Here’s a Halloween read that I’d bet you don’t have on your list, and yet, you absolutely should, must, will check it out. Because it embodies the heart and soul of the season’s spirit. A ghost story, a supernatural thriller, with no gore, no horror fest over-the-top violence (actually almost no violence at all), and yet it creeps into your heart, stirs your senses more violently than a pitcherful of tequila shots (if they’re even drunk in pitchers, as if I’d know) and does to you what only the finest fiction aspires to achieve: it leaves you moved almost to the point of tears, and so satisfied, you turn the last page immensely sad, and yet immensely content.
Now, let’s talk about M. Night Shyamalan.
If M. Night Shyamalan ever makes a sequel to The Sixth Sense, he should seriously consider adapting Lost Boys. The very fact that Lost Boys was first published way back in 1992, years before Shyamalan made his dazzling debut that shot to the top of the biggest all-time grossers in Hollywood history, makes me wonder for a moment. Could it be that the talented young Indian American director (his first name is ‘Manoj’ and he was born in Chennai, formerly called Madras) actually read Lost Boys in its first publication? Because, if he didn’t, then the ‘twist in the tale’ of both The Sixth Sense and Lost Boys is more than amazing; it’s close to supernatural!
Well, Shyamalan is certainly talented enough to have come up with his zinger of a ‘twist’ entirely on his own, and his stately, sedate pacing, masterful direction, and superbly nuanced screenplay certainly made The Sixth Sense way more than a clever-idea film. But it’s hard to believe that Lost Boys essayed an eeirily similar plot device, and did so years before Shyamalan’s movie, and had no influence at all upon that standout film.
Since I certainly don’t know what did or didn’t influence Shyamalan–for all I know, he’s never even read an Orson Scott Card book in his life, I can only muse on that a moment, and then move on. Because it’s enough to know that Lost Boys existed before The Sixth Sense and that it exists even now, in a reissued paperback edition along with a number of Orson Scott Card’s other highly readable backlist novels.
The reason for the reissue, presumably, is a change of publishers or a lapsing of rights. But there’s also Card’s new novel, Magic Street. Card is best known as the author of the Ender series of thoughtful science fiction novels, the linked Shadow series, and probably less-well known but equally loved for his Tales of Alvin Maker series of marvelous, magical alternate history novels. But what most SF readers don’t know is that he’s also the author of some wonderfully written, genuinely moving, and eeirily effective supernatural suspense novels.
Lost Boys is part of this lesser known genre that Card has worked in over the years, but found little success in, compared to his SF novels at least. (Each instalment of the Shadow series has hit the New York Times Bestseller lists like clockwork and won him a whole new generation of young readers who weren’t even in boxers when the Ender novels first came out. That situation might change now, with the publication of Magic Street, which, though I’ve read only a couple of chapters of so far, seems to be a wonderful urban fantasy, and happily, seems to be doing much better on the sales charts as well.
Lost Boys isn’t your typical supernatural novel. It’s definitely not a horror novel, by any stretch of the genre imagination. There’s no violence in it, no explicit horror, and almost all the tension and suspense comes from the conflicts and crises faced by the characters in their everyday lives. In this sense it reminds of the excellent suspense thrillers of Douglas Kennedy, especially The Job and The Big Picture both of which rely more on the daily work-and-relationship problems of their protagonists rather than John Grisham-type mega-million dollar stakes or mafia assassins or any of the usual suspense thriller fight-or-flight devices. (Although, Kennedy’s novels have plenty of violence, as well as fight and flight both!)
On the surface, it’s a deceptively simple book. Card even starts each chapter with nursery rhyme-like opening sentences…
“This is the car they drove…”
“This is the house they moved into…”
“This is the company where Step worked…”
…and so on right to the last chapter (which starts thus:
“This is how the Fletchers found their way to the end of 1983…”
This is a novel about a family. Step Fletcher, his pregnant wife DeAnne, and their three children move to Steuben, North Carolina, because that’s the only place where he’s been able to get a job after his royalty income from the bestselling computer game he designed slows to a trickle. The job is with a small computer software firm whose sole claim to fame and success is a word processing program. Step is heavily under-employed here, a brilliant game programmer forced to take this humiliating middling-pay job in order to support his family through this financial crisis. (It’s 1983. There’s a recession on.) The job turns out to be an awful one; his boss is an ass, his department head is literally a Dick, and the only friend he gets along with there, a young, brilliant programmer who’s really the talent powering the engine of the firm, is possibly a child molestor who all but begs Step to let him babysit his children. As if.
