Guest Reviewer: Justin Cronin on The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian
Justin Cronin is the bestselling author of The Passage, as well as Mary and O''Neil, which won the Pen/Hemingway Award and the Stephen Crane Prize, and The Summer Guest.
To put the matter succinctly: The first chapter of Chris Bohjalian’s The Night Strangers is so riveting, I dropped the book in the tub.
I spent the next half-hour running a hair-dryer over its soaked pages. By the time the task was complete the book was as swollen as a Reuben sandwich. It was clear to me that if the first twenty pages were any indication, I’d better read the rest somewhere safe and secure, with neither water nor fire, and while I was at it, some good soundproofing, lest I freak out my children by shrieking like an acrophobe on a roller coaster.
I wasn’t wrong.
Describing Bohjalian’s thirteenth novel isn’t a simple matter. Its dovetailing plots are so seamlessly interwoven--as tightly screwed together as the thirty-nine carriage bolts sealing the mysterious door in the Linton’s (very creepy) basement--I don’t want to give too much away.
But it’s also a challenge to summarize because The Night Strangers is so many novels at once, as all good novels must be. It’s a psychological thriller. It’s a domestic drama, the story of a family coping with the aftermath of dislocation and disaster. It’s a book about a specifically American locale, in this case a small town in a remote corner of New Hampshire. It’s a classic New England ghost story, and a hell of a good one. (It also won’t make you want to get on an airplane anytime soon, though there I go, telling too much.)
I’ve been following Bohjalian for some time. Always I’ve come away from his novels replete with admiration--and not a little envy--for his skill and versatility, book after book. His psychological acumen is downright Flaubert-esque, most notably (and remarkably) in his creation of female characters. But Bohjalian is a reader-friendly writer, too. His novels are compulsively discussable, the kinds of tales that employ specific human dramas to probe larger ethical issues. They make you think. They are, in every sense, “what would you do?” books, and the answers are never simple.
If there’s a core to Bohjalian’s work, though, it’s the cultural divide between the modern scientific world and--for lack of a better term--the spiritual world and its ancient practices. His novels are populated by the likes of dowsers (Water Witches), the practitioners of traditional female-assisted birth (Midwives), homeopaths (The Law of Similars), even a shape-shifter (Trans-Sister Radio).
The Night Strangers follows this tradition, but with a dark twist. The witches of Bethel, New Hampshire are decidedly of the sinister variety—albeit more likely to sell real estate and wear stylish leather skirts than fly around on brooms and don pointy hats. Beneath the town’s charming rural surface of gingerbread Victorians, maple sugarhouses, and fiery foliage lurks a conspiracy of evil reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” How evil? Suffice it to say that when somebody drops by to welcome newcomers to the neighborhood with a plate of vegan brownies, they should think twice before taking the first bite.
But to say anything more would be to reveal too much. Fans of his fiction, as I am, will know The Night Strangers is pure Bohjalian. Newcomers will come away wanting more. And if you read it in the bathtub, consider yourself warned.
From the bestselling author of The Double Bind, Skeletons at the Feast, and Secrets of Eden, comes a riveting and dramatic ghost story.
In a dusty corner of a basement in a rambling Victorian house in northern New Hampshire, a door has long been sealed shut with 39 six-inch-long carriage bolts.
The home''s new owners are Chip and Emily Linton and their twin ten-year-old daughters. Together they hope to rebuild their lives there after Chip, an airline pilot, has to ditch his 70-seat regional jet in Lake Champlain after double engine failure. Unlike the Miracle on the Hudson, however, most of the passengers aboard Flight 1611 die on impact or drown. The body count? Thirty-nine – a coincidence not lost on Chip when he discovers the number of bolts in that basement door. Meanwhile, Emily finds herself wondering about the women in this sparsely populated White Mountain village – self-proclaimed herbalists – and their interest in her fifth-grade daughters. Are the women mad? Or is it her husband, in the wake of the tragedy, whose grip on sanity has become desperately tenuous?
The result is a poignant and powerful ghost story with all the hallmarks readers have come to expect from bestselling novelist Chris Bohjalian: a palpable sense of place, an unerring sense of the demons that drive us, and characters we care about deeply.
The difference this time? Some of those characters are dead.
From the Hardcover edition.
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