Et tu, Langan? A zombie story? Is that what we've come to?
Regular readers might remember my gushing review of The Keeper, the debut novel of Sarah Langan. That novel told the tale of the ghost of Susan Marley and the grim fate of Bedford, the blue-collar Maine village that ends up on the business end of her spectral wrath. Langan's ability to intertwine working class desperation with lyrical Gothicism made that first novel one of AANTS' best reads last year.
For her second book, a sequel of sorts to The Keeper, Langan returns to the darkened woods of Maine. This time, the story takes place in Corpus Christi, the affluent hamlet neighboring the now mostly abandoned Bedford. While Bedford's fortunes declined with the retreat of industry, Corpus Christi's hospital became one of the nation's foremost cancer research centers. The influx of grant money and affluent doctors kept Corpus Christi yuppie while Bedford rotted. Before the action begins proper, we learn that the events of The Keeper have turned Bedford into a ghost town. Nobody outside Bedford knows about the sinister events surrounding the death and unlife of Susan Marley, but the lingering environmental fallout of the chemical fire that closed The Keeper is enough to keep most folks away.
Into the ghost town goes a class of school children on a fieldtrip. Seriously. The school approved a field trip into what would rank as America's most famous superfund site. One of the boys on the trip uncovers the remains of some of the Bedford incident's victims. He's quickly infected with a bizarre disease that slowly begins changing him and those he comes into contact with into ravenous cannibals.
It's basically your standard zombie holocaust scenario.
That's not to say that Langan phones the story in. In an unusual twist, the infected aren't utterly mindless. They can talk and communicate with one another. The disease organizes them into a hive-like system with one zombie queen at the top. They can plan and practice deception. And, strangely, they seem capable of limited telepathy. There's also intimations that the virus is an ancient intelligence that's been hunting humans for centuries. Still, despite these innovations, mostly what the infected do is roam the town of Corpus Christi looking for people-meat to chew on.
Despite the reliance on the now relentlessly over-flogged zombie story and its clichés, Langan grew more ambitious with this book. The cast of characters seems larger, but Langan manages her efficient characterizations without losing the focus of the plot or relying heavily on stock characters. Her plot rolls along at a greater clip; Langan trades in the Gothic slow burn for something more like the ever tightening downward spiral of an action/horror tale.
These developments act as much needed counterbalances to the tiredness of the central zombie concept. They also help the reader ignore the confusion that comes from the massive retcon that must be done to shoehorn the Marley ghost story into the new zombie virus framework. Marley wasn't a ghost? She was a psychic zombie? Then why didn't she act like it? Oh well. I think both books would have been better served if they'd just been treated as separate stories.
The Missing isn't a bad book. If you've already read The Keeper and want more of Langan's literate and smart horror, then this is a worthy follow up. If you haven't read The Keeper yet, that's really the place you'll want to start.