‘Lu­cifer’ writer M.R. Carey ce­ments sta­tus as nov­el­ist

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Read - BY PAUL DI FIL­IPPO Spe­cial To The Wash­ing­ton Post

Writ­ers who tran­si­tion from script­ing comics to craft­ing prose nov­els are few and far be­tween. (Al­though many nov­el­ists of late - Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, G. Wil­low Wil­son, Brad Meltzer have jour­neyed in the other di­rec­tion.) Aside from Denny O’Neil (”Green Lan­tern/Green Ar­row”), Gerry Con­way (”Spi­der-Man”) and Chris Clare­mont (”X-Men”), the para­mount ex­am­ple is Neil Gaiman, whose early bril­liance in the comics field has been some­what over­shad­owed by his best­selling books.

M.R. Carey racked up two hits early in his own comics ca­reer, helm­ing “Lu­cifer” and “Hell­blazer” for leg­endary stints, and con­tin­ues to pro­duce out­stand­ing work for the Ver­tigo line. But in 2006 he ven­tured into nov­el­writ­ing, and that out­let seems to have be­come his pri­mary means of ex­pres­sion. With the suc­cess of 2014’s “The Girl With All the Gifts,” and its screen adap­ta­tion, it’s safe to say that, like Gaiman, he’s a nov­el­ist who does comics, rather than a comics guy who dab­bles in nov­els.

His new­est book, “Some­one Like Me,” is a spooky, wrench­ing, ex­hil­a­rat­ing ghost story-cumthriller that man­ages to put a fresh, al­most science-fic­tional spin on its specters and spooks. It’s do­mes­tic in scope - no global ar­maged­dons or apoc­a­lypses here, no burn­ing cities or plague-rid­den com­mu­ni­ties - but still de­liv­ers the max­i­mum freight of frights and con­se­quences.

We open with a gutchurn­ing scene of spousal abuse that swiftly re­veals Carey’s tal­ent for taut, eco­nom­i­cal and im­mer­sive prose. Liz Ken­dall is be­ing beaten by her ex­hus­band Marc, an all-toofa­mil­iar ordeal. But this time some­thing’s dif­fer­ent. Obey­ing an odd im­per­a­tive voice in her head - odd, yet in­ti­mate and res­o­nant - Liz fights back. She in­ca­pac­i­tates Marc, the cops come, Liz comforts her two chil­dren, 16-year-old Zac and 6year-old Molly, and life seems to re­turn to an even keel.

Or does it?

By obey­ing that in­ner de­mon, Liz has opened her­self up to a kind of psy­chic as­sault, an at­tack in­sid­i­ously aimed at her very iden­tity. Who’s the de­mon? That in­for­ma­tion con­sti­tutes a small spoiler from about the one-quar­ter mark in the book: The rider in Liz’s brain is her­self - but an avatar from an­other time­line, where Marc suc­ceeded in killing his wife. Call her a ghost from the mul­ti­verse. This ver­sion of Liz dubs her­self Beth, and she has plans for the body in which she is hitch­hik­ing - plans that don’t bode well for the orig­i­nal ten­ant.

Run­ning at the same time as Liz’s nar­ra­tive is the story of a 16-year-old African Amer­i­can girl named Fran Watts. When she was a tod­dler, Fran was ab­ducted by the de­ranged Bruno Pi­cota, and held in the nearby Perry Friendly Mo­tel. Al­ter­nately bab­bling about su­per­nat­u­ral mat­ters and threat­en­ing to stab Fran to death, Bruno’s ob­scure plans were stymied by the cops. Fran, re­stored to her wid­ower dad, has suf­fered a kind of PTSD ever since, and has been in ther­apy con­tin­u­ously. Our stable world is mutable for Fran. Lit­tle things shift and wa­ver. But more con­se­quen­tially, she was left with the in­vis­i­ble pres­ence of a totemic an­i­mal guardian, Jinx the war­rior fox. Some days Jinx is all that keeps Fran go­ing.

Be­fore long, the nar­ra­tive threads in­ter­twine, for Fran is class­mates with Zac, and the two dis­af­fected lon­ers form a bond. As the teens be­gin to hang out to­gether, Fran em­ploys her unique per­cep­tions and de­tects the pos­ses­sion in­fest­ing the mother of her friend: ev­i­dence of Beth’s cor­rupt­ing in­flu­ence. Even­tu­ally, Beth’s im­ma­te­rial wrestling with Liz will re­sult in mur­der, as­saults and a host of other mis­deeds. Fran, mean­while, will be­gin to fer­ret out the buried truths of her own past. And the run­away train of yoked events will cul­mi­nate in a de­ci­sive mor­tal strug­gle amid the ru­ins of the Perry Friendly Mo­tel.

Carey ce­ments the es­sen­tial foun­da­tion for the ar­cane do­ings by es­tab­lish­ing the two fam­i­lies as quintessen­tially real and be­liev­able. As a sin­gle mom, Liz’s dis­re­gard for her­self and her pro­tec­tive­ness to­ward her kids rings true, as does the josh­ing yet con­cerned hu­mor of Gil, Fran’s fa­ther, who has to raise a dam­aged daugh­ter all by him­self. There are sur­pris­ingly few an­cil­lary char­ac­ters for a book this size - Fran’s ther­a­pist, Dr. South­ern, a sym­pa­thetic fe­male cop named Bee­bee, ex-hubby Marc, his new part­ner Jamie, mad­man Bruno - but they all ben­e­fit from Carey’s metic­u­lous por­trai­ture. The two ghosts, Beth and, to a lesser de­gree, Jinx, emerge as be­ings who are un­der­stand­ably warped by their dis­em­bod­ied sta­tus, but who still har­bor a core of com­mon hu­man­ity that mo­ti­vates them in em­pathiz­able ways. Like­wise, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Zac and Fran dis­plays a unique verisimil­i­tude akin to that of a John Green novel.

Hav­ing con­structed this very sturdy stage for his su­per­nat­u­ral ac­tion, Carey does not stint with the un­pre­dictable chills and an im­pla­ca­ble, un­stop­pable cascade of events lead­ing to his cli­max - all of which is made sharper by jux­ta­po­si­tion with a very solidly ren­dered Pitts­burgh.

In the end, Carey’s novel joins the ac­com­plished ranks of Paul Trem­blay’s “A Head Full of Ghosts” and Tim Pow­ers’s “Al­ter­nate Routes” as a 21st-cen­tury re­think­ing of the eter­nal na­ture of ghosts.


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