Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sarah Langan's The Keeper: A Female Horror Novel

The Kindle store of Amazon has become my favorite online place after my own blog. They often offer books absolutely for free so that people can get acquainted with new authors. This is how I came across The Keeper, a debut horror novel by Sarah Langan. The genre of the horror novel has always been very productive for female writers. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Charlotte Bronte's profoundly feminist Jane Eyre set a very high standard for the writers who want to create a work belonging to this genre.

Initially, a was a bit leery of this novel. I was afraid that this debut work would be a disappointment and a waste of time. I have to read a lot as part of my job, so taking on a new novel by a writer I know nothing about means taking time away from more pressing readings that need to be done. However, I am definitely not sorry that I read this book.

Langan is great at descriptions of everyday life in a small town in Maine. A disillusioned, washed-out teacher who is drinking himself into an early grave, a high-school girl trying to come to terms with abuse within her own family, a mother trying to avoid the knowledge that her husband abused his own daughter, the slow disintegration of life in the town that inhabitants of Bedford attribute to its being haunted: this is all narrated with a great economy of artistic means and produces a very powerful impression.

Where Langan fails, however, is in the creation of horror scenes. She is a powerful realist writer but for some reason Langan must believe that adding horror scenes will make her book more powerful. That doesn't happen. I almost abandoned the book at the very beginning when I encountered a very sloppy and overdone horror scene. It seems like the author watched many bad Hollywood movies and is guided by the imagery they suggested to her. Often, you can practically see the writer attempting to create a text that could be turned into a movie. This, of course, doesn't make for good writing. Everything is exaggerated, to the point of becoming obnoxious. These insistent and extremely ornate horror passages come into a sharp contrast with the beautifully simple prose of the rest of the novel. Stranngely, Langan understands the power of understatement everywhere except in the horror scenes. If she had paid closer attention to her famous predecessors in the genre, she would have noticed that the atmosphere of horror is best created not through detailed descriptions of blood and gore but by a mere suggestion of something scary lurking in the background.

Another problem I had with the book were the chapter titles that reminded me of the way TV show episodes sometimes are named: "The Husband of the Woman Who Jumped Out the Window (Fall from Grace)", "Guy Walks into a Bar", "Excruciatingly Tight Acid-Washed Jeans." This seemed completely out of place in a novel like The Keeper. I am happy that I didn't see the table of contents before I started reading the book (thanks to the Kindle it's possible to skip the table of contents), or I wouldn't have even begun the novel.

I'm not sorry I read , but unless Langan decides to turn to what she does best - a straightforward realist narrative - I don't think I'll read another novel by this author.

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