Wolf in White Van is one of the most intense, engrossing novels about gaming you'll ever read, and we've got an excerpt. Written by John Darnielle, creator of The Mountain Goats, it's a moody, surreal character study of a game designer whose face was disfigured in a mysterious accident.
We reviewed the novel here , which should give you some backstory for this excerpt. It comes out on September 16!
I. THE BRIDGE
Reactor ﬁve, visible from S.R. 60 just past the Grove
Avenue exit, was collapsing. Radiation sickness traveled on poison winds through the tract home neighborhoods; within a few weeks, most in the region were too sick to work, and within a few months over half of them were dead. Neighboring counties began raiding the afﬂicted region for supplies; the contaminated goods they brought back served as mobile hosts for the burgeoning mutation. The age of empire had entered into the ﬁrst gasps of its terminal phase.
Radiation levels were so high in the bodies of even the most tenacious survivors that total contamination below the 36th parallel north seemed unavoidable. People ﬂed in terror, seeking food and shelter to the west and east. Basal ganglia calciﬁ ed in the stricken; the streets rang at night with the screams of the lost. Northern movement remained blocked; the armies of the north, formed overnight and bonded by fear, stood prepared to ﬁ ght until the last of their numbers fell.
In Missouri, ﬁfty California delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in Kansas City were housed at a Holiday Inn near the freeway. The convention was ﬁrst delayed, then canceled, when the gravity of the situation on reactor ﬁve became clear; the aggrieved were told to return to their families, to save what they could. There was to be no return home. Disorder and panic spread like brushﬁre. Uncontaminated cities quickly formed citizen posses, built strong walls around their boundaries, and guarded them with heavy armor. Three of the Kansas City ﬁfty set out in a southerly course tending westward, despite misgivings. Their eventual ends are unknown.
The remaining members of the delegation left Missouri on foot for the fallow ﬁelds of Kansas. Among their numbers were several laymen, employees on reactor ﬁve. Historians posit that genetic contamination among employees at the reactor would have been at or near 100 percent by the time of the collapse, though this is conjecture. Only two veriﬁable employees of the reactor are known to have survived the ensuing chaos of the days that followed. They were in Kansas City on the day the core melted, and are remembered now as the ﬁrst people, ten years later, to be denied entrance to the Trace Italian.
For the third time since sunrise you see men in gas masks sweeping the highway. It's dusk. They are approaching the overpass where you hide in the weeds. You can only guess, but guesses are better than nothing: you calculate your chances of escaping unnoticed at 15 percent. When the nearest of them is close enough for you to hear the sound of the gravel underneath his yellow rubber boots, you know that the time has come for you to act.
Welcome to Trace Italian, a game of strategy and survival! You may now make your first move.
* * *
Within earshot of my twitching, living body I heard them tell my parents I wasn't going to last long. That was, almost to a phrase, how they put it: "We don't expect patients in Sean's condition to last long." I was too febrile to take offense or to feel relieved; the words just ﬂoated past my consciousness like a scrolling news bulletin at the bottom of the screen during a baseball game. Wherever it was my conscious self had actually ﬂed to, the terrain lay somewhere out beyond where you might wonder what people mean by the things they say. I was having dreams of a guy named Marco, who was the editor and publisher of a small- press horror magazine called Marco. He was talking to me through the tight oval mouth hole of his ski mask.
He had all kinds of interesting things to say. He kept picking at his teeth with a steel toothpick, and I wanted to ask him where you get a steel toothpick from, but then I'd bubble up to the bright surface again and hear the chatter and see all the people and their hospital machines, like the world coming into total focus when you ﬁrst wake up; and then Marco, whose hidden face probably originated in trailers for spy movies and send- two-dollars-for-our-illustrated-catalog ads in magazines or on the backs of comic books, would go wobbly like the vertical hold on a TV and vanish.
