Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Review: "The Night Strangers" by Chris Bohjalian

I’ve been on a quest for the last year or so for that spooky, creepy, disturbing horror novel that just doesn’t seem to be out there anymore. After finding Chris Bohjalian’s “The Night Strangers” ($25, Crown) on a few end-of-year best horror lists and seeing that my local library had an electronic copy, I decided I’d give it a shot.

Chip Linton is an airline pilot forced to try to land his plane on Lake Champlain, a la Sully Sullenburger (who is mentioned ad nauseum in the book), after a flock of geese strike his engines and take them out. He almost pulls it off, too, but the wake of a ferry turning to come back and help the plane throws things off balance, causing the plane to break apart and dooming 39 of the passengers on board.

Now, the Linton family has moved to the country to try to get away from the attention and help Chip get his life back on track. They find a house that has been empty for a while because of the history of the family that once lived there, but it seems perfect for them. There is one strange feature, though. In the basement is a door that seems to go nowhere. It’s sealed with exactly 39 heavy carriage bolts, and Chip becomes obsessed with it, eventually tearing it down, at which point ghosts of people killed on the flight start appearing to him, including a sad little girl and her father who insists that she needs a friend and one of Linton’s twin daughters would be perfect.

It’s the setup for a nice creepy haunted house/ghost story. That’s where things begin to go wrong. There’s also a coven of witches in town, and seemingly everyone that the Lintons encounter is part of it. All of the women are named after herbs and have huge greenhouses where they grow exotic and often dangerous plants. At least some of the witches are after the blood of the Linton twins to put into a potion that they’ve made before that requires the blood of a traumatized twin, and it just gets sillier from there.

After the setup, I was hoping for a nice, dark psychological thriller, but what we ended up with was just a mess of too many ideas trying to be crammed into one story. “The Night Strangers” reminds me of a cheap Hollywood horror film where the writers were trying to force storylines from three or four other popular movies into theirs regardless of whether it makes sense or not. The witches (“herbalists” for the purposes of the book) seem pretty inept as villains go, and throughout the book, I found myself wondering how stupid the Lintons were that they couldn’t see right through them.

It’s doubly frustrating because there are moments where Bohjalian shines. There are compelling scenes and passages throughout the book, and he even managed to overcome my hatred of second person narrative, which he uses in scenes from Chip’s perspective. Normally, I don’t finish or review books that I don’t really like, but there was enough good stuff here to keep me reading to the fairly unsatisfying end. Ultimately, I couldn’t suspend my disbelief for most of it, though.

From all I can see, the horror genre seems to be in sad shape these days, and if “The Night Strangers” is truly one of the best horror novels of 2011, perhaps it’s worse than I thought. There is promise here in the early going, but it’s a promise that’s not kept. While I didn’t hate the book, I certainly wouldn’t recommend it either.

No comments: