Finn Darby’s wife and grandfather died on the same day. While Finn misses his beloved Lorena, he doesn’t really miss his grandfather Tom – a tight-fisted, alcoholic, racist, abusive old bastard. Tom Darby created Toy Shop, a long-running newspaper comic strip, and refused to ever let Finn – an aspiring cartoonist – have anything to do with it.
But Finn went against his grandfather’s dying demand, resurrected the strip, updating it for a modern audience, creating new characters and selling merchandising rights. It’s more successful than ever. Most of the money goes to his Finn’s long-suffering grandmother but Finn has become fairly wealthy too.
Then, after a terrorist attack kills half a million people in Atlanta, Finn starts blurting out things in a strange, disturbing voice that he can’t control. Eventually he realises that his grandfather is speaking through him, and that the terrorist attack has somehow allowed the dead to return by inhabiting the bodies of the living. At first they can only blurt random words and phrases, but it’s not long before the hitchers’ influence begins to grow. Finn’s grandfather wants Toy Shop back, but it’s not all bad. Finn quickly realises that he can contact his dead wife, and he finds her in the body of a waitress named Summer.
Together with Summer and an ageing British rocker named Mick Mercury (a combination of Mick Jagger and Freddie Mercury, I assume), Finn tries to understand the hitchers and the afterlife they come from. It looks like they’re here to stay, but can they be allowed to?
Hitchers is a quick, light read, but even if that’s what you’re looking for, you might not appreciate it in this book, especially if the ideas in the plot are what intrigued you. On the one hand, the story incorporates a lot of serious ideas and situations, but it’s mostly handled in a superficial and sometimes amateurish way that wastes the premise. Also, it features Toy Shop cartoons that all suck.
Let’s take the existence of hitchers, to start with. They’re all people who either really, really didn’t want to be dead or have unfinished business. Finn’s grandfather was vicious, Lorena incredibly vivacious, and Mick’s hitcher has… actual unfinished business. It’s pretty boring, but the ghosts’ existence is more important to the plot than their reasons for hanging around, so fine. What bugged me more was that everything the characters need to understand about the ghosts and the afterlife come from one book. Summer is a hippy who just so happens to have this book – a tome by an Indian mystic named J. Krishnapuma. And Krishnapuma is spot-on about everything. It’s so very lucky for everyone in the kind of plot device that should be reserved for children’s adventure stories.
The situations that the hitchers create are much more serious though, and McIntosh plays around with some interesting and disturbing ideas. The ghosts are basically always present in the bodies they inhabit. It’s like looking out silently through someone’s eyes. After a while, instead of just blurting out a few words, they take full possession of the body. Neither the ghost nor its host can control when the ghost speaks, when it takes over the body, or for how long. During possession, the body’s owner becomes the viewer.
The issues of privacy and control are the most obvious ones here, and Finn’s situation is particularly scary because his grandfather is a thoroughly hateful bastard. Finn’s relationship with Lorena raises a different set of disturbing problems.
Of course, Finn can only speak to Lorena through someone else’s body. A body that Lorena is involuntarily hijacking. Finn and Summer become friends, so Summer is at least understanding and co-operative when it comes to giving Finn a chance to spend time with his wife, but this quickly becomes far more complicated. For example, when Lorena takes over Summer’s body, they kiss and touch in physically intimate ways that Summer hasn’t consented to but experiences because she’s still inside her body. Then, Finn finds himself increasingly attracted to Summer, which Lorena picks up on because she’s watching all the time.
It’s a weird love triangle with two bodies and three people (four, counting Finn’s grandfather, although he doesn’t care about the romance), but it’s one of the issues that I think was handled too lightly. Yes, the characters agonise over it, but it feels a bit superficial. At the end, the whole thing is dealt with in a way that I found far too easy and dismissive.
The plot as a whole suffers from a similar problem. For a story featuring a terrorist attack that kills half a million people, uncontrolled possession of the living by the dead, some very bleak depictions of the afterlife, and personal struggles to deal with grief, Hitchers is just too relaxed and simplistic even when it’s supposed to be serious.
The Krishnapuma book that explains everything the main characters need to know about the hitchers and the afterlife is one example of this. Finn’s grandfather is another – technically Finn got rich by stealing his work, but Tom is such a vile person that you could never muddy the moral waters by taking his side. McIntosh also avoids the most interesting complexities of hitcher possession. There’s only one glimpse of a cross-gender hitcher. Except for Tom enjoying having Finn’s young, healthy body, there’s nothing about the experience of having a body notably different from your original one (male/female, child/adult, able/disabled, black/white, etc.). And although Finn, Mick and Summer are always listening to news reports about the hitchers, there’s no mention of anyone seeking out their loved ones as Finn has. This is the best thing about the hitchers, but also the most morally conflictual because of the way it affects relationships. Why then, is this most interesting of plot points restricted to Finn, Lorena and Summer?
In terms of the broader social effects of the terrorist attack and the hitchers, there’s one scene that stands out for me as the book’s failure to deal with difficult problems. After a night out, Finn and Summer are attacked and nearly murdered by religious fanatics who believe that people with hitchers are evil. Afterwards, this problem disappears from the plot, and Finn, Mick and Summer carry on as usual, as if there weren’t psychos trying to murder them in the streets.
At the end, the main plot is resolved far too quickly and conveniently, giving the impression that the author had just gotten tired of the whole thing. And honestly, it doesn’t feel like a story that’s worth your time. So much weight has been lifted from it that you feel like you’re getting something lesser than it should be. Easy reads are great, but not when it feels like an easy way out.