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The Hitchers - Will McIntosh

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Hitchers - Will McIntosh

Hitchers is my first exposure to Hugo award winner Will McIntosh.  Somehow I missed his debut novel, Soft Apocalypse, last year.  I'm terrible about keeping up on short fiction, but his 2009 Hugo Award winning short story, Bridesicles, was just recently optioned for a feature film.  He's also signed a book deal with Orbit to write a novel based on it.  Clearly, I've been missing out and Hitchers confirms it.

A tight novel, Hitchers is a fast paced horror story built on the premise of the dead coming back to life. When an act of terrorism unleashes anthrax on Atlanta, killing hundreds of thousands, cartoonist Finn Darby begins blurting things in a strange voice beyond his control.  Countless other residents of Atlanta are suffering a similar bizarre affliction.  Either all of Atlanta is suffering a psychological break or the dead have returned to possess the living.

Called hitchers, the voices aren't particularly happy and Finn has it worse than most.  His voice sounds like his grandfather -- Tom Darby, creator of the long-running newspaper comic strip Toy Shop.  And Grandpa isn't terribly happy about the changes Finn has been making to the strip.  Naturally, the quest is to get rid of the hitchers and get life back to normal.  The mechanism accomplishing this functions like a mystery thriller as Finn and his friends discover the how and why behind the supernatural event.

While McIntosh is executing a simple plot, with more than few contrivances, the strength of the novel is in the emotional and philosophical content.  Often communicated through clever interior art in the form of the Toy Shop comic strip, Hitchers discusses the ties that bind people together, and the only thing guarantees to sever them -- death.  For Finn, these ties relate to both his grandfather and his dead wife, but also to the rest of his family who are harried, even from the grave, by the Santini like figure of Tom Darby.   It all works in McIntosh's capable hands, resonating on every level.

As I read, I was reminded of the television show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.   It was a show about making a sketch comedy show (Saturday Night Live look-a-like), but they never actually showed the comedy sketches.  It deflated the product.  Hitchers shows the product (Toy Shop) and it makes the whole story pop.  Finn and Tom Darby are cartoonists whose conflict stems (at least superficially) from their difference of opinion on the artistic direction of a comic strip.  Finn, in particular, is portrayed with such familiarity that I imagine McIntosh has sat at an easel to ink a few frames himself.  All in all, the strips are a small part of the overall product, but I can't overstate their importance to the novel's veracity.

I did mention some contrivances earlier in the review, and for some they may detract from the story.  Tom Darby is borderline unbelievable in his unabashed selfishness.   Finn, and his buddies, always seem to find the people they need to find in convenient fashion.  The conclusion to the hitcher problem is one that's as old as the first ghost story.  In the moment, I didn't find any of these to be disruptive to my enjoyment of the novel, and McIntosh's skill as a story teller never ceased to stand out.

Based on what I've read about Soft Apocalypse I'm not sure that its proponents will immediately feel the same about Hitchers.  The speculation is grounded in the supernatural realm, painting a disturbing view of the afterlife that will give readers something to muse about long about after the final page.  He suspends reality more than extrapolating it to a logical conclusion, which seems to me a very different kind of novel.  Nevertheless, it demonstrates tremendous range, and given the subjects of his new two-book deal with Orbit, I expect McIntosh to continue to push those boundaries.

Long story short -- if Will McIntosh were a blog, I'd be making sweet love to his RSS feed.  Wait... that didn't come out right.

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At January 10, 2012 at 10:03 AM , Anonymous Bibliotropic said...

I was lucky enough to get a copy of this one, though I haven't gotten around to reading it yet. The premise sounds right up my alley, though, and I'm looking forward to it, doubly so now that I've started to see good reviews of it pop up in a few places!


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