Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Missing (a.k.a. Virus) (2007) by Sarah Langan

The Missing (a.k.a. Virus) (2007) by Sarah Langan: Winner of the 2007 Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers' Association for Best Novel, The Missing is a horror novel of its time. Specifically, it makes a lot more sense when one thinks of U.S. adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of the tepid governmental response to Hurricane Katrina. This is a horror novel about how the Bush Administration lost a war against monsters. And I think that informs how it won that Best Novel award, because it's certainly not a great horror novel. Timely, though, and of its time.

The Missing is Sarah Langan's second novel. It takes place an almost literal stones-throw away from the setting of her first novel, The Keeper. They're both set in small-town Maine -- The Keeper in the run-down industrial town of Bedford and The Missing in the adjacent upscale town of Corpus Christi. The Keeper picks up about a year after the disastrous (for Bedford, anyway) supernatural events of The Keeper.

This time around, we begin in Salem's Lot territory, as a mysterious virus buried in the woods near Bedford infects a child and a teacher during an extremely ill-advised school field trip to the Bedford woods. The virus, which seems to be both sentient and telepathic, kills most people and turns the rest into what are basically amalgams of vampires, werewolves, and zombies. Corpus Christi could be in trouble. So, too, the world.

Langan's a pretty brave writer. She's not interested in providing sympathetic characters. Our main characters are instead deeply flawed. So flawed, indeed, that the novel eventually suffers. Harking back to my Bush thesis, the authorities in their entirety are utterly incompetent. Not the authorities of the town -- of the United States. Despite the fact that the virus causes its monsters to sleep during the day-time, nothing is done about them other than a half-hearted quarantine of the town, swiftly broken. We get the point -- it's Katrina all over again, but Katrina with monsters.

But between the incompetent indifference of the authorities and the incompetent unpleasantness of most of our protagonists, all of whom do at least one unforgivably stupid thing, we're left with an apocalypse one simply isn't invested in. And as the vampiric qualities of the monsters echo such novels as Salem's Lot, we're not even given an interesting apocalypse with unpleasant characters as we got in, say, Thomas Disch's The Genocides. Monsters run around killing and eating people. The disease spreads. Good times!

Langan is a solid writer, one gifted with the ability to create complex characters. There are a couple of people left to root for by the end of the novel. But the last fifty pages go by in a blur of telling and not showing, as the scale of the infestation suddenly goes national. It's a last fifty pages that seem to gesture towards a sequel that never materialized, one in the vein of Justin Cronin's later The Passage trilogy or even Max Brooks' World War Z.

And for all Langan's strengths, she's nonetheless created an unpleasant novel that fails to horrify in the end because its sub-textual critique of the Bush government forces its depiction of governmental response to a crisis into the realms of the absurd. Lightly recommended.

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