The Missing / Sarah Langan
Tuesday, September 18, 2007 at 12:30PM
Dark Scribe Magazine in Book Reviews

th13570002.jpgHarper / October 2007
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

It’s always a pleasure as a reader to stumble upon an exciting new voice in genre fiction; it’s an even greater pleasure when that first-time author proves their debut was no fluke. That’s exactly what Sarah Langan accomplishes with her sophomore release, The Missing. And, as one delves into Langan’s lush, lyrical prose and a chillingly insidious evil that once again threatens a skillfully drawn ensemble of characters, we’re buoyed by the fact that this is a writer who actually gets better with each word that flows from her blood-soaked pen. Like King and Straub and Koontz before her, Langan proves that she’s no one-hit wonder and is in this for the long haul.

While The Missing is enough of a continuation of the story Langan began in The Keeper to keep fans of the former enthralled with periodic references and a surprise cameo by one of the main characters from the previous book, the new tome easily works as a stand-alone story. Langan once again sets her tale in small-town Maine, this time in the slightly larger Corpus Christie, upscale suburban neighbor to Keeper’s Bedford. When school teacher Lois Larkin takes her 4th grade class on an ill-conceived science outing to neighboring Bedford, now decimated and reduced to a ghost town after the events of the previous book, the reader just knows that the ghosts of Susan Marley and the Bedford denizens that so ably haunted Langan’s debut are coming back for more. After a student goes missing, a sinister virus that’s equal parts environmental and supernatural in origin starts to take hold of Corpus Christie’s good citizens, turning them into scampering, flesh-eating human environmental disasters.

Langan makes strong use of her own background in toxicology here, creating a hybrid genre all her own: toxicological horror. As in The Keeper, she also imbues The Missing with compelling social commentary, making a strong case that madness lurks inside each of us. Like many of the working class characters in The Keeper, who live from paycheck to paycheck on the cusp of homelessness and poverty, so, too, are the inhabitants in The Missing one microorganism away from snapping their caps - despite their markedly better economic and social class. In Langan’s world, the smallest cell can equalize a class-obsessed society with one infinitesimal mutation.

Interestingly, Langan expands her narrative horizons here with some added horrors not present in her debut, straddling the line between ghost story and apocalyptic zombie horror. Indeed, there are moments in The Missing where the author appears to be channeling Brian Keene as much as she is Peter Straub. While The Keeper was decidedly more supernatural and cerebral in nature, Langan flexes her visceral muscles here with some graphic zombie action, hints of vampirism, and even an Oedipus complex thrown in for good measure. Whereas the horror in The Keeper was confined within Bedford’s town lines, Langan expands the playing field in The Missing with story-driven CDC involvement, military confinement, and periodic radio reports from outside Corpus Christie that detract somewhat from the intimacy of her debut. It’s a small yet unfair criticism to pine for the intimacy lost between novels when Langan so ably shows growth here, clearly demonstrating that she’s got loftier goals in mind than becoming the formulaic Danielle Steel of horror lit. With The Missing, she promises to deliver a new experience with each novel she pens - so fans of comfortable rote and routine fiction beware.

If The Missing lacks some of the familiarity of its predecessor, Langan makes up for it with even stronger characters and her masterful writing chops. The inhabitants of The Missing are colorful, divergent, and always believable even in the face of the unbelievable horror Langan levies at them. Standouts in this batch include: Albert Sanguine, a vagrant schizophrenic with Tourettes-like outbursts who demonstrates the novel’s penultimate act of unexpected humanity; Fenstad Wintrob, a psychiatrist plagued by Oedipal demons and a nagging, crisis-driven addiction; Lila Schiffer, his patient prone to tragically low self-esteem who emerges stronger than her myriad psychoses might otherwise suggest; and Danny Walker, a resilient teenage boy who puts up a lone front when his family falls victim to the marauding, virus-afflicted townsfolk.

As in her debut, Langan again conjures up the more literary of horror’s dark scribes. With strings of almost poetic words and phrases strung together to deliver finely honed descriptions, she at once transports readers into a highly visualized kaleidoscope of imagery where she not only scares, but unsettles. From the escalation of mood…

She looked out the window, and that same unsettled feeling from breakfast returned. Something about the lawn, and the trees. The breeze was mild, and things were just beginning to dry up and die. A few cars were on the road, but not as many as usual. It was too quite. Like one of those kid’s pictures from Highlights magazine that asked: “What’s wrong here?” while birds flew backward, and people had been drawn without lips or eyes.

…to convey the human decay caused by the virus:

When she smiled at him, he saw that no PTA in their right mind would have her. Her teeth were black. Not brown, like she didn’t brush them, but black, like all she ate was Hostess cupcakes and raw sugar, so that layers upon layers of crud now coated her rotting teeth.

Publisher Harper gets a small demerit for the illogical title variations in the American and UK editions, with the latter’s Virus far more fitting and powerful a designation. Fortunately, the cover of any Langan book could announce the words TV Guide and still be deemed superlative on the strength of what’s nestled on the pages within.


Purchase Sarah Langan's The Missing

Article originally appeared on Dark Scribe Magazine (
See website for complete article licensing information.