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(You Should) Read Fiend by Peter Stenson

Chase is having a tough week. He’s homeless, unemployed, and the woman he obsesses over is dating another man. Oh, and he’s also just waking up from a days-long meth binge to an apocalyptic zombie wasteland where the only survivors are people who can keep amphetamines coursing through their system. With a world populated only by addicts and reanimated dead, Chase has to juggle addiction, survival, and love in Peter Stenson’s debut novel, Fiend.

Zombie fiction is best used when the walking dead act as metaphors for larger psychological issues, and Fiend‘s addiction-memoir metaphor works really well. There is no global search for a cure or anything large scale. Everything works on a microscopic level that is incredibly tense. In the Midwest – the novel takes place in and around the Twin Cities area of Minnesota – methamphetamine addiction is an epidemic, which ties in perfectly with an epidemic zombie crisis. Not only does meth hold an addictive leash on all of the characters, it is literally their only dam holding back zombification. Every struggle becomes about how the group can manage their doses or how to find a cook. In tandem to external conflict, the dangers of meth addiction express themselves grittily as paranoia, terror, and hallucinatory flashbacks bringing abrasive development to the cast. This is an unexpected take on zombie fiction that brings the genre to an even more frightening corner of terror.

Fiend is not a comfortable book in any way shape or form. What it is, however, is a novel that is fast and exciting in its uncomfortableness. Stenson’s writing style, a first person pseudo stream of conscious with no quotation marks and lots of colorful metaphors, personally acquaints you with the mindset of an addict. You develop all of Chase’s fears and worries through the course of the book which is itself frightening. Add to that the impressively well crafted spin Stenson put on his zombies (they’re still zombies, superfans, just with a flavor twist I won’t reveal here. It’s not like he made them run fast or anything) and Fiend is a devastating work.

The only complaint I had with the book is that it does fall into the jokingly stereotypical 20-something-white-male-first-novel trope in that KK’s character sometimes seems only to exist as a goal for Chase to achieve. Also, it feels like in order to give Chase more “character”, Stenson makes him casually bigoted. Every so often I was pulled out of the book by the first-person narrator mentioning something racist/sexist/etc. in an attempt to make the tone more casual or make Chase or the other characters seem more real possibly? I can’t see a purpose for it other than characterization. It’s been done before in many other books, and I’ve never found it anything less than crass. I’m not the first person to say it, and I won’t be the last, but you don’t need to resort to using alienating or offensive language in order to characterize someone in your story. You can just use other types of characterization. I’m sure someone will want to accuse me of being the PC police but that’s such a tired argument at this point, so do both of us a favor and don’t bother.

At the end of the day, I enjoyed heavily the vast majority of Fiend. While it had some rough patches, most of them were superficial. The concept is brilliantly scary and the work that it does impressed me a great deal. It moves like a semi truck: quick and heavy and when it hits, there’s some damage. You should read Fiend by Peter Stenson.