The Missing is Sarah Langan's second novel, a follow up to her highly praised 2006 debut, The Keeper, which no less a light than Peter Straub described as combining "a genuinely poetic sensibility with a taste for horror's most bravura excesses." Happily, The Missing (called The Virus in its UK incarnation) shows those same qualities, resulting in a book that's memorable, heartbreaking and disturbing.
The Missing (inspired in part by Langan's personal experiences in New York in the days after the 9/11 attack, when the smells and dust emanating from ground zero permeated the air in the city) is a loose sequel to The Keeper. For instance, a character from that novel appears briefly, and the town of Bedford, where The Keeper was set, is mentioned. The key link between the two novels, however, is the explosion of Clott Paper Mill at the end of The Keeper.
Besides killing several people, the explosion and subsequent fire resulted in the release of deadly Hydrogen Sulfide gas into the air. That element comes to permeate the soil in the woods between Bedford and Corpus Christi, Maine, enabling a virus in the soil there to evolve into something deadly and malevolent, thus setting the stage for the events described in The Missing.
Langan's fictional horror is precipitated by, of all things, a fourth grade field trip, where a student gets lost. After being exposed to the virus, that student becomes a Typhoid Mary of sorts, spreading the virus by attacking and biting members of the local populace. Soon, the majority of the citizens of Corpus Christi are seized by madness, turning into aggressive, flesh-craving crazies, all intent on securing their next meal and spreading the virus to new hosts. They are led by the pregnant teacher, wallflower Lois Larkin, who, while searching for her student, felt compelled to ingest some of the tainted forest dirt. Due to the way she is introduced to the virus, she becomes the hub of the group mind that the virus fosters in its victims, coming to lead the infected against the remaining populace.
The Missing effectively combines small town horror with apocalyptic fiction, calling to mind several books and at least one film exploiting similar themes--King's Cell, Straub's Floating Dragon, and John Shirley's In Darkness Waiting are the novels, 28 Days Later the film--as people try to cope with a rapidly changing, infinitely more deadly world than the one they've become accustomed to. The two novels it consciously or unconsciously evokes most, however, are two classics, David Morrell's The Totem, and Chet Williamson's Ash Wednesday, the first because its posits a chillingly plausible explanation behind the legends of the werewolf, vampire and zombie, the second because, like Williamson, Langan knows that apocalypse is personal, choosing to generate emotional force from the trials and tribulations of a small cast of characters, rather than choosing a larger, global stage. Through thoroughly arresting prose, Langan creates an air of intimacy between her cast and her readers that she exploits to its fullest, demonstrating that small, everyday horrors--a friend's betrayal, a spouse's infidelity, the breakdown of a family unit, and the difficult choices daily life forces on us--can be more devastating to some than the literal end of the world.
Reading this novel should prove reassuring to horror's old(er) guard--although elements of the book will certainly feel familiar, it's not a mere rehash of prior works. Rather, it is a statement that it's perfectly legitimate to revisit what's come before, as long as writers come at the material from a slightly different angle, with a slightly different perspective. The old saw that "there are no new stories, only new ways of telling them" once again holds true, at once a concession to reality and a creative challenge. It's invigorating to see new talent like Langan handling that challenge so deftly.