Filler content with desert island blues

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #10:-

Brian Keene: Castaways
(Leisure paperback, 285pp, $7.99)

When I heard that Brian Keene was writing a novel inspired by (and a tribute to) Richard Laymon’s oeuvre and it was called Castaways, my initial thought was that he’d take Island as a template, but as Keene explains in the Afterword, it was a throwaway remark in one of Laymon’s Beast novels that provided the impulse for his own work.

Castaways is the name of a reality TV show in which the contestants are marooned on a desert island and given various tasks to perform, and asked to vote each other off the island (think Survivor). With a $1m payday at stake, the contestants relentlessly plot against each other, making and breaking alliances, trusting nobody, while at least one of them has an agenda of his own that has nothing to do with the prize. All of this is insignificant though, compared to what happens when a tropical cyclone cuts them off from the show’s support freighter and they discover that they are not alone on the island. Hiding in caves is a tribe of cryptids, savage beasts previously unknown to man, apelike creatures who once had a level of civilisation but have now devolved. They attack, slaughtering the men for food and capturing the women contestants to be raped and impregnated. The contestants find themselves engaged in a fight for survival far different from the one they signed up for.

As you’d expect from a book that is being billed as a Richard Laymon tribute, this is a fast paced and exciting read, with the emphasis on action and lashings of gore to add colour, and all of those qualities are as much a Keene trademark as they were typical of Laymon. Keene has his own virtues though, as with the characters, who have a bit more depth to them than the average Laymon machete fodder. While this is not exactly a novel where the term ‘character driven’ springs to mind, each of the various contestants and crew members who find themselves in danger comes with a credible thumbnail sketch of who they are, with distinctive personality traits and individual motivations for their participation in Castaways. This is seen most obviously in the three leads. Jerry is a nice guy, chasing his dream of owning a chain of comic shops, while Becka is a young woman with something to prove, to herself if not to anybody else, and the attraction that develops between these two seems entirely natural and believable, making us care and root for them to succeed, so that the tension is effectively cranked up when one of them is placed in deadly peril, and both must show they have backbone. The real surprise is motor mechanic Troy, at first distinguished by his smart mouth and determination to be a thorn in the side of alpha male Stuart, but becoming a more fully rounded character as the book progresses and new facets of his personality are revealed.

Castaways is entertainment, first and foremost, but Keene brings a bit more to the table if you care to look for it. The idea of subverting reality TV is particularly appealing (as witness the success of recent zombie/Big Brother crossover Dead Set), and reading between the lines there is the hint of a critique of the ‘bread and circuses’ mindset to which it panders and the ratings at any cost philosophy of the show’s purveyors. Similarly, while it is impossible to feel anything but abhorrence for their actions, there is a smidgen of understanding for the cryptids, a race reduced to dire straits and desperate solutions by the ongoing erosion of their eco-system, the suggestion that if they had simply been left alone then they might never have become the monsters that are this book’s driving force.

To summarise, Castaways is every bit as much fun as its source material and crying out for somebody from the world of film to take Keene’s idea and run with it.

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