His Own Devices by Douglas Wynne
Promethean (March 4, 2021)
246 pages; $4.99 Kindle
Reviewed by Chris Hallock
Generations before cyberspace was a practical application, the pioneers of weird fiction toiled in artificial worlds beset by shadowy cabals and god-like monstrosities. Imagine the possibilities open to Clark Ashton Smith or Algernon Blackwood had the tendrils of the internet penetrated early twentieth century life, offering another vast dimension for them to explore in their eldritch tales.
Douglas Wynne has taken up the mantle with His Own Devices, a techno-horror endeavor that is kindred to a fruitful early era of bizarre lore, catapulting it into the twenty-first century by plunging the reader into the depths of contemporary online gaming culture. Wynne’s sixth novel fuses invasive technology with the arcane, peeling back pixelated layers to reveal frightening powers controlling us from a labyrinthine virtual world.
The story concerns Jessica, a military mom whose husband Matt is deployed to Afghanistan, left alone to care for their tech-addicted ten year old son Gavin. Gavin spends most of his time engaged in online gaming and obsessing over a YouTube personality called Rainbow Dave, whose hit show Scream Time has over a million devoted followers. Gavin and Rainbow Dave experience a strange anomaly in the game Minecraft called “the Mote,” which triggers bizarre behavior in certain impressionable users. When Rainbow Dave arranges a huge event for his legion of subscribers, Jessica and Gavin become entangled in a conspiracy involving a mysterious organization called the Black Flock, rumored to be a chaos-worshipping cult with occult proclivities, which could spell doom for multitudes of innocents in the real world.
Wynne’s ambitious premise allows him to probe deeply into a myriad of troubling dynamics at work within the depths of the internet, chiefly the corruptibility of its users through cyber bullying, predatory grooming, and stealth recruitment into extremist groups. Wynne aims these threats at his vulnerable characters, examining the mind-controlling tactics used to manipulate susceptible users whose mental health already suffers from traumatic stresses of the tactile world. The author’s taut story construction and expert pacing, grounded by sympathetic characters, keeps the thematic components from spinning out of control, and with Jessica’s fragmenting relationship with her troubled son as the foundation, we’re given keen insight into the enormous vigilance required of today’s parent. While the story does immerse the reader in the intricacies of internet culture, Wynne keeps these details from overwhelming less tech-savvy readers invested in the lives of his multi-dimensional characters.
Given our recent political turmoil, His Own Devices is undoubtedly a timely read, harnessing the tumultuous energy of today, and commenting on the increasing number of dangerous factions organizing and mobilizing through our devices. Wynne’s passages evoke genuine chills and paranoia drawn from occult and technological menaces alike, situated in a panic-inducing space where the two worlds meet. Most importantly, the story succeeds as a cautionary work that avoids preachy diatribes, is fueled by emotion, and reminds us that among the anonymous avatars, faceless gamer handles, and social aggregates churning within the matrix, there’s a panorama of human fragility yearning for connection.