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A Better World


A Better World

*Please note: This review may contain what could be considered spoilers. Be sure to keep that in mind as you're reading the review.

Sarah Langan returns to her horror roots with a cautionary tale set in the near future that is truly spine-tingling. A BETTER WORLD introduces a broken, dystopian world not unlike ours where a new community has risen with their own solutions for staving off extinction in the face of global and geological cataclysm.

If you have ever read anything about so-called perfect, idyllic societies or watched “The Walking Dead,” then you have experienced the prospect of a too-good-to-be-true situation. The problem is that it almost always is. That is the same horror that the Farmer-Bowens family must experience here, as they relocate from deadly New York to Plymouth Valley. This walled-off community is run by BetterWorld, a company that makes a polymer called Omnium. Its main ingredient is recycled plastic, and it’s used for such things as rope, clothing, bags and machine parts.

"Sarah Langan returns to her horror roots with a cautionary tale set in the near future that is truly spine-tingling.... It is quite a ride, with Langan maintaining a tenuous finger on the pulse of a possible world to come that becomes the biggest horror story of all."

The novel splices in various marketing and promotional materials from Plymouth Valley. The first one is pure propaganda trying to entice the like-minded with quotes like “named the most beautiful place to live in North America three years in a row” and “self-sustaining farm.” The community of approximately 4,500 also follow their own belief system, Hollow, which acts as a substitute religion. Additionally, they have created their own protein in the form of caladrius, which are monstrous hybrid chickens with sharp teeth.

Russell, a science advisor; his wife, Linda, a part-time pediatrician; and 15-year-old twins Josie and Hip are being interviewed for consideration to be invited into Plymouth Valley. They obviously want Russell the most because of what he can do scientifically with Omnium, but the entire family must be on their best behavior because they work on an ultra-creepy merit system where those who do not earn their rank and stay in line are bounced out. Or worse. It is not much of a choice when the opportunity is presented to them, as the rest of the world is suffering through a great unwinding where annihilation seems to wait around every corner.

Josie and Hip begin to sniff out the truth about Plymouth Valley first, followed shortly thereafter by Linda. One real red flag are the Pagan-like rituals that the community follows with fervor. They have an offering schedule, broken up into four seasons, that replaces any traditional religious observance. They also have two feasts that include violence. Samhain, the original name for Halloween, features a deadly maze. The 5K run on Thanksgiving, which every resident from ages 10 to 90 must participate in, takes the slowest runner and uses that person for future culling. This would occur at their biggest event: the three-day Winter Festival, where the whole town lives together in the bunker-like tunnels that run beneath the community.

Linda is very curious about the Winter Festival, but she can’t get a straight answer from anyone about what takes place. All she knows is that some sort of sacrifice needs to be made for the greater good. She just assumes that it’s a theoretical sacrifice, like an ugly caladrius. Once they crown their annual Beltane King --- a sadistic role that leads to the punishment parts of the rituals previously mentioned --- Linda knows that she and her family are in big trouble. She just can’t get past the fact that Russell has drunk the Kool-Aid and doesn’t see a problem with any of this.

Langan includes various articles from journals written in the near and far future, which speak about Plymouth Valley in the past tense and the tragedy that occurred there. It is obvious that we are going to live through those events along with the Farmer-Bowens. Every relationship that Linda attempts to make goes terribly wrong, and she is soon on the outs with the elders of the community. Josie is having an equally hard time and is caught vandalizing a sign during the Samhain festivities. Hip is trying to integrate and even has a new girlfriend, but he reluctantly admits that it is all in an attempt to help out his mother with the powers that be.

As the Winter Festival approaches, the underlying dread that Langan has created begins to bubble and boil out of control as it becomes obvious that there will not be a happy ending for the Farmer-Bowens. It is quite a ride, with Langan maintaining a tenuous finger on the pulse of a possible world to come that becomes the biggest horror story of all.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on April 13, 2024

A Better World
by Sarah Langan