172 Hours on the Moon, by Johan Harstad
When I was younger I was a huge fan of horror stories, but there was no such thing as a ‘young adult’ horror novel. Going from The Famous Five to Stephen King’s The Shining was a bit of a leap, and my attempts to read HP Lovecraft stopped at the word ‘cyclopean’. Teenage fans of fear may well be delighted then by Johan Harstad’s 172 Hours on the Moon, a gripping scifi horror about a trip to the moon that goes disastrously wrong. Although the premise of sending three teenagers into space is unconvincing, the tension generated by mission’s collapse is guaranteed to keep the reader eagerly turning pages till the conclusion.
Harstad uses a brief prologue to set the scene. Unnamed NASA officials discuss plans to activate a long-abandoned secret moon base. Their discussion hints at a past disaster. Eager for funding, they come up with a plan to generate global interest – they will hold a lottery to send three teenagers to the moon for one week. This Willy Wonka-gimmick could probably have been better handled. The pros and cons are not debated, when the cons (the teenagers dying in space) are obvious. Nevertheless, once the reader accepts the premise the rest of the novel flows easily.
The three teenagers are Mia (Norway), Midori (Japan), and Antoine (France). The first part of the novel shows the reasons why they entered the lottery, either to promote their fledgling rock band or escape a stifling future or failed love affair. Curiously, none of them thinks too much about going into space, which takes teenage self-absorption to new levels. Nevertheless, the characters are attractive in their own ways, with Mia taking centre stage as the tough, spiky heroine. Occasionally throughout the first section Harstad drops hints of some supernatural evil waiting for them, preparing the reader for the gripping second section on the moon base.
Harstad’s writing, like most young adult novels, is clear and uncomplicated. This makes it difficult for him to really evoke the experience of being in an alien environment like the moon but is an asset when the plot accelerates as the reader just wants to follow the action. Mysterious supernatural forces begin to plague the base. Harstad refrains from explaining everything, which creates some significant plot holes but also adds to the fear of the unknown. The three teenagers realise the mission has gone wrong and they may not make it back to Earth. Unlike in other young adult novels, the teenagers do not suddenly morph into superheroes. Having stretched the bounds of probability with the premise, Harstad keeps his characters acting in believable ways, which adds to the tension. Gradually, you begin to wonder if any of them will make it back and the novel keeps you guessing until the very end.
The book is attractively designed with black-and-white images from the story (lottery advertisements, still shots of the moon, maps of the base, etc.) interspersed with the text. The publishers describe it as a cross between the films Alien and Moon, which is largely accurate as it combines frightening thrills with a sense of distance and alienation. Adult readers may find its writing too spare and its characterisation rather flat, but I wish this book had existed when I was a teenager.