DeAnne isn’t have it much easier. Managing three small kids, an advanced pregnancy, and the inevitable difficulties to settling into a new town and house are compounded when she and Step realize that their oldest child, 8-year old Stevie, is having a really hard time at his new school. If they believe Stevie’s version, then his class teacher is a real monster, his classmates are mean country brats, and even his straight-A record isn’t likely to save him from flunking the year.
No wonder then that Stevie starts imagining fictitious playmates to spend his free time with, shunning his little kid brother and sister, and, after a while, even his mother and father. Of course, it takes them a long while to realize that he’s telling the truth about how awful his teacher really is, and about those invisible ‘friends’. It takes them even longer to understand that those ‘friends’ are really boys more or less his own age who went missing and are suspected to be the victims of a serial child-killer. By then of course, it’s much too late.
Now, the important thing to know about Lost Boys is that despite its quite routine story premise, it isn’t written like a Christopher Golden or like most similar novels. On the contrary. Not once do we see the killer’s point of view, or even Stevie’s. Well, except for the very first chapter, more of a prologue really–but at that point, we don’t know whose point of view it is, and I’m sure as hell not telling you.
Almost the entire novel is divided between Step Fletcher’s point of view and DeAnne Fletcher’s point of view. The daily problems of Step’s struggle to retain his dignity at his humiliating job while trying to find an escape route that will enable him to come out of his financial bind without losing the company medical insurance he needs so badly for DeAnne’s pregnancy, DeAnne’s artful and stressfull managing of the household, three kids, Stevie’s problems at school, Step’s late hours and work tension, her pregnancy, and the well-meaning but often intrusive, or downright aggressive fellow Mormons in the community, she’s got a lot to juggle.
Card’s strength lies in plunging us so deeply into the lives and minds and problems of his protagonists, you have to actually remind yourself that this is a supernatural suspense novel, because it reads for the most part like any good mainstream fiction. But the supernatural element is an integral part of the story, and when it finally rears its scary head, trust me, you’ll find all that emotional investment in the characters’ lives and job hassles to be well worth the investment, for the payoff is fantastic. I won’t give away much more about the plot of Lost Boys because that twist at the end is really something to savour. Even though its terribly sad, heartbreaking, and the poignancy of the last pages lingers with you for days after you put the book down.
You should also know up front that Card is a Mormon whose books and stories are always deeply invested with his own personal, unique sense of morality. Don’t worry, there’s no preaching here. But yes, there is a lot of moralizing, and all of it is completely relevant and related to the characters and their situation. All the Fletcher family, kids included, are Card-carrying Mormons, you could say. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that one!) And the book is all the better for it. Because its such a relief to read a good supernatural novel which isn’t filled to gagging point with drunks, addicts, self-obsessed paranoics, and all those dysfunctional misfits that seem to be must-haves for most novels of this genre.
Card’s Mormonism manifests itself throughout this finely crafted, heartfelt novel as a warm, humane, beautifully rendered fable about a family of five wonderful human beings struggling to maintain dignity and balance in a time of great stress and conflict. It lifts the story to a plane of moral beauty that I’ve not found in many novels. It reminds me of the very first Orson Scott Card novel I read, decades ago, called Hot Sleep, a thinly veiled science fiction adventure with a biblical allegory. Or even his chilling, brilliant short stories in the early collection Unaccompanied Sonata in which the original short story ‘Ender’s Game’ first appeared, and which he later expanded to novel form to find great success.
I won’t deny also that the book appealed to me, as a non-smoking, non-drinking father of two, with an amazingly similar moral outlook and that at times, I felt I was almost reading about myself and my family. And I’m a Hindu living in Mumbai, India! What I’m trying to say is that it’s rare to find a good story about a good man. And Lost Boys is one such rare book. Since discovering it recently for the first time, I’ve quickly pounced on copies of Card’s other supernatural suspense novels, Homebody, Treasure Chest and of course, Magic Street and I’ll post reviews of each one here as I read it.
This is a warm, beautiful, sad, humane, and ultimately, profoundly moving novel that deserves a place on any Halloween reading list this year or any year. And, if you give it a chance, a place in your heart as well.