Who would have thought there was a fresh way to look at the undead? In his intriguing debut novel, The Returned, Jason Mott imagines that people who have long been dead and buried are now mysteriously turning up around the world, looking no older than they did on the day of their passing. Take Jacob Hargrave, a freckled 8-year-old who drowned in a river near his Arcadia, N.C., home back in 1966. Jacob wakes up in a fishing village outside Beijing, then gets escorted back to his old porch, where his stunned father, Harold, now in his 70s, stands ”blinking like a hazard light.”
Arcadia soon becomes an outpost for other new arrivals, many without family willing to take them in as Jacob’s does. Are they living miracles? Omens of the apocalypse? And will there be space (and resources) should more continue to appear? Despite the Stephen King-worthy premise, this is no zombie horror yarn. Instead, Mott smartly focuses on the philosophical and sociological implications of an undead population boom. Soldiers and bureaucrats descend on Arcadia, turning the town into a kind of armed concentration camp for the Returned. The growing problem riles anxious residents, spurred by a Tea Party-like movement that’s leery of both the otherworldly intruders and the government types who have no explanations for them.
Toward the end, the plot veers into standard thriller territory, with hints of Nicholas Sparks-level mawkishness. But Mott turns phrases with poetic grace (”The crowd parted like heavy batter”), and it’s in the quieter moments that The Returned pulses with life. B+