Imagine combining key elements from Pitch Black and Aliens. Set the action in the scorching Sonoran desert between Mexico and the US. Populate your cast with a couple of dozen disposable characters who fall prey to dehydration, in-fighting, snakebite, heatstroke… and far worse, as Something Awful picks them off, leaving only blood spatter and tattered clothing behind them.
Centre the story on a resourceful heroine, a young woman trying to escape the oppression, corruption and personal horrors of her homeland for a new life north of the border. Add the very real possibility that this group of illegals has been scalped by unscrupulous traffickers, that their guide knows less than they do, and that they’ve been abandoned to wander under the relentless sun until their meagre supplies and determination crumble into the desert dust. That’s Sunblind, pretty much.
It’s also more than just a B-movie where people disappear in every scene and carrion birds circle ever lower. There’s a substantial sub-plot here which highlights the plight of the optimistic immigrants, heading north full of hope, thousands of them each year who are never heard of again. People with families and friends who simply buy a truck ride into the desert, and then… disappear. Have they all died of thirst and madness in the heat? Been betrayed by traffickers? Exterminated by the cartels who use the same routes for drug-running? Author McBride suggests a more sinister, fantastic possibility, that of an extremely well adapted beast, watching from the total blackness of the desert night which pushes the plot in the direction of speculative fantasy, but you can’t help feeling that in part Sunblind is intended to highlight the very real plight of actual refugees.
It’s a carefully crafted novel, where part of the story is told in flashbacks which alternate with the findings of the immigration officers who discover the heroine at the very brink of death, a warning grimly carved into her own flesh. The writing doesn’t flinch from exploring the awful aspects of death by dehydration, the desperation as the body slowly ceases to function under the appalling heat and against gruelling conditions. Some of the descriptive passages spare no details whatsoever. Be prepared to confront the consequences of people drinking bad water and suffering horribly, or eating prickly pears and enduring the spines embedded in lips and gums; of broken bones, infected sores and an almost inevitable loss of humanity. It’s both grim and compelling; a story of persistence pushed to its limits.
However, I struggled to make a meaningful connection with any of the key characters. Perhaps it was the structure of the story-telling, or perhaps it was that – as with many horror movies – most of the people felt entirely disposable. I wasn’t especially invested in any of them. Similarly, the big reveal about the Awful Animal felt terribly familiar after a lifetime of watching monster movies – I grew rather tired with being shown glimpses of things in the dark, using flickering illumination from a shaky zippo lighter. It’s all delivered with style and deliberate precision but I found the repetition and scrabbling in blackness rather more tiresome than tense. In the end, I didn’t really care who lived or died.
For me, this could’ve been a compelling story without the creatures of the night, concentrating instead on the grim struggle for survival in the desert sun. But I guess that Beowulf without Grendel is only half a story.