Zombies may be all the rage in popular culture in recent years, but Jason Mott’s novel The Returned manages to ask a pretty obvious zombie-bait question (“What if the dead came back to life?”) without ever once mentioning or even invoking zombie mythology.
Instead of a brains-eating apocalypse, Mott’s story is centered the a small rural town in the Carolinas, where an elderly couple – Homer and Lucille Hargrave – get a knock on the door from the Bureau of the Returned. Turns out their son who tragically died decades earlier, was found in China.
All over the world, that same scenario plays out. But some don’t see the returned with such a kind eye – and there are little differences that throw doubt on just how much they belong back in the world. Mott smartly keeps most of the action in the one little town of Arcadia, although brief snapshots between chapters help fill out the experiences of both “True Living” and the Returned happening outside the scope of the story he tells. In that little town, the combination of numbers and concern (bordering on fear) lead to the local school being transformed in a holding facility for the Returned – and the town being transformed right along with it.
Mott crafts a page-turning tale. His main characters prove well suited to relaying the variety of emotional and practical responses that might realistically take place in the event of such a world-changing circumstance. While he is not quite as successful when he attempts to squeeze in references or mentions of the greater worldwide response to the Returned, the bulk of the story is narrow, focused, and very intriguing.
The attention Mott pays to his characters – and even many of their reactions – reminded me a lot of some of Stephen King’s less monster-y writing, like The Dead Zone or the earlier parts of The Stand. He shows them a lot of compassion, but leaves just a little mystery to them. Like in much of King’s work, there is a sense that some decisions are just out of one’s hands, that greater forces are at work. Fortunately, Mott manages to balance this idea with what are largely realistic responses, which prevent The Returned from becoming too mired in the elements of both science fiction and mysticism that it plays with.
Instead, the book finds a place to explore what it means to be alive, the importance and costs of being with the people you love, and the identity that comes with belonging to different groups. It just uses a very different type of background for getting there. I highly recommend this book.