Horror book unable to provide scare

October 27, 2011

Rating: Three of Five Stars

Kathleen Duncan
Contributing Editor


“The house had, well, a history.” Sounds like the beginnings of a B-rated, low budget horror movie, right? Christopher Bohjalian’s The Night Strangers has the makings of the basis of a Syfy Channel wannabe scary movie in book form. When I read the summary I thought I was going to have a chill-filled time reading Bohjalian’s latest work. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I didn’t even have a tiny tingle along my spine.


Rather than being the Halloween horror I was expecting, The Night Strangers is a psychological drama. Yes, it has a few ghosts, but I spent half the book wondering if they were just a figment of Chip Linton’s imagination, a side effect of his PTSD. Linton isn’t a soldier though. He’s a pilot who attempted to land his plane in a lake after some geese flew into the turbines, causing a flame-out. Note: I say attempted. Something goes wrong, the plane somersaults, then breaks apart. Thirty-nine die and nine survive.


Several months later Chip, his wife Emily, and their 10-year-old twins, Garnet and Hallie, move to the New England countryside into a three-story Victorian; a house with a history. Emily thinks this will be a good move for the family. It will get Chip out of the city area where people are constantly reminding him of his mistake. The move will also give her daughters a chance to grow up in an area Emily loved visiting in the summers as a child.


There is mention of a tragedy in the house, an alleged suicide of a twin. The previous owners were a little eccentric. The wife, Tansy, hid random weapons around the house: a large knife, a small axe and a crowbar. Chip discovers a door in their basement, a door nailed shut with 39 six-inch carriage bolts. Cue eerie music, please.


I spent most of my time in the pages trying to figure out what was going on. The town is infested with a creepy “herbalist” cult. The cult, whose members are identified by a greenhouse in their backyard and an herbal name like Holly or Lavender, wants one of the twins for some nefarious purpose that is alluded to, but not revealed until the last few chapters.


The town knows there is something wrong with the members of the cult; no one really explains this to the Lintons. The poor family quickly becomes outcast to everyone except the creepy plant ladies and their husbands. It’s like an abusive relationship. The abuser cuts the abused off from family and friends and anyone who could actually help, then the abused has no one but the abuser. The cult even gives the twins and Emily new plant names in an effort to brainwash them. All while that is going on, Chip is dealing with three ghosts of his very own, all of whom died on his plane.


Chip has what doctors tell him are phantom pains. Well, they certainly come from phantoms; each of his pains is the wound each ghost suffered in the crash. He knows when a ghost is ready to appear to him by the start of one or all phantom pains. He spends his time in conversation with the ghosts while renovating the old house. He occasionally plays dolls with Ashley, argues with Sandra and does his best to ignore Ethan’s pleas to give his daughter a playmate. That’s right, ghost Ashley’s ghost daddy wants Chip to kill one of his daughters to give her a playmate. Chip can feel the anger Ethan has that his daughter was killed at such a young age. It’s something he understands, father to father.


Emily can sense something is wrong with Chip. She turns to her new plant lady friends for help, and they recommend a new psychiatrist. This woman is one of them and is trying to convince Emily he needs to be put in a psychiatric hospital. She doesn’t realize Chip’s haunted condition is exasperated by one of her friend’s sneaky actions. In fact, she doesn’t realize any of her new friends are being sneaky with her daughters or husband.


Taking a step back from my disappointment that this wasn’t the horrorfest I thought it was going to be, the book was OK.It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t absolutely terrible. The details of the water crash are unnecessarily grotesque with mention of decapitation of passengers. The description of little Ashley’s grotesque torso wound, complete with hanging intestines is included for a shock factor. That and the description of her father’s head wound, a piece of airplane slicing the top of his head, are examples of a slasher/horror aspect of the book. If you had nothing else to read, I’d say pick it up. Maybe you’ll have better luck enjoying it than I did.


Email comments to mkd009@latech.edu



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