What if people, long-dead people, started reappearing all over the world? Not as zombies, but just as they were when they left?
The first one, quite rightly, would be regarded as a miracle. The first few hundred, an anomaly. A few thousand turns into a trend. And beyond that, it becomes a problem.
In The Returned, award-winning poet Jason Mott drops us into the small-town lives of Harold and Lucille Hargrave, just as they find out that their 8-year-old son, who died in 1966, has come back from the beyond. Lucille is religious and accepting of this new stranger, while Harold is skeptical and distant, at least initially. Still, at first they present a united front against Agent Martin Bellamy of the International Bureau of the Returned. After all, he’s got two strikes against him: He’s from New York, and he works for a quasi-governmental agency, neither of which plays well in the North Carolina town of Arcadia.
Mott captures the complex awkwardness of their early meetings with a poet’s ear for nuance. While the Hargraves wrestle with integrating these two new interlopers into their lives, Southern hospitality is strained to the breaking point. And what starts as an intensely personal circumstance quickly morphs into a civic one, as Arcadia struggles to cope with the ever-increasing influx of the Returned into a town that has gone largely untouched by time.
Tensions flare as a loosely organized militia known as the True Living Movement attempts to take the law into their own hands, dispatching the Returned back to the graves from which they came. Standing in their path is an equally improvised coalition of the local Baptist church (represented here by the conflicted pastor Robert Peters), the International Bureau of the Returned and the U.S. government, whose emergency management skills seem not to have improved much since the days of Hurricane Katrina. As the drama plays out, the sense that things aren’t going to end well is palpable.
The Returned takes us on a journey into our own hearts and souls, exploring shared grief over absent loved ones and posing questions that are troubling on a variety of levels: How would you react if you were confronted by the sudden reappearance of a deceased loved one? How would it affect your faith, or lack thereof? And when political necessity comes in conflict with personal responsibility, which side would you find yourself on?
In his debut novel, Mott has thrust us into a “Twilight Zone” parallel universe whose door is unlocked with the key of his own remarkable imagination. What happens when one crosses the threshold is up to the reader almost as much as the storyteller.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Check out our Meet the Author interview with Jason Mott for The Returned.