The Keeper by Sarah Langan (2006): This atmospheric and chilling horror novel features first-rate characterization and the development of a real sense of place. Langan sets her first novel in the small, depressed Maine town of Bedford — and over the course of the novel, Bedford falls. Ghosts and monsters walk the streets.
Indeed, the sheeted dead really do squeak and gibber in the Bedford streets at points, along with other monsters. The monsters of Bedford, though, are the manifestations of all its buried secrets. They have not invaded from Outside.
Langan uses third-person narration to delve into the inner lives of several characters, and does so skillfully without neglecting the atmospheric description necessary to showing the physical and social disintegration of the town as a whole, as both place and imaginative gestalt. At points, she “cuts loose” with visceral, physical horrors, but these things never take over the narrative. This is not a gross-out.
As with so much horror, supernatural events arise from human failure. Child abuse and alcoholism are the chief sins explored here, along with the morally corrosive effects of keeping secrets on both the personal and civic level. Bedford has its own skeletons, literal and figurative, in its closet. The closing of its primary industry before the novel begins becomes, over the course of the novel, a judgment on the town’s failings — and then it becomes something more complex and affecting.
Langan’s characters are nicely developed, and their fates, for the most part, evade boiler-plate horror conventions. Startling moments in which the supernatural bursts into the “real” world abound. Through it all, Langan builds a convincing supernatural world populated by flawed human beings. There’s evil here, but also hard-won goodness, very faint, very human, absolutely necessary. Recommended.