dark days

During my forced incarceration, gaoled by the snot demons, I turned to horror fiction to cheer myself up.

That’s how I roll (and toss in bed).

I have to give the devils of mucus my thanks, because the illness they inflicted upon me allowed me to tackle a couple of tomes, including Sarah Langan‘s debut novel, The Keeper.

It’s no wonder the book has been garnering fab reviews from genre and literary presses alike. It’s a well-crafted story with a cast of believable characters caught in an apocalyptic dilemma.

The story revolves around the town of Bedford in Maine (note: never visit Maine, it’s Langan and King country), which is dissolving under economic change, and its annual week-long monsoon. Within the town lives Susan Marley, a beautiful lunatic, seer, willing mute, prostitute, and town scapegoat. As the town sinks into a social and fiscal morass, Susan begins to stalk the townsfolks’ nightmares as a prelude to a night of horror that the survivors will never forget.

What’s striking about this novel is the confidence with which the story is told, and its narrative finesse. Langan juggles a cast of characters, slipping with ease between their points of views, and steers a course of increasing menace with a deft hand. The tone, and the town, is established quickly, along with the haunting presence of Susan – the girl-waif-demon, who lurks like the town’s guilty conscience throughout the novel. Although there are several interesting characters, it is Susan’s sister, Liz, who emerges as the central protagonist: overshadowed and dogged by her sister’s reputation in the small town, on the cusp of graduating High School, and negotiating her first romantic relationship.

I liked that Langan does not play favourites with her characters: all of them – the drunks, the rapists, the students, the cops, the housewives – are given dimensionality. There are no simple reasons for their behaviours. They are complex: weak and strong, likeable and unlikeable.

On a macro level the story examines the secrets that fester under the foundations of townships, buildings, and communities, and this theme is mirrored on the micro level by the silences within families – the unspeakable truths that no one wishes to utter. The novel suggests that the environment affects the psyche of its inhabitants, and when one is sensitive to that connection, it is a terrible burden to carry.

As the novel moved towards its climax I had the sensation of wanting to look away: that the deceptions within the family, within the town, were too unpleasant to witness. Anyone who has lived in a small community (be it a village, or a close neighbourhood in a city) knows the people and situations depicted in Langan’s novel, and how the ties that support us can also garrotte us.

The ending pleased me because Langan made a clever change in direction in the last fifty pages of the book, and filled in what had only been hinted before; we’ve been prepared for the brutality that is revealed. It’s like the lancing of a wound. Then, we are bolstered for the denouement.

It’s a haunting read, and fine first novel. I look forward to reading Langan’s future work with terrible pleasure.