In her 2021 novel Good Neighbors, Sarah Langan creates thematic resonance through a series of fine allusions. The very title of the book, which the text proceeds to turn into a terrible oxymoron, recalls the refrain from the Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall”: “Good fences make good neighbors.” The setting of the action on “Maple Street” is a firm nod to the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (the concluding section of Good Neighbors is actually titled “The Monsters Have Arrived on Maple Street”). Repeated reference to “the lonely thing” lurking in the fictional Long Island community of Garden City calls to mind the Lonely One haunting Green Town in Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. The interpolation of faux news articles and excerpts from nonfiction book commentaries about the novel’s events mimics the structure of Stephen King’s Carrie (a book that centers on the catastrophic results of casting out designated others). Langan’s character Peter Benchley echoes the name of the author of another novel about a Long Island town terrorized by a monstrous incursion one summer. Likewise, the Wilde family shares the surname of writer Oscar Wilde, who was demonized in late-Victorian England for his perceived sexual deviancy. Also, Arlo Wilde in Good Neighbors bears tattoo sleeves on his arms depicting the Universal Monsters–those recurrent cinematic scapegoats of angry villagers. Given all this, it should come as no surprise that Langan’s novel contains a prominent mob scene.
When a sinkhole opens in the park on Maple Street and a teen girl later falls into the boarded-over aperture, her presumed death is treated as more than a tragic accident. The Wildes are (wrongly) blamed for the mishap, and outrageous accusation soon gives way to vigilante action. Langan expertly dramatizes how discrimination and misunderstanding can devolve into madness and mass hysteria. Just as poor Shelly Schroeder appears to have been swept away by the subterranean currents after falling into the sinkhole, the people of Maple Street are driven along by fear and anger: “They were passengers, riding the momentum of something greater than themselves.” They hatch a mischievous and mean-spirited plan of attack, and proceed to smear their faces with the oily muck spewing from the sinkhole (such primitive masking exposes these adults as the literary offspring of the warring boys in Golding’s Lord of the Flies). The chapter breaks off, and the ensuing one is presented from the Wildes’ perspective, capturing all of their dread and disorientation as they are awoken overnight by the approach of the strangely-disguised horde of neighbors. Arlo’s pregnant wife Gertie bears the brunt of the assault (“Her belly felt like it had been punched by an industrial stapler to the mattress”), only belatedly realizing that she has been struck by a brick breaking through the bedroom window.
It is a sudden, savage act of transgression, a stoning to parallel the ritual violence in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Gertie’s wounding represents a marked escalation of the hostilities that exist on Maple Street; this central scene (which occurs virtually mid-point in the novel), is soon followed by additional acts of despicable aggression. Langan’s entire book forms a meditation on mob mentality, a concern oftentimes shared via passages of ominous omniscience: “Directed against the wrong person, violence assumes a will of its own. It wants to continue to hurt that person, as if to right the wrong, as if, in some way, to provoke violence in kind, thereby conveying its own legitimacy.”
A further word on Good Neighbors: I cannot heap enough praise on this book (the best one I have read this year, and probably in the past several years). It is American Gothic at its finest, not only in its sounding of the sins-of-the-fathers (and mothers) theme, but also in its attention to the sinisterness hidden behind seemingly idyllic facades. Langan presents a terrifying (and frightfully timely, considering our current cultural climate of intolerance and quick-triggered incrimination) story, told in beautiful prose. The novel is impeccably plotted, demonstrating how individual, sometimes innocent, events can create a chain reaction of chaos. It is suffused with rich symbolism, particularly in the case of the sinkhole, whose noxious, insidiously spreading contents signal the dark and roiling underbelly of suburban existence. Langan’s villains are reprehensible but comprehensible, their monstrous thoughts and deeds all too plausible. Her protagonists, rendered even more real by their imperfections, are easy to relate to, and to fear for. This is the first novel that Langan (The Keeper, The Missing, Audrey’s Door) has published in twelve years, but even if she produced twelve books every year for the rest of her career, she would be hard-pressed to match the dark brilliance of this one. Good Neighbors is an absolute masterpiece.