In fiction, dead people returning to the land of the living almost always haul a load of symbolic baggage along for the trip; as George Romero has proved over the years, the undead make potent metaphors. Most obviously, they represent the dormant past—the secrets, grudges, or longings that literally won’t stay buried. But obvious metaphors can still be powerful ones. Will McIntosh’s Hitchers, in which the spirits of the dead start taking over the living, is a fundamentally lightweight novel. But the easy style and the topic make it compulsively readable, and the curiously specific, unique way it deals with morality and death turn it into something more complex than a quick-read supernatural fantasy.
Atlanta resident Finn Darby writes and illustrates the popular comic strip Toy Shop, about a bunch of toys running their own store, but it was created by his grandfather, a mean-spirited, abusive alcoholic who expressly wanted Toy Shop to die with him. Two years after losing his grandfather and his wife Lorena on the same day—one to illness, the other to a freak accident—Finn has resurrected the strip with his grandmother’s blessing, and has become a minor star. Then a terrorist attack kills more than half a million people in Atlanta, and along with countless others, Finn starts experiencing throat convulsions and spontaneous vocal eruptions, as his grandfather’s consciousness starts to assert itself in his body. As Finn’s grandfather increasingly takes over, abusing Finn for stealing his life’s work and vengefully working to destroy Finn’s life, Finn is torn between two contradictory goals—to boot the hellish old man, and to find his dead wife Lorena and spend as much time around her as possible as she seizes control of someone else’s body. In essence, he has to decide whether the living have any more manifest right to the living world than the dead do—and if so, whether that excuses him betraying his grandfather’s wishes and stealing his work.
Hitchers is often lightly sketched. Finn, Lorena, and their associates barely exist past a handful of basic drives and urges, and their relationships are broad and unnuanced. Grandpa Darby is the most richly drawn character, and his behavior is implausible in its one-dimensional extremity. McIntosh (a Hugo-winner for the short story “Bridesicle,” who broke into novels in 2010 with Soft Apocalypse) spends more time on how Atlanta’s character changes following the devastating attacks than he spends getting past the surface of his human characters. But he draws Atlanta intelligently, via news reports and a startling action setpiece as well as Finn’s direct observations. And the characters barely need to go beyond archetypes anyway. Much of the book’s point lies in Finn’s essential conflict: He feels he has more right to his life and body than his grandfather does, yet he’s helplessly rooting for Lorena, who’s “hitching” in a reluctant host with her own life and family to protect.
And McIntosh’s conception of what happens to people after death is unusual, vividly drawn, and utterly chilling. He writes directly and matter-of-factly about supernatural threats and grave ethical decisions alike, grounding his story in seeming plausibility, while sprinkling in action scenes that crackle with tension. Hitchers zips along at a breakneck pace, but its creepy images and moral musings alike stick around after the book ends, like a ghost lingering in the back of a new acquaintance’s head.