REVIEW: Contagious

Across America, a mysterious pathogen transforms ordinary people into raging killers, psychopaths driven by a terrifying, alien agenda. The human race fights back, yet after every battle the disease responds, adapts, using sophisticated strategies and brilliant ruses to fool its pursuers. The only possible explanation: the epidemic is driven not by evolution but by some malevolent intelligence.

Scott Sigler’s Infected brought us into the personal hell of Perry Dawsey, a former college football star with some serious rage issues. Perry had been the unwilling host of spores that eventually grew into sentient parasites that flooded him with paranoia and hatred for anyone who could possibly help him, but also for the beings themselves. Infected covered Perry’s descent into hell and self-mutilation to personally remove each of the seven parasites within him before they hatched – and before they finished their dreadful goal upon that hatching.

The sequel, Contagious, is a novel on a much larger scope. While Infected did bring in a handful of supporting characters, the CIA agents and the CDC doctors bent on learning more about and stopping the infection, it was first and foremost Perry’s gruesome story. Contagious brings more characters as primary protagonists: the brilliant, idealistic Dr. Margaret Montoya who attempts to understand the infection and battle it, and Dew Phillips, a matter-of-fact veteran and CIA agent who makes it his personal mission to turn Perry into a real ally instead of a reluctant bloodhound.

Contagious follows up the story six weeks later. Perry has survived the removal of seven parasites, two gunshot wounds, and horrible necrosis caused by the parasites. He is free of the parasites, but still can “hear” existing hatchlings and hosts. He has joined the CIA and CDC characters, as he’s their only clue to the hatchlings’ whereabouts and their ultimate goal: building a gate through which whatever sent the infection can come to our planet.

Only, he doesn’t want to. Perry’s a hulking, terrifying man who has lost literally everything. All he wants to do is hunt down other people with the infection and kill them. He sees them as already dead; he’s doing them a favor. The CIA is desperate for a living host to these parasites so they can learn more about them, but Perry follows his internal radar and gets there before they can.

The plot thickens when the characters realize there is a second kind of infection, a contagious one that still forces mind-control and paranoia but doesn’t actually include the parasitic growths. The people serve as infantry: designed to protect the growths, their hosts, and later the hatchlings as they build their gate. We also learn of a hidden computer mind stationary above the earth, driving these minds. It needs to focus its power into one human mind for the infected to follow, and it chooses an unlikely host for the new infection, a megalomaniacal mind who doesn’t like to be told what to do. This character is a most delicious addition to the seriousness plaguing Perry and his allies, adding a horrifyingly lighthearted character to the list of antagonists.

The book is in part Perry’s personal journey to try to pick himself back up and find any reason to go on beyond hunting innocent hosts (who, in fairness, do turn into paranoid psychopaths once the parasites take hold). He has to find a place among the CIA agents and doctors who see him as a dumb, violent jock that they are forced to work with. (Which is unfair; Perry isn’t dumb.)

Sigler writes a damn good horror/thriller. He elicited fear, apprehension, and disgust from me at different points in the novel. (At one point my husband wandered by, looked at my face, and said, “Yeah, you’re reading a Scott Sigler novel.”) If you listen to his podcasts (He’s releasing Contagious right now for free), you’ll get familiar with the phrase, “lots and lots of violence.” And he delivers on his promise. But Contagious‘ strength is in the inner turmoil his characters suffer as they deal with the hell around them. I don’t think I’ve ever read a character more destroyed than Perry Dawsey; Sigler masterfully makes you feel sorry for this man who was previously a myopic monster. Montoya gets broken as well, as she has to agree to actions that go against all of her ethics, and ultimately has to make a decision one would never assume a doctor would be in a position to order.

The biggest problem I had with the book is its 24 mentality: people on the battlefield do what they have to in order to get the job done, no matter the cost. Characters who want to take a moment to consider the legal ramifications, civil liberties violations, and the destruction of the Bill of Rights are painted as, well, pussies. They want to waste time while there’s work to be done. But Sigler does a good job making your root for the protagonists even if, in reality, you’d be howling for the heads of the fascists making decisions without Americans’ rights in mind. These decisions are not made lightly, mind you. But anyone questioning this wisdom is painted as troublesome and seen as a minor antagonist.

Alien invasion of the Earth must be done carefully, else the book will edge into hokey “little green men” territory. Sigler handles this skillfully, keeping the actual beings driving the earthbound pawns still a mystery. We don’t know who they are, and only near the end do we get a sense of what they want. Their human pawns scare us enough; the latter third of the book is fast-paced, intense, and had me gritting my teeth with tension. Even when I thought how the ending would go, Sigler turned up the action even more in the final pages, surprising the hell out of me.

Fans of Stephen King or horror/thrillers in general should love Contagious. It’s gripping, horrifying, and manages to tie several separate plot threads together effortlessly. Sigler fans will gobble it up and note that he just keeps getting better and better.

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