Book Review: Wayward

Chuck Wendig is braver than me. This isn’t because we’ve both faced off against some Lovecraftian entity and I ran screaming while he fought it off—but for the record, I would run screaming. No, the reason I know Chuck Wendig is braver is because at some point in the inception of his 2019 novel, Wanderers, he must have considered the behemoth of Stephen King’s The Stand and gone, “My pandemic horror can hold its own here”.

I, like many writers I know, have had that moment while working on an idea when the thought strikes that it’s a bit similar to another story…maybe more than a bit similar…maybe more than a bit similar…maybe I’ve ripped it off…and just like that, the idea is abandoned.

If Chuck Wendig ever had this crisis of faith in his idea, he did not abandon it and I am extremely grateful for this. While Wanderers shared some DNA with King’s masterpiece (not exaggerating, it’s a masterpiece) it was very far from imitation and with its follow up, Wayward, Wendig shows just how right he was that his story would not be overawed by the shadow cast by The Stand.

In Wanderers, we followed a series of characters spread across the USA; an aging, hedonistic rock star, a disgraced former CDC doctor, a pastor, and the teenage daughter of a farmer. These unconnected individuals are drawn together by a sudden outbreak of sleepwalking and a deadly virus that spreads across the world.

Written before COVID, Wanderers contained an uncomfortable prescience regarding the response of certain elements of society to a pandemic. When I first came across Chuck Wendig’s writing (reviewing his wonderful The Book of Accidents) I took a look at his previous work, but was hesitant to dive into Wanderers—working in a nursing home in 2020 had given me my fill of struggling through a pandemic. It was only when Wayward came through my door that I felt I had to read the preceding book so that I could properly review the new one.

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I don’t think I could have faced Wanderers in 2020 or 2021, but with a bit of distance, I found a book that I absolutely loved—The Stand meets HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey by way of MAGA—and I couldn’t wait to see where the story went in the follow up.

Wayward picks up a few years after the events of Wanderers, but for those of you who haven’t read the first book, I’m going to tread lightly to avoid spoilers. If Wanderers was about the coming of the end of the world, Wayward is about a world that has ended and the people left with the task of picking up the pieces and trying to fit something back together.

Both Wanderers and Wayward are about the US, in part they read as searing indictments of the great nation’s wayward aspects; white supremacist groups, the obsession with guns, etc. but these are both novels of faith and hope. Faith in humanity and hope for it in the darkest of times, when hope is a rare and precious commodity—if all this talk of hope concerns you, don’t fear, Wendig has his teeth bared and is prepared to bite down to the bone.

I can only apologise if this comes across as unbalanced, I plead guilty to this charge. There is something about Wendig’s stories that resonate with me. There are some writers whose stories take up residencies in our hearts. For me, these include Stephen King, Grady Hendrix, and Shirley Jackson, and I think I’m getting to the point where I have to include Chuck Wendig in their number.

When you open books written by these authors you have a sense of security; I am in good hands here. You might not love everything they do (although I’m yet to be disappointed by Stephen King), but you’re along for the ride.

I’m along for the Wayward ride. It’s as gripping, dark, funny, intelligent, sad and beautiful as its prequel. What more could you ask for?

By: Ed Hartland

Wayward is available now on audio, e-book and hardcover from Penguin Books