Katherine Tegen Books: 316 pp., $17.99 ages 13 and up
The seven video screens in the new young adult thriller “Dark Eden” flicker in black and white — not only as described in the book’s text but through an accompanying downloadable app that plays out the story’s action in video snippets viewable on iPhones, iPods, iPads and Android devices. The back cover of the latest multimedia creation from bestselling author Patrick Carman also incorporates a QR code allowing potential readers to watch the ominously creepy “Dark Eden” trailer.
Is it a book? A film? An audio book? “Dark Eden” is all three — an effort on the author’s part to encourage reluctant readers to embrace the written word through technological enticements. But even in its humble print form, without any of the bells and whistles and gadgetry, “Dark Eden” is a compelling read that transposes the best aspects of classic horror storytelling onto a modern backwoods adventure reluctantly experienced by seven terrified teens.
Each of them suffers from a fear — of rabid dogs, rickety ladders, kidnapping. None of them understands why they’re so afraid, despite years of psychotherapy. So their doctor corrals them together, driving them deep into a wooded area somewhere on L.A.'s outskirts and dropping them off on a dirt trail, saying only, “A cure is waiting for each of you down that path.”
Their doctor refers to them as “The 7.” All of them are 15 years old. They’re a mix of hormone-addled boys and girls, some of whom are inevitably romantically involved. None had met before being packed into their doctor’s van. They’re panicked to discover their cellphones are out of service range and even more freaked that the first person they meet after an hour’s walk is Mrs. Goring — a crotchety old woman of indeterminate age whose first words of advice are: “Act like grown-ups and I won’t spit in your oatmeal.”
Mrs. Goring is one of just two people living at Fort Eden — a compound that consists of buildings notable only for their bunker-esque architecture and sturdy iron doors. Dr. Rainsford also lives on the premises, perfecting his cure for fear, though the details of how he does so are unclear.
Faced with looming darkness and a lack of survival skills, six of the kids venture into the appropriately named Fort, but Will Besting stays behind. Will, it turns out, is scared of people and finds comfort in technology, specifically the vintage video games he plays at home and the audio recording device he brought with him. The Recorder, as he calls it, was cobbled together from old iPods and digital cameras he bought on Craigslist and reassembled into a device he uses to record audio and video.
Readers can hear and watch what he’s recorded through the “Dark Eden” app, the first episode of which consists of shaky video footage of the teens’ walk through the woods and audio files of the seven’s psychotherapy sessions that Will surreptitiously downloaded from his doctor’s computer. The first episode is free. Subsequent chapters can be purchased for 99 cents apiece or in their entirety for $9.99.
While “Dark Eden” is written in a visual manner that easily conjures images on its own, experiencing the story through Will’s eyes and ears heightens the fear factor in a way that words alone cannot. It’s chilling to watch Will observe the treatments, which are conducted in basement rooms with metal helmets that wouldn’t be out of place in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Hearing the seven’s interactions with their doctor makes the characters and their fears feel more relatable and real.
As befits a story taking place outside of L.A., all of the characters in the app are Hollywood-slick. And so are the video and audio production values, which amplify, rather than detract from, Carman’s inventive storytelling. “Dark Eden” is a fast-paced thrill ride that ends with big reveals about why the seven were taken to the Fort and subjected to Rainsford’s immersion therapy. Readers will need to wait until the second, and final, book in the series to find out if the fear cure actually works.