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October 3, 2008 |

By Brian Prisco | Books | October 3, 2008 |

Pyscho is a genius horror movie. It’s got uncomfortable tension, a few good startling moments, and spooky Norman Bates. At the movie’s conclusion, you come away thinking, “Well, that was pretty creepy.” Then the next morning you get into the shower. Standing there behind the curtain, you realize, like poor Janet Leigh, just how vulnerable you really are. You can’t hear anything over the roar of the water, not even a cross-dressing, knife-wielding wacko creeping up into your bathroom. You’re completely defenseless, nekkid and wet. Ripe for the stabbing. That’s when Pyscho sticks it in and breaks it off. Your showering experience will forever contain an element of dread. Smooth move, Alfred Hitchcock.

Good horror novels also contain sleeper images; the reader thinks that the scare is contained within the paper and ink, not realizing until after the book is closed what the author wormed into her brain. Read It and try looking at a storm drain in the same way after that. In her debut novel, The Keeper, Sarah Langhan makes good use of her gift of the sleeper image. She’s skilled in imprinting the oogie-boogie in your mind to revisit you even after you think you’ve left the town of Bedford, Maine behind. The story of The Keeper is somewhat derivative. Langhan draws from Stephen King’s accursed Maine town ripe for self-destruction (Castle Rock) and Peter Straub’s apocalyptic natural event that ushers in vengeful spirits (the blizzard enveloping Milburn in Ghost Story), but her skill as a writer takes the framework she is building upon beyond its influence and into her own design. (But seriously, what is it about Maine that inspires horror writers so? What the hell is going on up there Dustin? Discuss.)

Bedford is a dying, rotting town. The nucleus, Clott Paper Mill, has finally closed after a sputtering decline, and the town’s population is quickly shrinking. The townsfolk left in Bedford are simply biding their time, waiting, and watching. Watching Susan Marley wander through town. Susan, once a bright and lovely girl, has withered into the Town Weirdo. She prowls the streets a skeletal, mute fragment of the beauty she once was. She drifts through Bedford, both its waking and dreaming mind. During the harsh spring rains, Susan finally unravels the last of her sanity and escorts Bedford’s festering darkness through the waterlogged town and behind the closed doors of those same staring townsfolk. The story follows the fates of those once closest to Susan as they attempt to survive the nightmare. Susan’s youngest sister Liz has struggled underneath the shadow of her loopy sibling and is plagued by guilt at what she perceives as her role in Susan’s descent into madness. Numbing her anguish with cheap wine, Susan’s mother has all forced her eldest daughter’s existence into nothing; when encountering Susan on the street, her mother simply turns on her heels and walks away. Paul, once the idealistic Auslander, has surrendered to his role as the town drunk with a crumbling marriage and career, yet he yearns to redeem Susan, his ex-lover, from her own filth. Unwittingly, he sets in motion the events that release Susan to fulfill her sinister fate.

Langhan handles her characters with a delicate sensibility sometimes missing from horror fiction. Even the peripheral characters are well molded within the few sentences they are allowed. Unlike King who tends to rely on the toothless, redneck Yankee yokel to populate his backdrops, Langhan surmounts stereotype. The lump-bumpy teenage relationship between Liz and her boyfriend, Bobby is handled with particular deft. She also welds the gore element with a light, poetic hand. Langhan never beats the reader over the head with excessive blood, guts, and goo. She chooses the right moment to dip the paintbrush into the bodily fluids and caress the canvas with viscera. (Funny how each writer has their signature severe reaction in characters. Some use vomit, some fainting. Langhan prefers sudden onset incontinence.) The split-lip, bloody grin that Susan sports is a satisfyingly unsettling eerie image. Tension is effectively built throughout the novel. Never did I think, “Oh here it comes, bad stuff, blah, blah” but instead felt frustrating dread for the characters. A couple of times I did my usual cheating trick when reading horror, skimming quickly through a scene to the resolution, just so I could find out. Langhan is an equal opportunity dispatcher of characters, setting up them up just to let them fall as quickly as she introduces them. And damn, I love a ruthless writer. Shock and awe, baby.

Where I think Langhan falls short is in the foundation of Bedford as a “haunted town.” There is mention of a disaster years prior at the mill, but its description lacks the strength that Langhan puts into the building tension leading up to the town’s destruction. Comparatively it’s only a passing glance that she gives to the so-called horror of the Bedford. The ghosts of Bedford don’t seem to posses any more vitriol or motivation than your typical dead, and while she spends some time in establishing the long-buried past evils of a couple of townsfolk, I was never convinced that Bedford had a specific claim to being a town racked with bad juju than any other small ‘burg. The novel’s conclusion also didn’t live completely up to the first 75 percent of the novel. With so much build-up, it was more like a powerful sulfuric fart than a devastating explosion of pent-up evil. Finally, there is an awkward redemptive quality to the story’s resolution that reminded me of why I don’t read more Dean Koontz.

It was late at night when I finally ploughed through the last 30 pages of The Keeper. The Mister was already fast asleep when I turned off my bedside lamp. Just as I was drifting off, two voices came through the open window, an argument mounting in the cul-de-sac just behind our house. The yelling quickly set off our neighbors two dogs to barking. My sleep-addled brain launched me immediately into an image of the frail, menacing Susan Morley, grinning her bloodied grin as she slowly walked our street setting off chaos in her wake. I saw her spastic blue eyes fix on me as she rounded the corner.

Let me tell you; I had a hard fucking time getting back to sleep. Good show, Sarah Langhan. Good show.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. You can read more about it, here.

100 Books in One Year #7: The Keeper by Sarah Langan

Cannonball Read / AlabamaPink

Books | October 3, 2008 |

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