I have been reading for as long as I can consciously remember and I am still guilty of one cardinal sin; judging a book by its cover. Whilst I will read a book without the most aesthetically pleasing cover if the blurb really sells it to me, deep down I know that a cover is one of the biggest aspects of a book to immediately draw me in, regardless of the genre of the book. It is after all, quite literally the first thing you see. When I’m in a book shop and faced with a plethora of new reading material, or if I am scrolling online and browsing a selection of books, my attention is almost always going to be grabbed first by a book I think has been well designed.
This was without a doubt the main reason why I first requested a proof copy of Benjamin Percy’s new novel, The Dark Net. I had never before heard of Benjamin Percy, despite him being the author of four novels. When I first stumbled across the cover of the book, it was the darkness of the cover, the creepy undertones of a strange skull type shape intermingled with the background, with really stood out to me. I like anything creepy, unsettling and thrilling (massive Stephen King fan as we all know), but there was just something about the subtleties and intricacies of this cover image, as opposed to a garish over the top skull, which massively appealed to me.
The book itself I would describe as a mixture of technological thriller, fantasy and horror (although not massively so on the last front). The novel does not focus upon one individual, but instead a small cast of major characters. We have Hannah, a twelve year old girl who has been fitted with massively advanced technological equipment to correct her blindness. However, when her sight does return, she can’t stop seeing the strange shadows which gather around people. There is a journalist, Lela, a woman who detests technology and is more comfortable with pen and paper. When she stumbles across a story linked to the former house of a gruesome killer, she quickly realises someone is more than willingly to repeat the crimes in order to keep the story hidden. Lastly, there is Mike, a former child evangelist who runs a homeless shelter whilst knowing far more than he would care to let on. These characters, as well as others, face the same terrible threat; the Dark Net. Buried deep in the basements of the internet and technology is the Dark Net, a home to those seeking anonymity for their often criminal and questionable activities. Yet something is growing there, a darkness which threatens to spill out into the real world, demons desperate to ravage all who are prepared to stand in their way.
The book actually starts with a prologue which focuses on the young Hannah. We watch her as she travels from blindness into the realms of the experimental technology which should enable her to see once more. I think this initial introduction to the novel does a very good job of setting up how the rest of it will progress. By showing us Hannah as she if fitted with the ‘Mirage’ to regain her sight, the author greatly emphasises the massive advancements which technological industries seem capable of achieving. This reminds readers of the constant boundaries which are being pushed and the reliance humanity now has upon such things, a theme which is explored throughout the rest of the novel. Likewise, there is just something uncanny about how Hannah regains her sight, something which will undoubtedly make readers wonder what else is about to happen and how her sight may develop.
From here the novel pans out, focusing more upon other characters for the first third of the novel as the plot begins to unfold and establish itself. In many ways, I almost felt as if the first half of the novel was quite separate to the second half. Initially the novel seems to be in line with something more akin to realism. We have these creepy undertones, especially from what the journalist Lela is looking into, but it follows quite a recognisable modern world. From this I felt that the novel turns quite abruptly into a much more fantastical read, with the thrills moving quite quickly into the realms of demons and supernatural causes. I enjoy both of these things so for me this wasn’t an issue, but I do feel that someone who does not necessarily enjoy the later might be thrown a bit by the way the novel first appears.
Although I did enjoy this change in direction it seemed to adapt, part of me did feel that the more demonic aspects were introduced very quickly and in some places could have done with some further development to stop it feeling a bit generic or overly orchestrated. I did really enjoy these aspects though, and I felt that the novel really drew on my fascination with dark, classic occults. The author plays with the tropes of this, using pentagrams, demon worshipping, blood, sacrifices and goats, yet combining them with the very real and present threat which technology holds over us. I thought it was quite clever to bring the tension between the two into place. The novel as a whole is very much a blend of classic horror filtered through into the threats a contemporary audience would face, with technology being the biggest threat to our generation. Some readers may find the idea of demonic presences infiltrating the internet a bit too ludicrous for their tastes, but they cannot deny the power which modern technology now holds over our world.
