Saturday, November 11, 2006
Book: Dreaming my life away.
The blurbs on book jackets are almost universally a load of crap. Like some currency with an exchange rate that sucks like a black hole, these plugs are exchanged between authors, agents, and publishers as the smallest denomination of favor, but the value for those wishing to translate them into something useable outside that small circle is virtually nil. Funny thing about this is that I know all this (and now you do too, if you didn't before) and, yet, I can still be dragged into purchasing a book on the basis of blurbs. Though I know on some objective level this is somewhat like thinking you're making out in a deal where you knowingly exchange a fiver for a twenty so poorly counterfeited that it will fool no one, I can't help but be intrigued when the right combo of authors appears on a book, singing the books praises in the generic and shopworn terms otherwise talented wordsmiths dust off for these things. And that's what usually gets me: not what the blurbing authors say, but the combo of authors who have thrown in their semi-compulsorily two cents. Did the publisher go for the shock and awe approach, assembling a sort of Justice League of genre all-stars to overwhelm the consumer? Sometimes authors find a single, famous voice to bestow its blessing on the book. This gives the enterprise an air of ceremony: the legend is passing on the torch. My favorite strategy, or at least the one that makes me actually pay attention and money, involves finding an unusual mix of folks. This suggests that work is complex, appeals to multiple groups, has a little something for everybody.
This is the strategy behind the blurbs on Sarah Langan's debut horror novel The Keeper. The front cover of the mass market paperback from Harper Torch ($6.99) sports a blurb from genre-stalwart Peter Straub, letting horror novel regulars know the new girl's bona fides check out. Meanwhile, on the back, we get indie publishing icon and McSweeney art crowd approved Kelly Link, letting the hipper-than-thou crowd know that it will be okay to be seen with this book even though it isn't a $16 trade paper back and tends to be (gulp) earnest in its efforts to entertain and scare.
In this case, I'm glad I was a sucker. Langan's debut delivers the goods.
The Keeper centers on the town of Bedford, Maine. Bedford has seen better days. The paper mills that once provided the town with a steady source of revenue have shut down. People are out of work. The town is decaying under the weight of this economic draught. To make matters worse, the abandoned mills are toxic disasters, poisoning the forests surrounding Bedford. Facing the slow disintegration of their homes, the residents of Bedford are all feeling the strain of living in a town with no future. The kids dream of escape or simply don't think about the future at all. The adults drink, feud, and pretend their world isn't dying. The misery seems to even taint the weather: Bedford's seasonal rains, which settle in like a Biblical judgment, last for weeks.
To make things worse, the town is host to a frightening and spectral girl whom many believe is a witch. The mute Susan Marley, haunted and insane, stalks through the streets of the town. She's watching and waiting. The town's residents avoid her during the day (exceptin' those men who use the disturbed Susan as an easy lay) only to find that, at night, she finds them in their dreams. These dreams get worse as the flooding rains come and seal the town off from the outside world. The town's slumber becomes increasingly disturbed by nightmarish and apocalyptic visions that warn of a doom coming to Bedford, something even the strongest of them will be powerless to stop. And, when Susan dies in a bizarre accident, the horrible meaning of these dreams becomes clear.
Langan's debut is a genuinely involving portrait of decaying small town America that, even when the supernatural spookshow begins, never loses it emotional realism: depicting with psychological astuteness the fear, guilt, and horror of a way of life in decline. The broad canvas of Langan's sprawling book allows her to sketch vivid portraits of Bedford's residents. We see Susan's mother and sister, paralyzed by the past they share with their otherworldly family member. The inner lives of teens, single mothers, drunks, cops, eccentrics, and everyday working folks are all sketched with careful attention. And the horrors, when they begin to pile on in earnest, come with the dreamlike concreteness of a particularly grim surrealist canvass.
Though her New England setting is well-trodden ground, Langan's novel looks further back than fellow Northeastern horror novelists Lovecraft and King. Instead, Langan taps a deeper source of American horror. She evokes the ancient specters of blood-guilt, the fear of being accursed in a way so primal that your own actions are irrelevant. This is mainstream horror as Nathaniel Hawthorne would have delivered it, though Langan takes that author's witch-haunted New England and injects into its landscape a distinctly modern horror aesthetics.
Langan's fine eye for characterizations sometimes gets the better of her, leading to initial chapters that sometimes seem directionless, fussy, or overly detailed – including at least one incident involving a major scare that is never sufficiently explained in anything that follows. However, when it is time to kick the story into high-gear, Langan's prose becomes focused, taut, precise, and vicious, showing that the earlier meandering was an aesthetic mistake, and not the product of any limitation on the writer's part.
Langan's web site informs me that her next novel with take place in the same Bedford setting as The Keeper. I, for one, am looking forward to revisiting those haunted, poisoned forests.
For a taste of Langan's prose, you can check out the handful of short stories posted on her site.