Book review: ‘The Night Strangers,’ by Chris Bohjalian

October 3, 2011

Warning: Do not read this book on an airplane. Unless you crave a good scare.

Chris Bohjalian’s 13th novel, “The Night Strangers,” begins with a harrowing description of a pilot’s attempt to ditch his jet, which has struck a flock of geese shortly after takeoff. Unlike the true story of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s successful landing on the Hudson River, Capt. Chip Linton’s efforts end in a horrific crash into the waters of Lake Champlain. Thirty-nine passengers die. The scene unfolds over and over in the pilot’s memory as the story progresses, the gory details emerging and slowly driving him mad.

Haunted by the accident, Chip and his wife, Emily, decide to move with their twin 10-year-old daughters to an old Victo­rian house in rural New Hampshire. They hope to recover from the trauma and rebuild their lives. Trouble is, in the cellar there’s a mysterious door sealed with 39 bolts. And the neighbors in their small town of Bethel have an unhealthy obsession with herbs and potions. And young twins.

Bohjalian has been a reliable bestseller of literary and historical fiction, earning praise from critics and a large audience, but “The Night Strangers” represents a more sinister turn. It boasts all the trappings of a classic Gothic horror story, remi­nis­cent in places of the spousal secrets in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” the thrills of “Rosemary’s Baby” and the psychological frights of Daphne du Maurier. Ghosts arrive, demanding retribution from the living. A bloody curse infects the house. Something wicked lurks in the cellar. The weird New England townspeople — with unusual names such as Reseda and Clary and Anise — are hiding some dread secrets. A perfect book for Halloween reading.

The twin narratives — the tale of Chip’s survivor’s guilt and the story behind the haunted house — give the novel its relentless momentum. Emily plays the hero’s part, gallantly trying to protect their children from the townies as she works to rescue her husband from his creeping madness. The girls, Hallie and Garnet, are caught between the two tales and their parents, worried about Dad’s strange behavior and Mom’s distracted state.

All of this makes for a cauldron full of toil and trouble. The key ingredient is the family’s shared grief over how their lives have changed, and this emotional un­der­­cur­rent roils along as the plot twists.

As usual, Bohja­lian’s strengths are creating suspense and atmosphere, particularly the inner torment of the doomed pilot, represented in the text by the use of the second-person narrative. Take, for example, the description of the accident:

“This afternoon you see the birds, each with a wingspan almost the length of a man, just a second after your first officer does. She happens to be handling the takeoff. But the moment you fly through the drapes of geese — there it is, the sound you have always likened to a machine gun, the violent thud as each animal careens like a bullet into the metal and glass of your aircraft — the plane wobbles briefly to its side as first the left engine and then the right flame out.”

Though off-putting at first, that “you” of the narrative voice becomes an oddly effective way of drawing readers more closely into Chip’s mind. You feel his grief and obsession firsthand. You see the ghosts that only he can see. You empathize with the dreadful decisions he makes. You get to go crazy with him. It’s a smart trick, one that counteracts the more melodramatic aspects of the genre and this book.

The problem with any haunted-house novel is never the ghosts but the people who choose to remain in the house after they realize it’s haunted. Of course, the logic of the Gothic horror story insists that we accept the house as a metaphor for the narrator’s trapped mind. Indeed, the 39-bolt locked door in the cellar virtually screams subconscious guilt. Still, wouldn’t you just get the heck out of there once you knew there were ghosts? Or dangerous weapons squirreled away throughout the house? Or the witchy womyn of the village giving your children new names and lavishing them with attention? But as these warnings pile up in increasingly dramatic ways, the Lintons do just the opposite and find themselves drawn deeper into danger.

The story rumbles over those questions in a straightforward and unadorned Yankee style that only occasionally hits a jarring note. The family cat turns narrator for a brief scene. The herbalists get a bit over the top, particularly when their magic goes awry. During one climactic moment, when a group of witches is drawing blood from a victim, one scolds the other for letting some spill and go to waste: “You’re a New Englander, how can you abide that?” Oh, the horror!

These moments, however, are few and easily elided. Bohjalian turns the screw right up to the unexpected ending and an epilogue that’s truly shocking. That thump thump you hear as you read is only your heart leaping from your chest.

Donohue’s latest novel is “Centuries of June.”

THE NIGHT STRANGERS

By Chris Bohjalian

Crown. 378 pp. $25

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