Stewart O’Nan’s The Night Country may be the saddest horror novel ever written. This could be because of the subject matter – dead kids and the wreckage their unexpected deaths causes in the lives of those they loved, those who loved them, and those who hardly knew them at all – but I think it might be because O’Nan has distilled that earthy, musty sadness of New England in the fall and rubbed it deeply into each page of this slim novel.
Folksinger Dar Williams sings a song about “autumn days that make you feel sad? and unless you’ve lived in New England or upstate New York in the fall, you may not fully know what she’s talking about (after having lived in Illinois, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, and Pennsylvania in the fall, I can certify that nowhere else is quite the same at that time of year). There’s something about the quality of the light, the taste of the air, the atmosphere of the earth in the fall in New England that’s just so sad, no matter how your day is going or you’re feeling.
And O’Nan, who’s lived all over New England and went to graduate school in the same town where I did undergrad (Ithaca, NY, and if there’s a sadder place in the fall and winter anywhere in this country, I challenge you to find it), seems to know that fall feeling intimately. He knows the smell of the season, the sight and sound of fallen leaves blowing hard everywhere and wet. He knows how it makes you feel and he pulls it all out of you so easily in The Night Country.
The book, in its 240 pages, takes place across a single 24-hour stretch, from close to midnight the night before Halloween to close to midnight on Halloween. Narrated by the three dead teenagers who perished in a car crash that night a year earlier, the story follows the lives of their survivors as they try to fashion new existences, and seek new happiness, in a still-shattered world. Whether it’s Officer Brooks, tortured for an unknown reason by their deaths, Kyle, left disfigured and so mentally disabled that he is a child again despite being a teenager, Tim, the wreck’s sole survivor, or the parents and other friends of those who died, no one in the book has been able to carry on well since the accident.
Now, on the one year anniversary of the deaths, the ghosts are called back to the town and to the lives of those they left behind by a gathering crisis.
And that is how we interact with all the characters in the story – through the lens of the ghosts. The ghosts, as O’Nan envisions them, have very little agency of their own and instead are bound to the people who remember them. In fact, in a nice technical and imaginative trick which embraces and expands the old notion that ghosts maintain as long as they are remembered, the narrative focus of the story switches every time someone in the town starts to remember the dead kids again. So, we jump from scene to scene, pulled through and by the memories of the people left behind.
Despite the presence of ghosts, this is not the kind of ghost story most readers are going to expect. It’s not one where ghosts can rattle chains or make themselves known or even effect many events at all. Rather, these ghosts are almost – but not quite – helpless observers, much like the reader.
And just like the reader, they can do little to change the outcome that they see coming from more than 24 hours away.
Things are a little trickier for the reader, though, as it’s not clear to us what’s going to happen or why. But even this mystery is not entirely the point of the story. The story is about human relationships, about coping with loss, and about finding a way to live in a radically altered world.
And it’s not easy stuff. For about the middle half of the story, when it’s not clear what’s going to happen, or why things have happened in the past, when we focus largely on Kyle and his mom, and on Tim and Officer Brooks, almost every page makes you want to cry. Saddest horror novel, like I said.
And something about the end of the book, something that I don’t think I can quite place, put me in mind of the last page or two of The Great Gatsby. I don’t know why, it just ends that way.
This was my first experience with O’Nan’s writing, and it was a pleasant surprise. I was a bit trepedatious going in, since O’Nan is so influenced by Stephen King (someday, I’ll write a piece about how I think the influence of King – not a bad writer on his own and separate from his influence – has been destructive to modern horror fiction) and even wrote a book with him.
You see King’s influence in O’Nan’s style, in his New England setting, in his attention to the minutia of life there, the obsession with the local brands and song lyrics and the like as a way of locating the story, making it real. But where this is what sinks King’s work for me now – and the work of the thousands of horror writers now descended from him – O’Nan’s writing feels so fresh and so much his own that it works.
The Night Country, sad as it is, is worth your time. It will expand notions of how horror can present itself for some readers and will bring a level of writing craft that much horror fiction lacks to others.
This was a good first journey into O’Nan’s country for me, and it won’t be my last.