Well, I was still in the mood for sci-fi, so I thought that I’d take a look at a rather interesting second-hand novel I found online a few days earlier. At the time, I was looking for film novelisations when I happened to notice that there were three spin-off novels based on a brilliant sci-fi/detective/horror/thriller TV series called “Fringe” that I watched on DVD in 2012. Surprised that I hadn’t heard of this novel series before, I decided to get the first one in the trilogy – Christa Faust’s 2013 novel “Fringe: The Zodiac Paradox”.
Although it is theoretically possible to enjoy this novel without having watched “Fringe” (since it is a prequel to the TV show), I’d strongly recommend watching at least a couple of seasons of the show first. Several references, concepts and moments throughout the novel will probably make less sense if you don’t have any knowledge about the show. Likewise, if you aren’t used to the style and atmosphere of the TV show, this novel will probably seem very, very weird.
So, that said, let’s take a look at “Fringe: The Zodiac Paradox”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins in America in 1968, with a feared serial killer called Allan Mather lurking in the woods near Reiden Lake. He has set his sights on a young couple making out in a nearby car and is already anticipating the shocked headlines when their bodies will be found. On another shore of Reiden Lake, two twentysomething scientists called Walter Bishop and William Bell are preparing to experiment with a hallucinogenic chemical that they have developed.
Allan approaches the car, so confident in his plan that he has even taken a tab of acid beforehand. But, when he gets close, something is wrong. The young couple in the car are actually undercover detectives. Soon, a police airship appears out of nowhere and Allan is fleeing through the woods, chased by cops and search dogs. Meanwhile, beside another Reiden Lake, both Walter and Bell experience some kind of psychic connection with each other before having a shared hallucination of a tear in the fabric of reality hovering above the lake.
When Allan makes it to the lake, the cops catch him and try to drown him. He breaks away and suddenly sees some kind of portal ahead of him. With nothing to lose, he jumps through it and lands in a parallel universe – our universe – and collides with Walter and Bell. Suddenly, Walter is assailed by psychic visions of death and horror. But, by the time the drug wears off, the mysterious man has fled and both scientists write the whole experience off as a vivid hallucination.
Meanwhile, Allan steals a car and decides to return home, unsure of what has happened to him. When he gets home, everything is different. Another version of himself is living there. He kills his doppelganger and begins to work out what has happened to him. He is in another world where the cops know nothing about him. He begins to plan another killing spree.
The story then flashes forwards to 1974. Walter and Bell are at a scientific conference in San Francisco, when Walter happens to overhear two women talking about a newspaper article. They tell him that it is about someone called the “Zodiac Killer” who has been terrorising the city. It doesn’t take Walter long to realise who that is…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was a lot of fun to read 🙂 Not only is it a really interesting blend of the thriller, horror, sci-fi and detective genres, but it also captures the general atmosphere and quirky tone of the TV show absolutely perfectly too – whilst, thanks to the historical setting, also being it’s own thing too.
In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, they are the kind of weird “fringe science” that you’d expect from the TV show – with a lot of these parts of the story revolving around hallucinogens, psychic phenomena, unusual types of radioactivity, biofeedback machines and parallel universes. These elements are left mysterious enough to be intriguing, whilst also relying enough on the reader’s knowledge of the TV show to feel concrete and realistic. Combined with the historical setting, this gives the novel a vaguely old-school atmosphere reminiscent of “weird fiction” by early 20th century authors like H. P. Lovecraft, but with more emphasis on the scientific method, ethical dilemmas and 1960s/70s counterculture.
As for the novel’s horror elements, they’re really good too. They mostly consist of a chilling blend of suspense, psychological horror, the paranormal/unexplained, character-based horror and a few moments of gory horror. Although the novel is probably more of a quirky historical thriller than a horror novel, these horror moments are brilliantly effective and really help to add an extra sense of atmosphere, intensity and urgency to the events of the novel.
Likewise, this novel works very well as a thriller too. Although it is probably slightly more of a traditional suspense/ amateur detective thriller than an action-thriller novel, there’s a really good blend of suspenseful moments, chase sequences, fights, time limits, mini-cliffhangers, mysteries and spy stuff that really helps to keep this novel compelling 🙂 All of this is complemented by a slightly faster-paced writing style and a quirky historical atmosphere that really helps to set the story apart from a typical “catch the serial killer” thriller story.
And, yes, I really loved the historical atmosphere of this novel. It is often understated enough to make you feel like you’re watching some kind of low-budget film from the 1960s/70s. And, like in a lot of US TV shows/films from this time period, the 1970s setting really does feel like a slightly faded and more muted version of 1960s America. In fact, there’s even a moment – evocative of the “wave speech” from Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” – where Walter laments the death of the idealism of the 1960s. And, in a lot of ways, this is a novel about the lingering remnants of the 1960s hippie counterculture in 1970s America.
Plus, this is one of those spin-off novels that contains familiar references – but sometimes in brilliantly unexpected ways. I’m wary of spoiling some of the later ones but a good early example is the police airship in the early parts of the story. Just a brief mention of this is enough to make any fan of the TV show suddenly understand where the scene in question is taking place. Not only is it a really cool moment, but it’s a way of referencing the TV show that doesn’t feel distracting in the context of the story.
In terms of the characters, this novel is excellent 🙂 Not only are the younger versions of Walter and Bell very accurate to the older versions of them on the TV show, but the novel also includes a younger version of Nina Sharp too – who probably has slightly better characterisation/ character development compared to the TV show. She’s less of a mysterious and powerful CEO and much more of an intelligent “action hero” kind of character here. Plus, the novel also reveals a bit more about the complicated relationship between Bell and Nina too.
Not only that, Allan is also a brilliantly chilling villain too – we get to see enough of his mind, personality and backstory for him to feel like a credible threat to the characters but he is also kept mysterious enough to make him feel like a chilling, unexplainable monster too. Seriously, as “realistic” sources of horror go, he’s one of the creepiest villains I’ve seen since I read Tess Gerritsen’s “The Apprentice“.
As for the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is really good 🙂 It is “matter of fact” enough to keep the story flowing at a decent pace, whilst also being descriptive and quirky enough to add atmosphere and humour to some scenes and chilling horror to others. Plus, although this novel isn’t experimental beat literature, this genre was probably a mild tonal influence, given how well-written and fascinating the counterculture and hallucination-based scenes are 🙂
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good too. At 355 pages in length, this novel feels a little on the longer side of things, but not too much so. This is probably thanks to the excellent pacing, with lots of clever uses of suspense, a fast-paced writing style and a gradually rising sense of drama and tension that really helps to make this novel gripping 🙂
All in all, this novel was a lot of fun to read 🙂 If you’re a fan of the TV show, then this is like a really awesome extended “lost episode” that gives you an intriguing glimpse into the backstories of several characters. Not only does it work well as a thriller novel and a horror novel, but it really sets itself apart from the crowd thanks to it’s wonderfully quirky and countercultural 1960s/70s setting too 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.