The other day I came to another of my embarrassing literary confusions. Like how I thought Raymond Chandler and Raymond Carver were the same person until last year. I felt bad about that. Especially since I never read any Raymond Carver because I assumed I had him covered already. Whoops. Don’t worry, I made it up to Mr. Carver and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is now basically my favorite short story collection ever.
The same thing happened with two more modern authors. To atone, I made my confession on Twitter.
I guess it’s understandable. Both have normal first names and unusual last names. And this was another time when I had completely ignored one author. I am familiar with Booker-winner Ondaatje and I believe I once read one of his novels. It wasn’t that I disliked it but I recognized that his novels were not something to undertake lightly. Thus I haven’t read any more.
But I had no idea that Bohjalian was a different person and one who’s actually much more my style.
And I had no idea that Bohjalian himself would notice my fumble.
I chose not to be mildly embarrassed but to take advantage of Twitter, as I often do.
And thus began my quasi-friendship with an author whose books I’d never read.
It didn’t take me long to fix it.
The reason I’d realized my error in the first place is that both Ondaatje and Bohjalian have new books out and I’d seen the galleys available online. It was the perfect opportunity to dive into The Night Strangers, Bohjalian’s new novel, especially since I’ve been super in the mood for something scary these days.
I don’t know exactly what genre to classify the book. I suppose you would say horror or thriller but I think “scary story” really fits it best. And much of the strengths of scary stories are the way they build on the typicalities of the genre. The Night Strangers is no exception. There is a small town, a big old house, a creepy basement, a locked door, a set of twins and a group of mysterious ladies who may or may not be witches.
The benefit of using these established tactics is that readers can get into the mood right away. You don’t watch a scary movie without knowing what you’re in for and most of them immerse you in their atmosphere as quickly as possible.
One of the biggest strengths of The Night Strangers is how it combines these classic elements with some of our modern everyday fears. The big opening scare does not involve ghosts or witches, though they later become serious menacing elements. Rather it’s a tightly written narration of a pilot as his plane goes down after a bird strike.
Plane crashes are one of the most terrifying fears of the everyday. It’s definitely in my top 5, very possibly my #1.
It’s this event that sets off the story, where traumatized pilot Chip Linton moves his family away from the media coverage to a small New England town called Bethel. After arrival, the family is beset by troubles and scares. There are the aforementioned witches. There are ghosts. There is the old house itself. But all of these are grounded in the daily struggle of the Linton family. Chip’s wife Emily tries to keep life normal for her daughters while she watches Chip battle depression, PTSD and more ominous dangers she doesn’t see. Twins Hallie and Garnet adjust to a new home and friends, not sure how to treat their father. Most of all there is Chip, who not only has nightmares of plane crashes and near-crippling mental illness, but the added pressure of the ghosts of his dead passengers who exert a strange power over him.
There are no simple scares in this book. Rather it is a slow ratcheting of tension from the many threats that converge on the family. Mysterious friends get strangely close. Ghosts get more possessive. Strange things start to happen in town. The dangers come from different directions, and as they come the family must try harder and harder to insist that they are all okay.
Our tendency to find comfort in the worst of circumstances, to insist that we are fine and okay despite how terrible things seem even as it draws us closer to danger are feelings you can connect with as a reader. And Bohjalian tells the story elegantly.
My favorite books are those with a tight plot and strong prose to back it up. This definitely qualifies. It’s a scary story, but the writing doesn’t feel that way. I read it in a couple of days and would have read it faster if I didn’t have so much pregnancy exhaustion all the time.
I’m really excited to read more Bohjalian, it’s not often I find an author who writes this well and keeps me this interested. Just looking at the rest of his novels has me very intrigued. It’s very possible I will go on a little Bohjalian streak through the holidays.
If you like books that have words like “riveting” in the blurbs on the back, this is one that really does qualify. A great October read, whether you like scary stories or just good books. (And while you’re at it, you should follow it up with one of my favorite reads this year, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.)
Oh, and Mr. Bohjalian, it was a pleasure to meet you.
I was not compensated for this review. I received an advanced copy of The Night Strangers from Netgalley and Crown Publishing. This book was released on October 4 and is available at bookstores everywhere. As usual, you’ll find the best deals on e-books, but both B&N and Amazon have good deals on the hardcover.