Anna Schumacher’s debut novel, End Times is Stephen King’s The Stand as imagined by the cast of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant.
Daphne Peyton leaves behind a dark past in Detroit to maybe find salvation in far flung Carbon County, Wyoming now a struggling mountain town and hardly the summer idyll of her childhood. She’s greeted, not just by her Aunt and Uncle, and pregnant cousin Janie, but also by the miraculous sound of trumpets as she alights the bus downtown.
That quiet summer solace Daphne came for is swiftly forgotten when she strikes oil on her uncle’s property and essentially all hell breaks loose. Which is big, considering Pastor Ted’s telling everyone a Prophet is coming, miracles seem to be falling from the sky, and it all points to either a brave new world in the making or the end of the one we’ve already got. That’s a lot for Daphne to handle on top of a job as a roustabout on the new oil rig, fending off sweaty boys’ advances down at the motocross track, and resisting the pull of mysterious new-kid-in-town, Owen.
As the first in a series, it’s more pre-apocalyptic than similarly dark counterparts in the adjacent post-apocalyptic genre. Anna Schumacher does a great job tinting her world in an eerie dark cast; the plot moves quickly as the clouds gather over Daphne and Carbon County, anticipation building at an equally brisk clip.
We expect a lot of our magical-realist mysteries in a post-Lost world, and it seems like in light of that popularly-regarded trainwreck of a reveal, the safest bet is the vaguest: keep your mythology simple and lead with the mystery.
No one in Carbon County knows what’s going on when Daphne arrives to the sound of mysterious trumpets, but the miracles pile up until the revelation of a fairly predictable predictive tablet foretelling some sort of “prophecy.” It all lines up because it’s somehow both standard-issue “End Times” harbinger and totally vague and mysterious. Schumacher gives us the “what’s” going on but not the “why.”
This is all great for the first in a series – building in a cliffhanger, ensuring your readers will come back for more. But the ending here feels abrupt, and ultimately unsatisfying. This was a problem more deftly solved in the likes of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, which managed to tie up its loose ends artfully while still leaving the door wide open for the second entry in the series.
Schumacher’s strength lies in the drawing of her character. Daphne is a fully realized person: she’s strong, she’s a tomboy, she’s rightfully wary and a little mistrustful given her personal history. She’s an engaging narrator and a great guide into Carbon County. Janie is the perfect contrast, besotted, ditsy, but in the end a good friend and sort of a loveable idiot. There’s a great, easy-to-hate antagonist in Doug, the douche-y reluctant father to Janie’s unborn kid, and then there’s Owen, the requisite man meat.
The cast of characters is great, the shift in point-of-view allowing them each a shot at telling their story, less so. Daphne’s such a compelling narrator and every time we leave her, we just want to get back.
Carbon County has that Twin Peaks feeling we’ve come to know and love that crops up again in places like the mountain town in The Returned and the same picturesque remoteness felt in Top of the Lake. It comes to life at the motocross track where Doug reigns supreme, and at the storefront church where the whole town comes together to listen to Pastor Ted rant about the coming Prophet and end of days, intermittently. There’s the trailer where Daphne bunks with her Aunt and Uncle, the construction site where the kids sneak off to to drink beers at night, and the oilrig where roustabouts pass their days. It’s all so well drawn, but it begs the question- what’s the rest of town like?
It’s just that Schumacher leaves you wanting more, which bodes well for the series.