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 best-selling 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 novel-writing, 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-cum-thriller 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 gut-churning scene of spousal abuse that swiftly reveals Carey’s talent for taut, economical and immersive prose. Liz Kendall is being beaten by her ex-husband Marc, an all-too-familiar 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 6-year-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 the drab and quotidian venue, a very solidly rendered Pittsburgh. Along the way there are many moments of tenderness and humor, leavened with pop culture riffs: The kids wonder if Liz is becoming one of Tolkien’s ring-wraiths; Bruno is dubbed the Shadowman, linking him to the infamous Slenderman of recent headlines; and does the “Hellblazer” comic hold any answers? Never has the cliche “possession is nine-tenths of the law” been used as a more macabre punchline.
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. And it echoes the much earlier “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as an allegory of inner subversion, wrong paths taken and the deformation of identity — existential crises that are modernity’s haunting phantoms.
Paul Di Filippo’s crime novel “The Deadly Kiss-Off” will appear in April 2019.
By M.R. Carey
Orbit. 512 pp. $26.