Author: Drew Magary
Stay on the path, or you will die.
That’s the message Ben gets when he finds himself on the path. He didn’t set out to find it; he only wanted to take a quick hike before a business meeting at a mountaintop hotel. He carefully notes landmarks so he can find his way back, but when he tries to retrace his steps nothing is the same. There’s a dead body, horrific men wearing dog faces and absolutely no sign of civilization.
Everything that follows is part of the path.
Ben eventually comes across a few seemingly normal people (even if one of them is straight out of his past) who tell him to stay on the path and find the producer. That’s it. As far as survival strategies go, it’s unnervingly vague, but trial and error teach Ben that their advice is sound. The path itself is hellish enough, with giant crickets, forced cage fights and an unsettling variety of demonesque creatures, but none of it compares to what surfaces when he leaves the path.
Oh, and there’s a sassy talking crab sidekick. Bonus! Here are just a few of his many fantastically snippy lines:
“Why should I tell you anything else? You kicked that sand at me.”
“You need a lesson in manners, is what you need.”
“I think I broke the boat.”
This book is so strange, so bizarre, that my best advice is to take a good look at the cover, because the tone and imagery matches the writing style of The Hike with uncanny precision. Everything on the front and back covers actually appears in the book, most as fairly prevalent plot points, which gives you an idea just how surreal the story is. It basically boils down to this: imagine if you were unwillingly drawn into a real-life video game where the only option was to see it through to the end – even though Ben has no idea when and if the end of the path will come, or what it will cost him to get there.
The manic circumstances created in The Hike are tempered by the deep-seated emotions that are gradually revealed the farther Ben travels down the path. What begins as confusion and frenzied panic deepens into despair and cynicism as the possibility that Ben might never see his wife and children again becomes more and more real, and his mind strays to the edge of sanity. He thought his life was mundane and drab, with the stress of having a wife who works the night shift as a nurse and kids running in every direction, but once he’s on the path he would give anything to hear their chatter again. Things that were funny and lighthearted at the beginning of the story take on weighty meaning that will wrench at your emotions – including the crab. OH MY LANTA CRAB I FEEL FOR YOOOOOOUUUUU.
The producer remains an unseen, overarching nemesis for most of The Hike, leaving us with what my english teachers would call a man vs. nature conflict. Though there are highly antagonistic creatures on the path, the producer is cast as the driving force regardless of how distant their involvement is. This vaguely distant villain enhances the overwhelming sense of powerlessness that surrounds Ben – he can’t even see his opponent, much less fight them, which makes following the path with all its heinous obstacles the only viable option.
The writing style and tone of The Hike is visceral. There’s not much that physically turns my stomach,* but author Drew Magary has a way of weaving scenarios with just enough grotesqueness that several scenes left me distinctly unsettled and with a hint of what could be nausea for a more squeamish person. Nothing is overdone in my opinion, but what is present is very carefully crafted so that the harshness cuts into your feelings like a razor. You will feel a few things sharply, rather than being beaten senseless with an overabundance of violence or cruel circumstance.
This is a bizarre read that may not be for everyone, but if you like science fiction or fantasy in general then I think you’ll enjoy The Hike. It pushes the boundaries of a traditional adventure story and gives new meaning to the idea of an unwilling hero. And if you somehow get through all but the last page of it thinking, “There’s no heart here,” then DON’T STOP. Because the last page…well. Don’t read it ahead of time. It likely won’t make sense, but if it does clue you in to The Hike’s final secret, then you will have spoiled a surprisingly complex reading experience. There’s an exponential curve in regards to the intensity and depth of The Hike, and I would not have you take it any other way but how it was written. So do yourself a favor and…stay on the path.
*Thanks to my surgeon Dad for making gall bladders a normal topic of conversation for the dinner table.