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Haunted by Disaster

Book Review: The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian


Published October 5, 2011 at 5:40 a.m.


Just in time for Halloween, Chris Bohjalian has written an honest-to-God horror book. The Night Strangers, which is (fittingly) the best-selling Lincoln author’s 13th novel, has the main traits that readers expect from him: topical hooks, strong character work and meaty questions for book-club discussions. But this time Bohjalian aims first and foremost to make us read into the wee hours, when the slightest creak or crack brings the book’s creepy setting to life around us. He succeeds.

Some of us have fond memories of the fat, high-concept horror novels that weighed down best-seller racks in the 1970s and ’80s. Books such as The Exorcist, Audrey Rose, Ghost Story and the early works of Stephen King. Sharing themes with domestic fiction, those epic chillers targeted a broad audience, not just horror aficionados; you could spot them in the hands of your great-aunt, the school custodian or your teenage best friend. The Night Strangers evokes that broadly appealing horror tradition. Pulpier than Bohjalian is wont to be, it also features some of the tensest, tightest plotting he’s done.

The novel kicks off with the kind of teaser few readers can resist. One fine day, experienced regional airline pilot Chip Linton takes off from Burlington Airport with 47 people on board. What happens on Lake Champlain after his CRJ700 meets an errant flock of geese will end more than a few lives and change the course of his.

Some of Bohjalian’s most compelling characters are high-minded men who go awry after failing to live up to their own standards. Chip is a prime example; the bold decision he makes as his aircraft descends brands him forever in the public mind as “the pilot who wasn’t Sully Sullenberger.” “I always thought I could do it,” Chip says of his attempt to emulate the pilot who ditched his disabled plane safely in the Hudson, and Bohjalian gives us no reason to see his confidence as hubris. Some people take leaps of faith and become national heroes; others take those same leaps and crash to Earth. Horror is made of such perversities.

The pilot is haunted by the ghosts of those who died in the air disaster he couldn’t prevent, particularly a forlorn 6-year-old girl. Is she real, or just a symptom of survivor’s guilt and posttraumatic stress? Either way, Chip’s mental state isn’t improved when his wife, Emily, decides to move the family from the suburbs to a remote New Hampshire town where they can live in peaceful obscurity.

Has a rural idyll ever worked out for anyone in a horror film or novel? Have psychic healing and family bonding been well served by a prolonged stay in the Overlook Hotel, or in a rambling Victorian like the one the Lintons purchase, with a dirt-floor basement and an inexplicably nailed-shut door? Of course not. Somehow, however, it never occurs to our shell-shocked protagonists that they might be better off in a bright, new-construction home with neighbors a scream away. The setting permits Bohjalian to indulge all the hoary haunted-house clichés while slyly suggesting that, in some quaint villages, having neighborly neighbors is a mixed blessing.

While Chip ponders the mystery of the door in the basement, Emily and their 10-year-old twin daughters make friends with the local matrons, who all seem to be named after herbs. These friendly folks take a special interest in the young Lintons, whom they ply with vegan baked goods and usher into the greenhouses where they grow suspiciously potent botanicals. Their intentions, we soon suspect, are not limited to passing on the womanly art of herbalism.

Meanwhile, as if the pilot were still gliding toward his rendezvous with the lake, Chip seems to have one way to go, and that’s down. The central character’s fatal passivity is among the genre tropes Bohjalian embraces. Readers of King’s The Shining will recognize the motif of a husband and father on a collison course with noxious, otherworldly influences. The renegade herbalist who sees into the spirit world feels awfully familiar, too, and fans of Kubrick’s film version will cock an eyebrow at Bohjalian’s twin imagery.

But horror, which psychoanalysts might say is all about repetition compulsion (exhuming the sins of the past), has never shunned the derivative. King didn’t invent the gothic dad-driven-mad storyline, which dates back all the way to Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798). And, stylistically, Bohjalian goes more his own way. Most notably, he narrates sections of the book in second person from Chip’s perspective (see sidebar), the better to convey the pilot’s progressive state of dissociation. These off-kilter passages can be chilling in a restrained way that recalls Shirley Jackson, one of the masters of the New England psychological gothic.

The book’s third-person sections are initially more stilted, but they pick up as Bohjalian delves into the world of the twins and reveals that the young girls, like their parents, have foibles and rivalries that lead them unwittingly into danger. In a genre where children are all too often treated like holy innocents, Bohjalian’s life drawing is welcome.

In the end, though, whatever its window dressing, the success or failure of a book like this comes down to the author’s power to evoke the dread of a dark basement and a closed door. When Chip flips a breaker and darkness descends on the old house, Bohjalian writes, “This is fall-of-man blackness, a despairing, debilitating sort of blindness.” We’ve all been there, especially as a New England winter descends. Campfire spook tales were made to allay that darkness, so take a seat by the fire for this one. You may be up a while.