One afternoon Ben wanders off to take a hike in the woods, a decision he quickly regrets. A spontaneous turn down the wrong trail draws him away from the seedy hotel his company put him up in on his business trip, away from the picturesque Pennsylvania countryside, away from everyone he’s ever known or loved. What was supposed to be a leisurely loop becomes a harrowing journey through the darkest recesses of his psyche. As he is pulled deeper into the nightmarish, two-mooned alternate dimension where physics are merely a suggestion, men with the skinned faces of Rottweilers stitched over their own hunt him down, a giant woman threatens to turn him into stew, and monsters enslave him until he’s little more than callouses and sinew.
In his new book The Hike, Drew Magary tells the story of how Ben is ripped from his suburban Maryland family and forced onto a path he cannot veer off of nor escape. The past, present, and future fold together until time has no meaning. It’s all Ben can do to keep his sanity intact as he recreates and rectifies his worst memories and personal demons. Along the way he befriends a snarky Crab who dispenses words of wisdom and a hopeful 15th century Spanish sailor with dreams of glory and honor. Sinister cohorts of the Producer, the man who set this whole play in motion, attack, derail, and imprison him while taunting him with all-too-brief moments of joy and respite. The Producer has grand plans for Ben and Ben better pray he survives long enough to confront the manipulative bastard.
The Hike is a fantasy tale with a deeply disturbing horror veneer doused with life lessons, moral ambiguity, and unanswerable questions. Seemingly insignificant decisions lead to terrible things happening to decent people for no particular reason other than they can, and the only way out is through hell and back again. Ben confronts himself at various ages, his childhood traumas rippling through adulthood. It’s a bit of Alice in Wonderland crossed with Dante’s Inferno, Stardust by way of The Twilight Zone, The Odyssey as written by Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers. Part road trip, part epic quest, part Grimms’ fairy tale, with one helluva final twist. It’s the kind of book that would make a cracking TV show, something on AMC, maybe, or Netflix.
It’s also a damn fun book. Witty metaphysics, laugh-out-loud jokes, and absurdist scenarios permeate the story. Magary keeps the Kafka-esque gallows humor at the forefront which prevents it from getting too Song of Kali, but that pinch of fear is there staining the edges. Magary writes with a strong personal style. His narrative flows seamlessly from one devastation to another, always with an undercurrent of charm and fancy. He starts the ride off quickly—Ben is on the path by the end of the first chapter—and never lets up on the throttle. Even the quieter moments of reflection have action churning in the background. Ben never rests, not even when he’s physically resting, and neither does the reader.
Throughout his journey Ben encounters giant insects, smoke monsters, purple swans, rivers of blood, the end of the world, and visions of people from his past. The Producer plunders Ben’s memories, contorts them into vicious corruptions, and hurls them back at him. As long as he stays on the path and completes his assigned task he’ll live to see another day—although pain, suffering, and torment are still on the table—but stray, refuse, or fail, and he’ll die. At the end of the road lies the Producer, a mysterious figure no one has ever seen. He’s the one who chose Ben (“I’ve been waiting for this since the day you were born.”) which means he’s the only one who can set him free. In order to get home and back to his family Ben must out-strategize the god-like being controlling his existence or die trying.
There’s a lot to unpack in The Hike. A cursory or breezy read won’t work here. This is a book that requires some effort on the part of the reader. Between the symbolism, homages, and puzzles, Magary makes the reader work almost as much as Ben. Skip the details or treat the story like an adult version of a Disney fairy tale and it falls flat, but delve a little deeper and what you’ll find makes it all worthwhile. It’s not that it’s especially challenging material. Some of the imagery is on the violent or graphic side but it’s more “TV-MA” than a hard “R,” nor is it laden with introspective philosophizing. What Ben endures is teased out with breadcrumbs scattered throughout the text. An observant reader could predict the route his path will take, or at least the obstacles he’ll face, but just because the narrative is expected doesn’t make it any less exciting.
Usually when I read books for review I like to sit with it and take my time, consuming a few chapters at a time so I can ruminate between reading sessions. With The Hike, I had half the book finished before I’d even realized it, not because it was an easy read but because I was so engrossed I couldn’t put it down. I literally forgot to eat dinner that night, that’s how immersed I was in Ben’s pilgrimage. This is going to be one of those books I recommend to everyone all the time. There’s enough fantasy to appeal to SFF dilettantes and diehards but not so much that I can Trojan horse it to those who insist they only read “literary” fiction.
At once heartfelt, nerve-wracking, and soul-searching, The Hike is an emotional punch to the gut draped in the trappings of fantasy and psychological horror. It’s a beautifully written novel with thoughtful characters, crunchy descriptions, and crisp action. I loved every single ounce of this book. I’m already looking forward to re-reading it and I only finished it a few days ago. Easily a contender for a slot in my top five favorite books of 2016.
The Hike is available now from Viking.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.