This aspect was without a doubt one of the most organic and enjoyable (if I can use such a word!) parts of the novel. Benjamin Percy is very much exploiting the horrors of the twenty first century, reminding readers how our every move can be traced and our lives exploited through the internet. How many times do we hear about online fraud, of hackers gaining access to secure documentation? How many cameras do we pass on the street which records our movements? How often do we worry about the real identity of an strange online presence? How much information about us is readily available on the net, from innocuous minor details to crucial personal information? Benjamin is quite cleverly re-imagining the old tropes of horror and turning them into something much more worrying because of its very realness. Yes, there is blood and guts and frightening figures in this book, but for me the reason it works is because of the unsettling qualities which it reflects back upon its readers. As the author writes:
‘The internet has trapdoors and invisible wires. It had secret passages, secret paths and secret codes, secret languages. It has vaults and cellars and attics full of darkness no spotlight can cut through. . . You can hurt people. You can help people. You can buy people. . . .Every appetite can be satisfied there. Unlike a body, unlike the world, the internet is limitless’ (p. 20 of the uncorrected proof).
The other thing which I could not help but pick up on and be fascinated by was the emphasis placed on sight and the power of the gaze. Throughout my entire reading of this novel I felt that it was constantly questioning the idea of who holds the gaze; who is the viewer and who is actually being viewed. The novel is littered with this theme. We have the obvious example of Hannah, a girl who cannot physically see at first but who is still constantly viewed and judged by others. We have the journalist who watches everything and everyone around her, writing what she sees down, capturing it on her camera. We have Mike, a man who sees past the surface level of those in need of help, welcoming the homeless and forgotten into his home. We have skilled hackers, people who can spy through their online presence on all that passes through the internet. We have one individual with a telescope, sitting from the vantage point of his room where he unknowingly watches the day to day activities of those around him. The lists are endless, all of them sharply reminding us of this voyeuristic quality which life possesses, especially when technology is brought into the arena. We can stare into a screen, but how can we know what is truly staring back at us? Its incredibly threatening, made even more so by the connection the author makes to the Panopticon, a Victorian prison designed by Bentham in which one central guard can see all that goes on, yet the prisoners can never tell if they are being watched. The threat of being watched itself is the true terror, something which is also employed in this book to a successful degree.
Not only does this idea of the gaze link to technology, it also links to the authors own talent; that of writing. Using the journalistic figure of Lela he states how ‘everything is material’ (p. 7 of uncorrected proof copy) and how everything is available to be processed into a story no matter the cost. Obviously this questions the morals behind such an industry, but I think it is highly astute of the author to be able to describe such a desire to write with such clear eloquence. Indeed, this book highlights as a whole the authors skilled ability to write. The book reaches a level of sophistication without becoming boringly over grammatical. He has a talent for writing in such a way that his scenes become suffused with this eerie, thrilling tone. His descriptions in particular are great at this. One such example which remains in my mind is when he compares the red code on a screen to ‘blood-laced vessels’. He certainly knows how to coin a phrase, and how to best utilise his choice of words to set the mood – not an easy task for horror/thriller writers.
I really enjoyed this novel and was pleasantly surprised by how engaging I found it. The plot moves very steadily along, but I did not feel as if I knew where it was heading or what to expect. I found myself at the mercy of the author and the world he has created. I think he also shares a skill with the much beloved Stephen King in the way that he makes excellent use of characterisation, allowing the richness of his characters to enhance the reading experience and to give it a much fuller quality. Without a doubt, I will be reading Benjamin Percy’s back catalogue!
The Dark Net is available to buy in the UK on the 3rd August.
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Disclaimer – I was very kindly sent this book in exchange for a review. I will only ever post my own, honest opinions and will NOT write a favourable review in exchange for a complimentary book.