Book Review: The Keeper by Sarah Langan

The Keeper, Sarah Langan
HarperTorch, 2006

Did the world of horror need another story about the dark secrets of a little town in Maine? Probably not, but this was still a decent read.

Picture our setting: Bedford is a dying town, its economy dependent on the nearby failed paper mill and its streets (and dreams) haunted by the local weirdo– the silent, skeletal, and sexually inappropriate Susan Marley. Susan’s younger sister Liz, still in high school, struggles with unpopularity due to her sister’s insanity, as well as her cold, distant relationship with her mother, who pretends Susan doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, Susan’s former lover Paul Martin, an alcoholic high-school teacher, sinks deeper into the bottle to escape his failures, while the rest of the town sinks into poverty and despair.

You are probably getting the impression that this is not a happy book.

Even in a genre not exactly known for rainbows and butterflies (mutant butterflies with teeth, maybe), this is heavy stuff. I almost had to stop reading at one point, at a throwaway scene in which Paul recalls propping his wife up at the dinner table during an unsuccessful attempt at treating her depression and telling the kids that Mommy was crying too hard to eat because she was so happy. Good lord.

So yes, it’s a little maudlin. But under the mopey atmosphere, there’s a fairly intriguing story. After luring Paul into her creepy, filthy apartment for one last tryst, Susan throws herself down the stairs and dies– and that’s when the horror begins. Freed from her mortal body, Susan begins to haunt the town with a vengeance, uncovering everyone’s dirty little secrets and becoming a force of judgment against the weak, flawed residents of Bedford. In this way it reminded me of a really very good free Kindle novel I read last year, Catharsis by Jonathan Face– another tale of a town full of people with checkered pasts who face supernatural justice during an apocalyptic weather event (here it’s rain, there it was snow).

Both stories could be said to suffer from a certain lack of emotional engagement with the characters. I did like Liz for the most part (she’s smart, awkward, worries about her weight and feels stifled in her dead-end town, absolutely nothing at all like me in high school, of course), and her fumbling romance with rich-popular-boy-with-depth Bobby rings true. However, nearly all the other characters– and there are a lot, as this is one of those early-King-style books that often cuts to vignettes about minor characters– are unlikable sad sacks. Paul Martin in particular is really pretty awful, and slogging through his passages of booze-soaked self-loathing becomes a chore. A subplot about Liz’s sociopath classmate Louise and her codependent relationship with two boys could have been interesting if developed more, but feels tacked on as is.

In the end, it’s Susan who is the real triumph of characterization in this novel, and her story saves this from being just another run-of-the-mill unspeakable-evil-in-Maine-(again) horror novel. She starts out as a frightening, malevolent figure, becomes sympathetic as her motivations are revealed, and ends up somewhere in the middle– not totally a monster and not totally an innocent victim, with a lot more subtlety and character development than your average supernatural horror villain gets.

Inevitably this does take away a bit from how scary she is, and more broadly how scary the novel is– it’s more dark and moody than openly frightening, although a few surreal scenes in the Marley house stand out as pretty creepy and tense. Overall, The Keeper is engrossing but depressing, and may not really have been worth the massive downer– fans of slow-burn emotionally charged horror might find something to like here, though.


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