Futurists for years have posited that the internet would eventually develop a consciousness, become sentient and self-aware, feel pleasure and pain, and perhaps even evolve to desire more than its digital reality. In his latest thriller, “The Dark Net,” Minnesota author Benjamin Percy takes this premise and plunges it into horror territory, imagining the “unfiltered, unmoderated” cyberspace that is the dark net, “a many-layered netherworld,” as a portal for demons desperate to possess humanity.
Percy’s premise is disturbing enough, but add to it a masterful crafting of scary scenes strewn with gruesome details, a tough 12-year-old blind girl with a “retinal prosthesis” able to manipulate the matrix, and a subtext exploring the effects of a world becoming enslaved to its technologies and you have a horror story for our times.
The demons have made Portland, Ore., their staging ground, particularly the Rue Apartments (an allusion to Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Murder in the Rue Morgue”). Naturally, the building has a malevolent history and a shadowy evil oozes from its foundations. It’s up to a disparate team of individuals with varying degrees of supernatural abilities to stop the encroaching darkness.
There’s Lela, a Luddite journalist who is the first to discover that the real world may be screwed after she steals a skull from the Rue’s foundations and literally all hell breaks loose. She’s Percy’s Detective Dupin trying desperately to find a rational explanation for her discoveries. But there are none. Mike Juniper is an ex-evangelist running a homeless shelter to atone for his sins with the help of Sarin, an ancient being “always fighting for the light.” But it’s Hannah, the young hero, who I found to be the novel’s most intriguing character. Hannah’s been hard-wired to wear a unit called a Mirage that has “upgraded” her supernatural abilities so she can now see the demons when they “hijack” humans.
Poe published his story in 1841 when Western civilization was wrangling with the early consequences of colonialism and the growing implications of urbanization. I read Percy’s story as a riff on our dependence on the internet and its soul-sucking potential.
The narrative’s pace stalls at times from too much exposition about supernatural theories and occultists like Aleister Crowley, and about aspects of technology easily inferred from context. And Percy’s penchant for poetic prose — usually a strength of his style — was distracting here. But “The Dark Net” is still a frightening novel.
Carole E. Barrowman is a writer and a teacher at Alverno College in Milwaukee.
The Dark Net
By: Benjamin Percy.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pages, $26.
Events: Book launch, 7 p.m. Aug. 7, Imminent Brewing, Northfield; with Marlon James, 7 p.m. Aug. 8, Common Good Books, St. Paul; with Alissa Nutting, 7 p.m. Aug. 21, Barnes & Noble Galleria, Edina.