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Bond. James Bond. That declaration is as iconic as John Barry's musical score for the cinematic spy series that's mesmerized audiences for almost half a century. But why do we storm the multiplexes to see the same thing for 20 or more times and pay the filmmakers over 4 billion dollars for the privilege? Because it is a known quantity that has entertained us successfully in the past. That familiarity, however, is serrated both ways, as we demand attention-riveting differences to keep 007 innovative and exciting. It is probably the best example of the term “formulaic” in English-speaking culture.
The vast majority of modern entertainments are this way and The Missing is no exception. In fact, its charm is that it is so good at it. It's the quintessential summer beach read, and, just so you don't miss its affiliations on the bookracks at the grocery store, there's the flag of a silver-foil, embossed cover, to keep the clichés tightly belted inside.
Because this is another viral meltdown where the residents of affluent Corpus Christi in Stephen King's home state infect into a George A. Romero trope. The source, which is never satisfactorily explained* like it was in The Andromeda Strain, falls into step with other popular pathogens from Resident Evil, 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, Cell, and Zombie Strippers ("they'll dance for a fee, but devour you for free"). At novel's start, the neighboring town of Bedford has been abandoned in the aftermath of the Clott Corporation's paper mill closing and subsequent vandalistic chemical fire. Although the EPA has determined it is safe, Bedford eerily remains “a real, live ghost town” (Harper Collins, ISBN 9780060872915, c.2007, p.21). Never mind that birds fall out of the sky, spiders spin broken webs, or that trees have “shriveled up like Shrinky Dinks in the oven” (p.21). Anyone who goes into those woods comes back a walking advertisement for Rodriguez's Planet Terror. This is the start of a “zombie apocalypse”; an idea so popular it has its own Wikipedia entry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki).
The page-turning quotient is determined by the author's formidable character building talent as you watch these new acquaintances disassemble the Erector set of their humanity. A clichéd premise can easily debilitate horror scenes to farce, like when Danny Walker watches his mother's head roll from her body and then unwittingly kicks it like a soccer ball while fighting off his infected younger brother. But Langan keeps the pulse quick and pounding, and her ensemble of victims is quirky enough yet compassionate, emotionally identifiable and willing to realistically impart their personality intrigues to sustain the reader's regard.
The charm of her hip prose—a Petri dish full of mystery cough (p.205)—current cultural allusions—it was a horse's tail. Somebody had gone Don Corleone on his ass! (p.270)—and no-nonsense metaphors & similes—his body felt bloated, like his organs were soaked in sorrow (p.304)—make The Missing read similar to donning your favorite, worn-in leather jacket--after you've razor-wired and Claymored the perimeter, that is. It's just that Sarah Langan—at this point in her career—is not Ian Fleming, any more than she's King, Koontz, Straub, or Anne Rice. She is comfortable because of who has preceded her, and is carrying on that older tradition swimmingly**. I am looking forward to her next publication, Audrey's Door, which has less of an epic footprint, as it is “about a lonely, injured woman in . . . a haunted apartment . . . where her obsessive-compulsive disorder gets the better of her, and she begins to build a door” (Sarah Langan, 10/25/07, http://www.fearzone.com/blog).
Apparently, The Missing was contractually bound to the publisher as a sequel from her 1st novel. Now that she's not creatively hamstrung, plus armed with the clout of her Stoker Award win this year, maybe she'll leave her mentors in the vacated room and take the real Sarah Langan out for a stir.
When the shakin' is over, of course.
*Evidently her first and previous novel, The Keeper, is a prequel of sorts, but, without any advance publicity or even an infoline on the present volume, backstory enlightenment is unavailable to non-researching readers.
**Who she is not is Laurell Hamilton.