The first season of The Twilight Zone in 1960 included an episode written by show creator Rod Serling entitled “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Serling presented a block of homes, filled with “typical” American families, on a summer evening. There is a bright flash of light, whose origin is unknown. Then various utilities, the foremost of which is their electricity, begin to behave unreliably. As the residents’ questions grow, panic begins to develop and overtake them resulting in wild accusations, and, ultimately death. Sterling’s closing narration for the episode includes this:
“For the record, prejudices can kill ... and suspicion can destroy ... and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own— ... And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to The Twilight Zone.”
In her latest novel, Sarah Langan, who is known for writing novels with horrors of a more supernatural nature, explores how terrifying and deadly, fear, suspicion, prejudice and the need for a scapegoat can be in her new novel.
Maple Street, in Long Island, New York, is a picture-perfect slice of American suburbia. Eighteen homes along a curved drive directly across the street from a communal public park. Eighteen families of varying backgrounds, with children ranging from toddlers to young adults. The constants: upper middle-class incomes and sensibilities.
Arlo and Gertie Wilde move their family into this established community. Arlo is a former rock musician who has almost nothing to show for his moderate success. Gertie is a former beauty pageant queen with her own rocky past. She and Arlo are expecting their third child. They have two children: tween Julia and her younger brother Larry. Maple Street is Arlo’s final attempt to provide a “normal” life for his wife and kids. Their integration into the Maple Street community has been a challenge, but both he and Gertie are sure that, after a while, they will be accepted.
At a Fourth of July picnic, where Gertie is hoping that their lack of an invitation is merely an oversight, something unimaginable happens: a large sinkhole opens up in the park. There is no notice. It simply happens. The sinkhole affects wireless, telephone, and television services. While the city promises that they will fill the sinkhole as soon as possible, they are unable to do anything about the disrupted services or the sickly-sweet smell that emanates from the pit. The residents are able to drive in and out of the area to go to work or get supplies, but when they are home, the sinkhole is a constant disruption to their lives. Soon, nerves are on edge and existing conflicts are magnified. And then one of the children falls into the hole ...
In Good Neighbors, Sarah Langan explores what is often the most frightening threat a person can experience: their treatment by another person. She does so with unsettling and horrifying results. She develops a group of recognizable characters, and then allows readers to watch as they are all pushed to their limits. The circumstances she creates are all completely believable and it is fascinating to see how these characters devolve into the worst possible versions of themselves.
Like Serling long before her, Langan illustrates how almost nothing the imagination can conceive can compete with the horrors one person is able, and sometimes willing, to unleash on another. Good Neighbors is a terrifying and disturbing read.