The Loop by Jeremy Robert Johnson is something different. It has a familiar jumping-off point you’ll recognize from ’80s horror movies like Night of the Comet and Night of the Creeps with its teenage protagonists, horde of sadistic infected popular kids, and a plotline that sees a ragtag group of allies trying to survive the roughest night of their life, but with Johnson’s gift for finding the emotional truth of a situation and using it to deliver gut-punch after gut-punch, it becomes something more. There’s a sense of something genuine to the work, whether it’s the note-perfect way the book nails the banality of suburbia, the way Lucy and Bucket actually feel bad when they’re forced into exhausting fight after exhausting fight, or even the unusual way the conspiracy tries to contain the town with drones and subliminal signals. The Loop takes its horror-thriller premise to its absolute limits, delivering a brutal, ruthless, and emotionally tense rush through the worst night Turner Falls, Oregon will possibly ever see.
Turner Falls is your average small town. There’s a huge class divide driven by IMTECH, the local telecommunications company, a lot of people feeling stuck with no place to go, teenagers messing around in the local woods and cave systems, and a general feeling that nothing really happens. Lucy and her friend Bucket are on the low end of an absolutely ruthless pecking order, trying to survive as the privileged sociopaths from the rich part of town mess with them on a daily basis. They’re just trying to keep it together long enough to get away from Turner Falls and go somewhere better, in between trips to the secondhand record store. When they hear about a secret bonfire party in a local system of caves, it seems like a good way to blow off some stream and get Bucket closer to the young woman he’s been crushing on. But the bonfire quickly turns murderous as the popular kids go berserk under the influence of… something, promptly vomiting a blue-black substance and killing everyone in range. Lucy and Bucket are soon thrown into a fight for their lives and for the very soul of the town they keep trying so hard to leave, against a threat far stranger and more dangerous than anything either of them could ever realize.
There’s a feel to suburbia that’s hard to capture unless you’ve lived there: the unrelenting banality, and not liking a place enough to stay but not being ready enough to leave is kind of a unique one. There’s a lot Johnson gets right about all of this, from the feeling that there’s not much to do in town if you’re not one of the sneering elites, to the repeated trips to the local shopping center which serves as one of the town’s few attractions for its teenage protagonists. It’s the feeling of being stuck, of an eternal shrug, and it works perfectly. It doesn’t make Turner Falls a boring place, but it does make it the kind of suburb that anyone who’s lived in a suburban miasma can easily recognize. The attention to detail doesn’t even stop there, as the book is broken up by interludes by a radio host that so closely mimics and parodies late night AM radio hosts like George Noory, Clyde Lewis, and Art Bell (RIP) that you can almost hear the sample-heavy bass intro to their shows. It makes the world familiar. It makes itself inviting. And then it uses this to bite you even harder whenever it gets the chance.
Rest assured, there is definitely a bite to this one. While the plot might be reminiscent of such ’80s action-horror classics as Strange Behavior with its teenage protagonists hunted through the town by rivials infected with biomechanical parasites, Johnson makes every single death, every single fight, and every single tense moment count. While we might all have our power fantasies of what we could do if put in a situation where we could hurt the people who hurt us consequence-free, it’s very difficult to reconcile that with causing harm to another human being. Violence is handled quickly and ruthlessly, and fight scenes are brutal, gruesome, squirm-inducing affairs. While Lucy and her friends are put into an increasingly desperate series of fight-or-flight moments, there’s just as much horror that comes from Lucy’s realization that while she has to keep bashing the infected townspeople with pool balls or screwdrivers or whatever she has at hand, she’s hurting someone else and she’s not okay with that. It adds a dimension of emotion that most “survive the night” stories don’t usually engage with, that she’s struggling to hold on to her humanity and sense of empathy even as she grapples with what she keeps having to do. The Loop actually engages with Lucy’s trauma, with her backstory, with the horror all around her, digging its barbed emotional hooks in like the barbed tentacles of the villainous Oracle modules that serve as the book’s monsters.
It’s that trauma and that loss that give The Loop a sense of tension. The difference between horror and any other kind of genre fiction is the feeling that the heroes might not get out of their impossible situation alive, and even by the time the book reaches its explosive climax, it’s unclear who will survive and what will be left of them. The characters you come to feel for as they try desperately to make it out of town before the biomechs murder and feast on them are all in danger, and not all of them can make it out. Each death is a gut-punch, each another brutal beat, and all of them mean something. It makes an already engaging story feel outright terrifying with emotional stakes, pushing it over the line from thrilling suspense to true horror.
If you’re looking for a book that takes familiar themes to stranger and nastier places, a book that will raise you to adrenaline-pumping highs and downbeat emotional lows sometimes in the same paragraph, a book full of gooey, gory monsters and enough heart to hurt, The Loop is it. It’s a dangerous thrill ride that charges headlong at you and sinks its teeth in hard before you have the chance to wonder what’s going on, forcing you to hang on for dear life. Jeremy Robert Johnson is already a name you should know in horror for his melding of empathy, brutality, and sheer weirdness in fiction, and The Loop is him at his tautest, weirdest, and most brutal best.