfolding video game. Indeed, Magary, a GQ correspondent and Deadspin columnist who lives in Maryland, has cited gaming among a dozen of his influences, and it shows. Page breaks throughout the novel serve to mark when the protagonist awakes to an entirely new environment or set of circumstances, thanks to the deus-ex-machina rules set out in the novel’s universe. The fantasy-horror-science-fiction-comedy title badly wants to be a genre-bender. It’s not, but it pulls a neater trick, instead saluting the classic tropes of a host of genres and formats.
The plot proceeds so suddenly and with so little character exposition that you can almost hear the author writing “Um…” at the beginning, unsure of where to start. So where do we start? With Ben, by most accounts an average, middle-aged dad and husband on a work trip who quite literally walks into the woods for a short hike and finds himself in an alternate reality. He starts to pinball from one creepy episode to another: evade some psycho woods-dwelling serial killers! Get a kindly granny to feed you and help you with some magic beans! Slay a ghoulish monster! Solve a puzzle to get to the next monstrous challenge!
Here, readers might start to fight through some quest fatigue. How many more hideous, scream-evoking creatures will we encounter? How many puzzles or riddles can possibly be involved? This is where the book’s sprightly pace actually saves things, pulling the reader along. Bring this book to a beach weekend, and you’ll be carried through no matter your attention span.
It’s hard to root for a character who seems so … meh, so Magary uses some devices to shore up a protagonist that perhaps he didn’t take enough time to fully compose. Flashback memories of Ben’s kids and wife tug at the heartstrings. After all, if you feel no empathy for a man who misses his young child so badly he starts tucking a rock into bed at night just to keep his memories alive, you might be dead inside. No matter: You’ll find yourself rooting for Crab, an immediately likeable character who is—what else?—a talking crab. Then there’s Cisco, the earnest, xenophobic conquistador damned to the same psychedelic torment game Ben unwittingly walked into. You might even find Fermona endearing, even if she is a giantess who snacks on human flesh.
Until suddenly there you are, in the middle of the book (hopefully sitting by a pool or in front of a fan with a margarita), having charged through a gauntlet of body horror, fairy tale nods, and a brief puzzle setup lovingly pulled straight from Myst. It’s here that Magary drops on the reader his first real, existential, gut-twisting horror. Ben may not feel any more tangible as a character, but you want to puke on his behalf. The second half of the book delivers on more of this heinousness—the kind that makes you question everything, feeling around the edges of your own psyche for signs you’re in hell, or dreaming, or part of a grand experiment. The second half, in other words, is utterly dark.
Sharp-eyed readers might notice some astutely placed clues (Magary likes to drop hints in his choice of descriptors) that foreshadow the twist on the very last page of the book. It’s gimmicky, but in a way that feels consistent with the fan-tribute tone of the rest of the novel. Don’t flip ahead if you haven’t seen it coming, though. Stick to the path and proceed as the game was designed, although by the time you cross the finish line you’ll realize the deft storytelling was the point all along.