Filler content with toxicology

A review of Sarah Langan’s second novel that originally appeared in Black Static #3:-

OUTBREAK: A SARAH LANGAN FEATURETTE

Sarah Langan’s 2006 debut novel The Keeper was nominated for a Stoker Award and had the likes of Peter Straub and Jack Ketchum applauding the rise of a new star in the horror firmament. Set in the rundown Maine town of Bedford, it told the story of Susan Marley, a young woman whose death is the catalyst for a chain of supernatural events that culminate in the most spectacular and comprehensive trashing of a town since Stephen King last kicked the crap out of Castle Rock.

Follow-up novel Virus (Headline paperback, 436pp, £6.99), published in the States with the title The Missing, takes the story a few miles up the road to Bedford’s affluent neighbour Corpus Christi, though even here there are signs that the economic complacency of the past is no longer justified. On a school trip to the environs of Bedford, a ghost town in the wake of The Keeper’s climax and where rumours persist of unknown toxins in the air and ground, a young boy goes missing. An embryonic psychopath, James Walker is a wilful child whose only intention is to get his teacher in trouble, but alone in the woods he digs up some long buried bones and feels compelled to gnaw on them, becoming infected with an ancient virus, one that had lain dormant for centuries until sulphur from a fire at Bedford’s paper mill reactivated it. During the night James returns to Corpus Christi and infects others with his bite.

While, unlike The Keeper, Langan’s second novel presents the reader with a material threat, one derived from science and toxicology, there is more than a suggestion of the supernatural about the form this virus takes. The victims take on some of the characteristics of classic horror archetypes – they are transformed into sleeker, more efficient predator forms reminiscent of werewolves, eat flesh like zombies and can only come out at night like vampires – and there is the hint, with references to previous outbreaks bringing down the Mayan and other civilisations, that this virus is the truth at back of all the tales of night monsters. The virus also appears to have intelligence of a kind, creating a gestalt among its victims, a hive mind of sorts so that they can act in concert.

With the infection of schoolteacher Lois Larkin the threat escalates. She is an ideal host for the virus’ controlling intelligence, able to formulate the plans and strategies that will ensure this time it does not simply glut itself on human flesh and then subside for lack of lebensraum. Larkin offers a vision of virus victims ruling the States and keeping the human population as cattle. And so the battle is on in deadly earnest, as Corpus Christi tears itself apart and the authorities fight to contain the menace within its borders.

So far, so good, and as a chronicler of small town America in peril, like King before her, Langan seldom puts a foot wrong. She brings her setting to vivid life, so that there is the sense for the reader of many stories interweaving, a vast cast of characters shuffling about in the ruins of the American dream, and pretending that everything is going to be all right, even as it falls down around their ears. Her novel has all the pace, excitement, bravura excesses and gore (though never gratuitous) of the better zombie movies, and as pure adventure in a horror mode it works superbly well, giving us the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and a growing feeling of hopelessness as options are exhausted and loved ones die.

But of course there is more to it than that. The use of a virus as the central conceit here ties the story in to one of the great bogeymen of our modern world, provides a touchstone for the imagination in all the health scares and warnings that flood out of our television sets on an almost daily basis. Yes, it is highly unlikely that a virus like this would ever occur, but in the stringent measures taken against its spread – the medical facilities that are so easily overwhelmed, the shoot to kill border guards, the men in hazmat suits, the collapsing infrastructure – we recognise all our worst fears of what the future may hold. This adds an extra frisson and makes it doubly hard to sanitise what Langan has to tell us, to put the book aside at the end of the day and go to sleep with the conviction that it was just a story, an entertainment, and not something that could ever actually happen.

Langan has many strengths as a writer: assured plotting, an elegant prose style, the ability to depict events on a grand scale, an eye for telling details and, for want of a better term, an appetite for destruction, a willingness to tear down what she has so painstakingly constructed. However it is the characterisation, the flair with which she creates compelling and contradictory individuals with whom we can identify, that makes her work stand out.

James Walker is a case in point. His importance to the plot is minimal. He is there simply to get the virus out of the ground and into the body politic, and a lesser writer would have left him as only a cipher, a plot convenience, but Langan invests time in giving the boy a back story. She tells us about his history of abusing pet rabbits, the ambivalent feelings he has, his isolation within the family unit, and by doing this she pulls off the difficult task of creating a child psychopath, chilling and disturbing for the reader, and thoroughly credible. Similarly with teacher Lois Larkin, Langan adds depth to the story by revealing her accident strewn past, the financial and romantic failures that have stripped this young woman with so much to live for of hope, showing how an ordinary, good person can be driven so far off course that she is willing to embrace an entity inimical to human life, to become the very means through which its goals are achieved. Larkin throws in her lot with the virus not because she is an evil person, but because she is weak and needs the validation its power can provide, the attendant sense of importance and inclusion.

Central to the narrative are the Wintrobs, husband Fenstad, wife Meg and their daughter Madeline. Psychiatrist Fenstad is daunted by his job and angry at his wife’s past infidelity. Librarian Meg feels that her husband is a cold fish and wishes he would be more demonstrative. Teenager Maddie is an idealist, aware of social and environmental issues, wanting to make a difference, and believing that her parents are intolerant of her Hispanic boyfriend. It’s the textbook dysfunctional family given a face and a name, and while outside events act as a catalyst for the inevitable meltdown you get the sense that what happens, with people who so obviously care about each other and yet seem hell bent on their own destruction, was always on the cards, albeit not quite so dramatically. Langan is adept at portraying the swings and roundabouts of emotion within the family unit, the ways we use guilt and sex against each other, how people can get haunted by their pasts, and she is cannily ambivalent about how much of this, if any, is down to the virus and what is hardwired into the characters’ identities.

The Wintrobs are the solid bedrock on which the rest is built, all the horrors and hallucinations of Corpus Christi’s unravelling. They are the still beating heart of an achingly good novel, one that demands to be read and provides proof that Langan is more than capable of living up to, and perhaps even surpassing, the expectations raised by The Keeper.

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