Still, even after he'd disappeared from my visual ﬁeld, I could make out his voice, trying to ﬁght its way back into the world of the living, wriggling out over the bells and the beeps and the people talking past one another. In the hall on the other side of the curtain, my mom kept describing the tableau in my bedroom, going over the details of it with the nurse and the treatment team. The louder she got the louder Marco had to speak to be heard; he also had to compete with the patient in the bay next to mine, who was screaming. After a few passes it started to seem like Marco only spoke when my coherence dropped, and got clearer when I let the fever take me: as soon as I'd start to lose my grip on things, he'd come suddenly through. When the fever settled in for a long swell, he coached me quickly up from my bed, and he hustled me through the door while everybody's back was turned. From there we went speedily down the sterile busy hallways and hurried through a door that opened onto an eerie desert landscape, all cactus and cow skulls and shaky gravity. The scene played itself out several times, ﬁnding its bearings, but then someone from the outside would touch my hand, or say something that breeched the burbling static, and I'd hear the real things around me, my family and the doctors and the constant low hum of the building.
I think it was our third trip down the hallway that took me deepest into the desert; I remember that suddenly it was night out there, and that there was a huge, deep drone in the air, and a trillion stars. I remember Marco in the full ﬂower of his clarity, asking me questions, but I could only tell that they were questions by the rising tone he'd end them on. The actual words were heavily distorted, movie dialogue through a blown speaker or a fading radio signal turned up way too loud. Atop a low butte in the near distance I saw his armies gathered, the incomprehensible force of his voice somehow increasing their strength, maybe even their numbers. He began to tower over me in stature, quickly, and before long the masked boy my age who'd guided me out of the emergency room a moment before had become a giant, nine or ten feet tall, skinny and spindly, his voice threading through the desert hum like an insect song. I listened for some opening in his monologue where I might cut in and ask what was going on, and I prepared myself to get in one good question before his squadrons came charging down the hill. He had grabbed hold of my neck like I was a puppy; he was lifting me into the air. But just then someone started applying silver sulfadiazine to my forehead, and it burned, and I snapped back into my surroundings.
The whole thing only lasted for a few minutes, and I seldom thought of it again except to try and ﬁgure it out: where it came from, I mean. Because there isn't any magazine called Marco, and anyone connected with the magazine Marco is a phantom construction that my mind scared up during the ﬁrst few minutes after the disaster.
The art therapist came in fairly early on, or what feels now like it must have been fairly early on. I was in no condition. I was running a temperature they couldn't ﬁgure out; it came and went. But I was awake some of the time, and that was enough. She stuck to simple questions: "Do you like to paint?"
"Do you like to draw?"
"Good! What kinds of things do you like to draw?"
I looked up to where I'd been looking, where I'd still be looking long after she left. I felt warm. "The universe," I said, with a little effort.
* * *
People have ideas and theories about coping with catastrophic injury, but most of them are based in practicalities. They're right in thinking that the practicalities—how will you live? what will you do?—are important, but these aren't the main thing. The main thing is what happens to your vision, how you're a little different after you've seen a few things, and as far as I know, nobody really gets this, though I thought Chris Haynes did once. Something in his overall distrust of the path going forward felt moored to some bigger thing I knew about, something he'd either inferred from the play or known instinctively. But maybe not. It's hard to say.
One way of coping, anyway, is to stare at the ceiling. A hospital room ceiling, white, like an egg in a carton that's been in the refrigerator for several weeks, away from the light, is dull, completely uniform, revealing variations only when you stare at the same spot for some time and then, very slowly, venture out. If you concentrate hard enough on the task, you might ﬁnd a bubble or grain where a brush or a roller has stopped to reverse its stroke. You could let your attention rest there for a while; you could imagine the future of the ceiling, the battles playing out up there, camps pitched when the building was new back in unremembered time. You could picture the paint beginning to crack and fragment, and see, either in your mind's eye or out there on the actual ﬁeld of play if your vision spreads that far, the plaster underneath it learning to follow the cracks, the mildew forming on residues left by cleaning solutions beginning to breed, and colonies of microscopic life-forms, hostile to dull matter, developing their ruthless, mindless strategy: consume, reproduce, survive. You can see the hospital when the building has been emptied of patients but a few workers remain: administrators, janitors, members of the demo lition crew. You can see the ceiling in the next room, following the splits of the ceiling in its neighbor, and the one beyond that in turn, and then the greater canvas, the sky at night gone ﬂ at and painted white, the constellations in the cracking paint, the dust the cracks bring into being as they form, ﬁnding free land where none had been before their coming.
