On a single day at the beginning of Will McIntosh’s Hitchers (Night Shade Books), cartoonist Finn Darby loses both his wife Lorena and his elderly grandfather, who 40 years earlier created the successful comic strip Toy Shop. The grandfather previously made clear his refusal to allow Finn to take over the strip after his own death, but as it turns out, Finn easily convinces his grandmother that continuing the strip will benefit them both. Finn keeps “Top Shop” running, introduces new characters, and signs licensing deals, and these changes bring popularity, fame and wealth.
When a major terrorist attack strikes Finn’s home city of Atlanta, the half-million sudden deaths bring about the novel’s premise: Spirits of the recent dead take over the bodies of the living. These “hitchers” appear first through verbalization, then gradually control the bodies of their living hosts. The novel’s emotional impact is strongly front-loaded. Events pile up fast in the first few chapters. Along with a few characters entangled with him, Finn seeks to understand what’s happening, then manage the interference of these “hitchers” as the influence they exert over the living increases. Finn partners with Mick Mercury, washed-up 80s rock star, and waitress Summer Locker, who Finn and his wife encountered just before Lorena died.
McIntosh presses the story relentlessly forward, in a straightforward, unadorned style, with brief scenes and chapters. Characters move briskly from place to place, event to event. The overall tone remains breezy, despite a brief serious turn in the early going as characters adjust to the loss of loved ones, and greater Atlanta copes with mass death. These scenes are affecting, and come across as “real” in a human way. McIntosh conveys Finn’s conflict between a selfish desire to control “Toy Shop” and an impulse to respect his grandfather’s wishes.
As events progress, the story unfolds at double-speed so that the last half of the book seems compressed. The reader glides along the surface at an increasingly superficial level. Significant story milestones fly past, and the plot jumps forward, more synopsis than narrative. A long-developed romantic triangle is resolved in just a sentence or two. A character’s mindset suddenly jumps from problem-solving to giving up all hope, without much in the way of transition. These plot turns feel less true, less emotionally justified than what came before.
Just when the plot seems to be on a rail headed toward inevitability, McIntosh pulls out some rewarding surprises and nicely resolves the ending. Hitchers offers an interesting setup and likable characters whose conflicts and drives compel the reader. Despite pacing issues in the second half, it’s an enjoyable and entertaining read.