Sarah Langan first came to my attention as part of the same review that had originally led me to "Come Closer," which I wrote about in a previous BGH Book Club. "The Keeper," first published in 2006, was Langan's first novel, which she has since followed up with a second called "The Missing." Though she may be a relatively new name, Langan's knowledge of horror and skill at utilizing the tropes of the genre are on display from the very outset of "The Keeper." In fact, as she describes the descent and eventual destruction of a small Maine town, as well as the poor souls that inhabit it, don't be surprised if you're reminded of another notable author who chose to set his stories in Maine.
"The Keeper" is a novel that delves into the heart of a collapsing world. Our entry way to this world is Liz Marley, younger sister of Susan Marley. Susan, we learn in the story's prologue, has become the town's dark secret — the wandering madwoman that mothers use to scare their children and men taunt from the back of their pick-ups. With their father long dead, Liz has learned to endure life, and she now counts the days till she can escape to college. In the interim, she spends time with her boyfriend Bobby, a wealthier kid from the other side of the tracks. She tries to keep her head down, unfortunately it's not long before trouble comes looking for Liz.
While the younger Marley serves as our introduction to Bedford, Langan quickly branches out into other characters: Paul, the alcoholic teacher; Danny, the sheriff; Georgia, the single mom; Mrs. Marley and others. Through this wide ranging cast, our picture of the town comes into greater focus, and as the story progresses they begin to swirl around one another, growing closer and eventually coming into violent contact. At it's core "The Keeper" is about the people who live in Bedford, and the choices that they make as a chaotic situation begins to dissolve into madness. It's also about the dark histories that have become the town's fiber, and how those pasts become the town's undoing. During the novels' first half Langan introduces us to each of her characters, and takes us inside their damaged psyches. She crafts them into complete individuals, all damaged, some profoundly. It's not long before we begin to question if the town made them that way or if they choose to remain there because of their conditions. In either case, the result is the same.
Once the groundwork has been laid, Susan Marley's death acts as the inciting incident. The cracks in the foundation of the town, as well as in the minds of the characters, begin to give way, and what transpires is a headlong rush into the blackness. What sets "The Keeper" on a level above more rote ghost stories is that Langan has done the hard work of thinking through and plotting the past. She has built Bedford in our minds, economically it should be added, and thus when she sets out to destroy it, the process is that much more wrenching. Like many successful stories that dabble in the supernatural, "The Keeper" introduces the past in drips and drabs. Where at first we enter an everyday New England town, it gradually dawns on us that the core here is rotten. By the time that we realize just how nasty things have gotten (and they do get nasty), it's too late to turn back.
Langan, like Stephen King, who was clearly a major influence here, manages to pull off one of the most important moves in crafting this type of story: she makes Bedford both unique, but also generic. The townspeople are like townspeople you might know, the streets are like streets you may have walked down. In fact, the town could be anywhere, though Maine does provide a meteorological key that comes into play later in the story. This allows us to connect that much more with the town and its plight, and it means we're that much closer when the darkness reaches up to swallow the town whole.
It's difficult to say too much about "The Keeper" without starting to illuminate many of its twisted pathways, and those are much better left for the reader to discover on his own. Needless to say, Langan offers a great deal for fans of horror to chew over. "The Keeper" may not be a bolt from the blue, but it is a gripping ghost tale that will both keep readers attention and send a chill down their spines. For me at least, Langan succeeded in achieving what should be the primary goal of any horror writer: leaving the reader with a creeping anxiety that persists even after the book has been put away.