Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Where the River Runs Black
Happening upon Sarah Langan’s debut novel, The Keeper, at my corner grocery store has turned out to be a happy accident I can only compare to my “discovery” of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot at a bus stop when I was 12 years old. And I feel doubly blessed right now to have read The Keeper on the heels of Bentley Little’s The Burning, two horror stories that also happen to be that most exquisite and rare find in the genre—distinctly American ghost stories.
Key to this is that this book begins with a quote from Bruce Springsteen’s “Independence Day” and manages to live up to that song’s haunted naturalism. The characters in this novel are real people living in the real America at the dawn of the 21st Century. Like so many Americans, these are characters who were born just a few decades ago into a society that promised, expected and planned for only the continued economic expansion that defined the American identity up to that point. And now those manufacturing jobs that served as the vehicle for that expansion have been automated away and become globally outsourced--leaving people who have given their lives to the company confused and betrayed and haunted by what never will be. In this case, Langan focuses on the small town of Bedford, Maine, and a paper mill, but whether we’re from my ex-oil town in Oklahoma or Whirlpool’s lame duck home in Benton Harbor, Michigan, we know the scenario all too well, and that makes this setting universal.
Even more important for satisfying fiction, particularly something as subjective as a ghost story, the focus on strong characters underscores the link between such political betrayals and our most personal secrets. Rich, vivid characters abound in this novel—each with their own heroic qualities and each with dreadful failures that they can’t ever quite shake. All of them are haunted by the Marley family, particularly Susan Marley, a beautiful, preternaturally gifted girl who tries to save her family from itself but winds up all but destroying it and taking the town along for good measure.
Though Langan shows herself to be a writer with an unflinching ability to savage her characters and fling her readers right along with them into the abyss, she has the absolutely necessary counterweight that makes King and only a handful of other writers, never mind writers of horror, so special. She knows people, and she knows them too well to sell false hope or, an even easier trap in our age, to fall into an easy cynicism. Where this book ultimately goes, no reader is likely to expect, but it’s a conclusion that comes from a knowing vision and trust in the integrity of her characters.
Ultimately, what I think I like best about great horror stories and ghost stories in particular is the way they counter our daily inoculations against reflection. The best ghost stories are, almost without exception, rooted in a reflective quiet. That’s that psychic space necessary for those things that have their reasons for not staying buried to come out and play, and Langan delivers a sprawling universe of such spaces. Even during some of the most apocalyptic horrors that threaten to run the book right off the rails in its final third, the prose has a Bradbury-like whisper to it that serves to keep the reader close.
In another song from the same album as “Independence Day,” Springsteen asks, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” The Keeper gives us a good look at the maw of that “something worse.” It has to. Some things will never rest until they are dealt with head on.
Of course none of this would matter if Langan didn’t do it so well she’s only left me wanting more.
Now if I could just get over the genius of such a title for a debut—not only accurately describing the book but the woman who wrote it.