Review: The Missing by Sarah Langan

The Missing

Sarah Langan

Harper, 2007

This is Langan’s second novel, and somehwhat sequel to The Keeper (which I haven’t read) but The Missing seems to stand on its own and I never felt like I was missing something.  The Bram Stoker winning Missing could ostensibly be called a zombie novel, or even a disaster novel, but the quality of the prose shines and it’s easy to see why it won.  The main premise of the books is about a malicious, sentient contagion that spreads throughout a sleepy New England town (poor New England always seems the victim of horror novels).  The plot may sound familiar but through the power of her writing and willingness to stay steadfast when describing horrific scenes Langan has crafted an interesting and unique story all her own.

The novel pulls you in from the opening lines of the Prologue, easily conjuring an air of suspense with the first sentence alone, “In winter the dark creeps up on you.”  But that suspense, so masterfully written that prologue, is dispelled (to a degree at least) when the novel switches into the lengthy flashback that dominates the majority of the novel.  That itself wouldn’t be a problem but the intimate, dark and lonely first person narrative of the prologue is exchanged for the third person omniscient starting with the first chapter.  While the tone of the narrative changes to a degree, depending on the character whose head we are in, none of the third person narrative ever really achieves that same level of dark desperation as either the prologue or the epilogue.

At the same time the more frank, straight forward narrative style of the bulk of the novel seems to be designed to throw the more horrific aspects of the novel into the limelight.  It forces the reader to view them with no visible out, to witness but not to question.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the early glimpse inside the head of James Walker as he remembers how he killed a bunny:

Gimpy didn’t screech.  He didn’t shout for James to stop….Gimpy’s eyes got all bug like they were going to pop out, which was kind of funny.  James had wanted to let go, but instead held on tighter.  Squeezed harder.  The reaction was all wrong, even though he’d wanted it to be right.  He couldn’t help it! Sometimes he forgot the right thing.

This cringe worthy scene goes on and is endemic of Langan’s stark portrayal of horror, both human born and otherwise.  Which, while managing to engender a sense of disgust and horror, at the same time reveals each character in the novel in their entirety; washing away any sense of mystery.  In turn this makes the human drama of the novel feel too contrived and, as the horrific infection spreads the human responses, both to the disease itself and to each other, feel telegraphed.

Regardless of this I was still entertained by the majority of the novel.  I particularly enjoyed Fenstad’s reaction to the disease towards the final third of the novel.  I don’t want to ruin it for future readers but I will say that it is completely in character; his reaction is really the most rational response to the events he witnesses.  Even amidst the supernatural horror of the novel Langan goes out of her way to highlight the potential monstrosity of human action.  Fenstad, mentioned above, is a good example but even better, and even more heart wrenching is a short chapter (almost like an interlude) about a young high school freshman girl who, after experiencing a bit of high school trauma, is walking along a road having run off.  Cold and shivering she sees her (drunken) father’s car approaching:

But it was cold out and the sun had set.  She wasn’t wearing a coat.  Just a flimsy dress.  There were no street lamps along this road.  Best to look on the bright side.  At least she had a ride.  She slumped her shoulders like somebody who’s so accustomed to defeat that being sad about it is a formality, and headed for the passenger-side door….She shivered as she walked.  The shit-eating grin spread across her father’s boozy red face.  He gunned the accelerator.  The door handle tore loose from her fingers, and before she knew what was happening, he was driving away.

Heartbreaking, but has the interesting effect of making one uncertain if her final fate is more horrific or less horrific than what she has already experienced.  Great stuff.

The clarity of Langan’s fiction makes the book easy to read while, on the other hand makes the book hard to read at the same time.  Despite my several misgivings about the change in tone from the prologue to the bulk of the novel the crystal clear narrative has almost the same effect as the Ludovico technique allowing the reader no corner to turn to for solace.  In the end I’d recommend this to horror fans looking for a good macabre read featuring a strong, direct narrative with occasionally poetic leanings.

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