What if the dark web—the shadowy parts of the internet whose shady denizens buy drugs, download movies and hire hitmen—spawned the occasional demon?
Sounds bonkers, but that’s what’s up in The Dark Net (Houghton Mifflin, 272 pages, $26), by Eugene-born author Benjamin Percy. For a book less ripped from the headlines than from the anxiety-riddled modern mood, Percy got the idea from what he’s called an “imminent” cyber war in interviews—building the basis for his thriller out of the newfound sense of digital vulnerability that makes ransomware and faraway doxxers a new kind of boogeyman.
The protagonist is hard-nosed Oregonian reporter Lela Falcon, tech adverse and dependent on rational explanations. You can catch her strong-willed inspiration—Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty—pretty easily. She catches a lead regarding Portland’s Rue Apartments—clearly a shoutout to Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue”—where she steals a skull. Things promptly go supernatural, and Lela is quick to realize there’s no rational explanation to be had here. Meanwhile, Lela’s blind 12-year-old niece, Hannah, discovers her new visual prosthetic allows her to see demons possessing Portlanders.
Percy is a comics veteran—he’s also written for Green Arrow and Teen Titans—and you can feel the comics influence bleed through every page. The novel’s written in present tense, making everything feel like an illustrated panel, and the book is filled with futuristic technology, like the VR headset that helps Hannah to see.
The characters practically beg to be drawn: whether a survivalist running a homeless shelter or the customary hacker dude named Derek, who sees himself as the soldier of the World Wide Web. Derek is a lovably edgy stereotype: a tech dude with earbuds and a smartphone harness on his belt, who makes up for being short by wearing "Doc Martens, the style with the bulky heel, [that] cheat him a few inches."
Percy’s prose is showily noir, and the dialogue is equally over the top: “At first I thought I was dreaming you,” says one character, during an introduction. Meanwhile, the lights of a newsroom are a “fluorescent blaze,” and the bad guys are disturbing, boar-headed monstrosities with red eyes who’ve “come to kill and fuck” their way through the world.
The concept of a hellish cyberspace isn't exactly new. Entire generations tried to keep their kids off the "Information Superhighway," and writers have gone to the well of web paranoia since the earliest days of MySpace. But with Russian hackers dominating post-electoral news cycles, The Dark Net might still manage to hit closer to home than you expect.
Benjamin Percy reads from The Dark Net on Tuesday, August 22, at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside, powells.com. 7:30 pm. Free.