Don’t scratch

Read the review of Infected, the first in the series.

Contagious is not a typical sci-fi novel. It’s far too creepy, but in the best possible you’re-not-going-to-sleep-tonight way. Take the most malevolent first contact with aliens imaginable, add a little impending doom, a bit of gross-out, some medical mystery, pulp fiction and full-blown black-ops thriller, and you have Contagious.

It goes down smooth, but doesn’t settle well. And that’s a good thing.

Scott Sigler, a San Francisco-based sci-fi and horror novelist, would be noteworthy if all he had accomplished was his unique marketing technique. He’s built a legion of fans who hang out on his Web site, waiting for one of his free audio books’ next installments.

But Sigler became a name-brand author the old-fashioned way: gripping stories in a series. It worked for Charles Dickens, after all, and if Sigler’s fans had to, they’d no doubt loiter on the docks waiting for schooners to make port bearing the latest novel.

Fortunately, Sigler does podcasts.

Contagious is, technically, a sequel to Infected, which introduced the characters and the premise. It also kept me awake at night, excessively concerned that the itchy spot on my shin might not just be Sacramento’s typical dry-skin thing. In Sigler’s world, the urge to scratch is a precursor to an insanity- and pain-filled death.

As is quickly explained in Contagious (and drawn out in creepy detail in Infected), not all skin outbreaks are merely ugly reasons to see a dermatologist. Some of them are the cellulose-based minions of a race from a planet far, far away. After all, if you wanted to attack Earth undetected, what better way than to send seedlinglike, wind-born critters that would colonize and then—ugh!—hatch from human hosts before heading off to build an intergalactic gate from which alien stormtroopers could conquer the planet.

If Alien gave you nightmares, this book is not for you.

The unlikely heroes—a disgruntled special government operative named Dew Phillips and an only marginally sane survivor of the infection, former football star “Scary” Perry Dawsey—managed to beat back a wave of infections and prevent the gate from opening once. But since their initial strike was thwarted by these quick-reacting, determined and downright mean Earthlings, the aliens have mutated.

Now, as the title suggests, they’re transmittable.

And the rest is rip-snorting, gun-blasting, autopsy-performing action, complete with explosions and forensic science. If it’s pop culture, Contagious has it: a brilliant but nerdy forensic pathologist with a high-tech mobile lab in a semi-trailer; an almost-as-evil-as-the-aliens heartless bureaucrat; a populist but pragmatic new president who doesn’t like what he has to do; and, yes, an adorable but evil alien host with a Cindy Brady lisp.

You could easily write a feature story on how Sigler’s turned “viral marketing” into something that is as flesh-rippling as an actual disease. But his ability to draw and retain readers also attracted the attention of a publishing company. Perhaps because Sigler’s style is episodic, he’s an expert at building tension, providing just enough release to keep readers turning the pages.

Drink up. But don’t be surprised if you have trouble sleeping.