Christopher Golden is a shrewd writer. His prose is infused with images that would translate easily from page to screen. Golden’s novel Red Hands reads as though it is hellbent to be adapted onto film, complete with a character referred to as bearing a strong resemblance to Helen Mirren. The author is also adept at what could be labeled “The Think Global, Act Local” school of fiction. To explain: the plot deals with a lab re-creation of the Middle Ages bubonic plague which unintentionally gets spread into the public sector.
This obviously has international implications/ramifications which are touched upon and is profoundly jarring in real time, given the current pandemic. The focus, however, is on the contagion’s impact on a small town, zeroing in on the upheaval factor. Setting the initial infiltration during that revered staple of Americana, a Fourth of July parade, is a nice touch and the characterization of local individuals is well done. They are depicted as battling metaphorical demons and internal conflicts even before a literal catastrophe creates chaos. The government operatives and science folk who descend upon the environs are in general not as well rendered, tending to fall into the category of morally-compromised-but-that’s-part-of-the-job-description stereotypes. Golden spices up the narrative by personifying the Red Death but it is more than a mere hat tip to Edgar Allan Poe. It also showcases the hunger and machinations of an insatiable grim reaper who shares a defiant headspace in its tormented host’s body. Lots on Golden’s literary plate for the reader to consume, but the author manages to serve up a savory ghoulish goulash.
Maeve Sinclair is thinking of leaving her New Hampshire hometown when she becomes the recipient/embodiment of the Red Death. She consequently causes the horrific demise of her mother and brother and flees into the mountains to escape the fallout. Hunted by various agencies with different agendas as well as haunted by the deaths she has caused. Maeve is not simply diseased and dangerous. She is also possessed by the personification of the disease: “Her head throbbed, spiking with pain that she knew could be alleviated if only she would stop fighting, give the Red Death what it wanted. Yes. Not the hunger or Red Hands or whatever label she might have given it—this wasn’t just a presence, it was a consciousness. A living malignance, a disease that could override an infected host and spread the contagion within it, with purpose. Woven into the host body—into her body—so that the only cure for own suffering was to communicate it to others. The pressure valve on her sickness was to share it. To spread the Red Death…in order for her to live.”
Maeve’s sense of isolation and fear is relatable. Christopher Golden’s prose and Covid-19 psychologically work in inadvertent tandem. This registered with me while reading Red Hands. I was a bit uncomfortable going to a place that had elements that felt a tad too close to home. There is also the omnipresent distraction factor that many of us suffer from nowadays, which makes it easy to put down a book and pursue another activity. To his credit, Golden’s writing kept drawing me back. It was easy to pick up where I had left off, no need to reread pages for plot recapitulation or a who’s who. Red Hands, published by St. Martin’s Press, is in several ways an ideal novel for the time in which we are living. Christopher Golden captures a sense of fear, anger, and isolation that happens to resonate now. While the book therefore cannot be categorized as purely escapist fare, it can be described as cathartically entertaining. An allegorical shot in the arm—if you will.