Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Keeper Indeed
She’s done it again. Sarah Langan's first novel, The Keeper, was more than a great horror debut--it set a bar that sorely seems to be missing in most contemporary fiction, much less horror fiction. Though he can't play a part in a movie without hamming it up, Stephen King's downright understated and realistic on the page. His strength as a writer stems largely from how well he seems to know people and the way his surrealism stays so firmly anchored in the world we know. Langan has this same pitch perfect ear, with a voice and vision comparable to King but distinctly valuable.

H.G. Well's famously said something like 9/10ths of fantastic writing must be rooted in a strict adherence to reality. I think that has more than a little to do with why the best horror writers manage to create realities that feel more genuine than most, ahem, respectable fiction. I know this teacher at the heart of the novel, a woman even her aesthetically disabled physician recognizes as beautiful but who only sees herself in terms of the gap between her teeth, her lisp, and her abandonment by the two most important men in her life.

And then there's the young Romeo and Juliet of the story, Maddie and Enrique. They are not romanticized as perfect kids, but they aren't ridiculed either. They are fumbling innocents from opposite sides of the tracks discovering sex one awkward step at a time. They are sweet, and they are selfish; they are real.

That's what makes the horror of this story so shattering. Figuratively and literally, Langan has mutated the monster that all but destroyed the working class town, Bedford, in her first novel and delivered it as a viral contagion on the more affluent neighboring community, Corpus Christi. And this second trip to the apocalypse is, if anything, a darker ride.

For one thing, it's scarier. The Keeper holds a dear place in my heart for the beauty of its vision. But it was more of a ghost story, with that genre's tendency to find hope in a reckoning with the past. The Missing doesn't offer hope, at least not an unqualified hope. The reader takes heart in the fact that people make it to the end of the book, and in the sometimes very small ways they hang onto their humanity against insurmountable odds.

The beauty of this book lies in the quality of the fear. Time after time, sympathetic characters have to face down all but unimaginable horrors, dealing with the predators that have come under the control of this virus. They're as sick as those folks dying off in the first two hundred pages of The Stand, but they're also dangerous--they don't talk right, they don't walk right, they don't move right, and they somehow think as one and know their victim's darkest secrets and fears. Most horror has a couple of good chills that stand out--Langan keeps them coming fast and furious without such moments losing their power.

The scariest thing of all may be just how good she is.

My earlier review of The Keeper:

Monday, January 21, 2008

Happy Birthday to You!

Martin Luther King, Man of History

By Nelson Peery

A person becomes a historical figure by bringing to a crisis the personal qualities needed for its successful resolution. What was the crisis and what were the qualities that propelled Martin Luther King Jr. to the level of a historic figure?

Following the Civil War, industry's need for cheap cotton turned the South into an agricultural reserve of the North. The totality of Southern legal and extra-legal force was brought to bear to force the freed slaves back onto the plantations to work as tenant farmers. There they lived on the level of the peasants of India. Under those conditions, no amount of struggle by the African Americans could break the iron grip of segregation which kept them in poverty and semi-slavery.

The late 1940s and the early 1950s were years marked by a critical crisis in race relations in this country. The simultaneous move of industry to the South and the mechanization of Southern agriculture were an economic revolution.

That economic revolution attacked the base of the nation's race relations and created a social revolution. Replaced by more efficient means of production, the blacks were driven into the segregated sections of towns and cities. There they formed a cohesive mass and gained a sense of strength and common purpose. Struggles against segregation began breaking out across the country.

The Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1955-56 was the most advanced, determined and united effort of this period. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was brought into the leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott to stabilize the right wing of the leadership. These leaders believed they had to conduct the boycott in a manner acceptable to the liberal whites who, up to that time, had always dominated the African American struggle for freedom.

King's potential for political growth was shown from the start. By the time of his untimely death on April 4, 1968, before his 40th birthday, King had risen to the point of endorsing the reconstruction of America on a co-operative basis. He had come out in opposition to the Vietnam war. He had spoken out strongly in defense of colonial and oppressed peoples everywhere.

King brought the necessary qualities of humility, bravery, self- sacrifice and vision to the movement. He entered the struggle when it was disunited and organizationally and politically impotent. By the time of King's death, the movement held the political balance of power in the country and was united in its vision and its purpose. Thus, King rose above his fellow leaders and became a man of history.

Nelson Peery is the author of Black Fire, Black Radical and The Future Is Up To Us.

This article originated in the PEOPLE'S TRIBUNE (Online Edition), Vol. 22 No. 3 / January 16, 1995; P.O. Box 3524, Chicago, IL 60654

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