Radio Dark by Shane Hinton

(5.5/10) A bleak and muddled dystopian horror that challenges human communication.

I have conflicted feelings over Shane Hinton’s Radio Dark. There are some aspects I appreciated but have been confused or frustrated with some of its choices. On the surface, this story is about society’s descent into the apocalypse: all of humankind are catching some kind of ‘condition’ where they fall into an irreversible catatonic state. They stare silently into space, and no longer have any need for food or drink. They simply exist. We view this nightmarish scenario through the eyes of a man named Memphis, who is a custodian at a suburban Florida radio station. As this sickness starts to spread, an FCC employee named Cincinnati, the only other named character in the story, visits the radio station and begins to enact emergency procedures. She appears to be the first in the area to know about the oncoming ‘condition’ and partners with Memphis to try and salvage what they can from the fast-dwindling community. 

The above premise of the book intrigued me. However, as the story progressed, there were several questionable plot developments that didn’t quite sit well with me. First, there were a few instances of situational comedy that seemed incredibly forced. They felt like weird tonal shifts that did not line up with Hinton’s subdued writing style. Hinton’s prose borders on minimal, using short sentences that inform the reader of just the facts. “A walked here. B shot the basketball. The ball bounced towards the sewer grate.” The reader is never privy to what’s going on inside any of these characters’ heads, and we’re left to determine the character’s feelings and motivations by their actions. Yet the characters move about like emotionless drones. Perhaps the author is arguing that the catatonic victims are not that far removed from the current state of man, but this does not line up with the other messages the story is trying to tell. 

Religion plays a substantial role in the story. There is a community preacher who spreads the word about how human communication is sinful, and that humans should not speak. Radio communication is an act against God, silence is next to godliness, and mankind should return to the ocean. His congregation is made up of both living and catatonic members, but everyone is silent, so we are unable to tell who has the condition. As Memphis and Cincinnati build a new communication tower to bring survivors to their community, some of the preacher’s warnings become reality: Memphis begins to suffer injuries that he cannot recover from. Months go by and the scab on his lip doesn’t heal. Then his hands become infected. Then things get worse. This seems like it could be an allegory, that there’s an underlying message about whether human communication is good or bad, but the book never makes it clear. Aren’t our communicative abilities a major part of what makes us human? If the book is arguing that sharing ideas is a bad thing, then shouldn’t this book never have been written?

The story becomes less and less clear towards the end. Plot developments veer into obscure territory. Survivors continue to fall victim to the condition. Memphis and Cincinnati experience some terrible ordeals, and the situation looks bleaker by the day. After some predictably terrible events ensue, the story just… ends. If there’s a lesson to be learned, I cannot say. 

Hinton’s writing seems clearly influenced by the works of Cormac McCarthy: a dystopian atmosphere, desolate and rife with misery, delivered with a dry prose that intends to elicit emotion through its atmosphere. But the message of the story never comes into focus, and any semblance of understanding its intention becomes more bewildering by the story’s end. This is a short novel and it moves rather quickly, so if the above premise sounds interesting, then you might enjoy it. But it’s confusing resolution and its inability to present clear arguments left me wanting. 

eARC provided by Edelweiss

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