Nurses and doctors come and go, and family. It's like they're visiting a person at his lonely outpost on the space station, miles above the earth. How do they get there—just coming in through the door like that? In the brief moment between inﬁnite communion with the ceiling and the beginning of whatever conversation they've come to strike up, it seems like the deepest mystery in the world. And then they break the spell, and the world contracts, palpably shifts from one reality into a new and much more unpleasant one, in which there is pain, and suffering, and people who when they are hurt stay hurt for a long time or sometimes forever, if there is such a thing as forever. Forever is a question you start asking when you look at the ceiling. It becomes a word you hear in the same way that people who associate sound with color might hear a ﬂ at sky-blue. The open sky through which forgotten satellites travel. Forever.
So when I remember the ceiling I try to invest it with meaning somehow. I try to connect its cracks and bubbles to palpable things out there in the world, to things I might have run across later. I treat the imperfections like tea leaves. I remember it as vividly as I can, and I look for shapes in things too small to have any visible shape, and I see centaurs or cavemen or trowels or piles of bricks, and I try to draw lines between the shapes and the slow sweet life I built for myself when I ﬁnally got out and learned I wasn't, thank God, welcome at home anymore. But eventually I locate what I'd known I'd ﬁnd up there all along, what I'd been seeing already in brief seconds of lucidity arising from the murk of those nights become days and those days of no light. I see my own face. I see it as it was, preserved in stray signals too late to read right.
I'm pretty sure that's the lesson there was to learn in the hospital: the main one. And I'm pretty sure my play was the right one to make. Because the unnamed every-player who lies in the weeds at the moment of Trace Italian's opening move — that's me. It's me. Motionless, ready for something, awake and aware. When the player gets up from the weeds, as he or she always does, because the ﬁrst move is rigged and all players arrive persuaded that they must act, everything changes: He enters a world where danger's everywhere. He has a goal now, something to do with his life. His map is marked; he's headed somewhere as he rides down the desolate plain.
But this is the point where we split, the player and I. He heads for the road to seek shelter or something to eat. But I remain in the stasis of the opening scene, bits of gravel sticking to my face, cold night coming on. I am strong enough to endure it. I am strong enough to remain in its arms forever. I won't get up; I have seen the interior once. I'm not going back.
One thing I've learned is it's better sometimes, in the weeds, to resist the temptation to stand up and follow the compass.
* * *
Years later when they made me look at pictures of Lance and Carrie I remembered Marco, the empty, incoherent prophecy I'd heard amid the chaos. For a second, as I ﬂipped through the evidence, my long-forgotten hallucination became real, and I wondered how he'd managed to remain hidden for so long. What if I'd tried to talk to the doctors about him; why hadn't my mind offered him up as a way to get them off my back? I'd had plenty of encouragement. "Who made you do this, Sean?" my father asked at my bedside, my hand in his. I thought then how nice it would have been to have a good answer ready to give to him, a little gift from son to father, something he could take to his friends by way of explanation. To blame Marco. To lay it at his feet.
"Have you seen these people before?" the attorney asked me in the conference room, running through the planned stations of his performance, giving Carrie's parents their money's worth. He fanned several photographs across the table in front of me and waited for my reply. But they were impossible to understand, all of them and each of them; they belonged to a context that couldn't be referenced outside of itself, incredibly important in one way and completely meaningless in another. They were artists' renditions of somebody's dream. What could I say? Sure I have, a long time ago. You wouldn't understand.
Excerpted from WOLF IN WHITE VAN by John Darnielle, to be published in September 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2014 by John Darnielle. All rights reserved.
You can also listen to an excerpt from the audiobook here: