“Lost Boys” by Orson Scott Card

Card, Orson Scott. Lost Boys  
New York: HarperCollins, 1992   
ISBN 0-06-109131-6  
Audiobook by Blackstone Audio


This is the story of the Fletcher family: Step (Stephen) and his pregnant wife, DeAnne, and their children–Stevie, age 8; Robbie, 4; and Elizabeth, 2. It’s 1983, and the family is relocating from Indiana to Steuben, North Carolina, for Step’s new job. Step created a wildly popular game for the Atari computer, and the royalties from that allowed him to complete his doctorate in history. But now the Commodore 64 is replacing the Atari, there’s a recession on, and the only job Step could get was writing manuals for a small software company in Steuben.

As soon as Step arrives at the offices of his new employer, Eight Bits Inc., he realizes things are not quite right. The human resources manager tries to get him to sign a highly unfair non-competition agreement, the head of programming informs him that he is not to be involved in programming in any way, and the owner of the company tells him to help out with the programming as much as necessary but without letting the head of programming know. Step soon realizes that the company is run by exploitative, manipulative, incompetent people who expect him to go along unquestioningly. And, just in passing, Step discovers that the real creative genius behind the company’s software is a child molester.

Things at home aren’t much better. The long hours Step is required to work keep him from seeing much of his family. And Stevie is having a terribly hard time settling into second grade at his new school. At first he makes no new friends, and then he begins to talk about friends who, disturbingly, have the names of several young boys who have recently disappeared around Steuben.

This book was shelved in the horror section of both my local bookstore and my local public library. And most of the customer reviews on Amazon call this a horror story. But Lost Boys is not a horror story, nor is it a supernatural thriller, the other term a lot of Amazon readers applied to it. Lost Boys is a ghost story, a literary form with a rich history throughout world literature and American literature. (Perhaps the best-known examples of ghost stories are A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.)

Ghost stories usually involve some form of the eternal conflict between good and evil in the world, and that’s exactly what’s going on in Lost Boys. From the narrative’s opening scene, in which the Fletcher family has to pull off the road to clean up toddler vomit, Step and DeAnne are caught up in all parents’ desire to keep their children safe.  The Fletchers try very hard to protect their children. In fact, DeAnne’s maternal ministrations cross the line from protective into hovering. 

But evil is everywhere: We see it in the deceptive, manipulative people Step works with and in Stevie’s teacher and psychiatrist. And soon we realize that this is no mundane badness the Fletchers are up against. This is pure Evil. As the Steuben detective investigating the boys’ disappearances tells Step and DeAnne:

. . . there’s some people who do things so bad it tears at the fabric of the world, and then there’s some people so sweet and good that they can feel it when the world gets torn. They see things, they know things, only they’re so good and pure that they don’t understand what it is that they’re seeing. (p. 441)

I do have some criticisms of this novel. It’s long, and about the first 75% is devoted to straightforward exposition. I kept waiting for the story’s real conflict to ratchet up. There are also a few occurrences that strain credulity. For example, when Step bumps into Mrs. Jones at the pharmacy, it’s hard to believe that he doesn’t recognize her, given their past history. And the Good vs. Evil dichotomy is set up just a little too neatly and stereotypically.

Yet all these criticisms fade into unimportance after the book’s powerful climax. In fact, the unequivocal emphasis on Good vs. Evil is one of the traditions of the ghost story that gives this literary form its emotional punch. And the extended exposition ensures that we will sympathize with the Fletchers when this ordinary family finds itself in extraordinary circumstances.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

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