Friday, March 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #75: The Night Country by Stewart O'Nan

I always say that I don't like or read horror stories, which means I'm pretty much required to make the case that this is not a horror story.

Well, I can't do that: The Night Country is a horror story. It's a literary story too, or maybe more so, but it's definitely horror. And maybe the fact that Stewart O'Nan uses horrific elements so well is equally responsible for why I think he's one of our very best writers and why I still don't get to his books except every few years.

(Possible objections: I seem to focus on the most horrific of his books, which is probably true. But I prefer to think that I like genre elements in my literary fiction, and horror is the genre element O'Nan works with.)

It's about fifteen years ago -- The Night Country was published in 2003. It's Halloween, in the small town of Avon, Connecticut. One year ago, five teens were in a horrific crash on Halloween night, which has haunted the town, and especially the policeman, Brooks, who was chasing them at the time.

One of the teens tells us the story. His name is Marco. He died in the crash. Also dead is Toe (real name Chris, the driver) and Danielle, the three of them called over and over again all around Avon as people remember them. But they can't touch the real world; can't affect anything.

Tim was Danielle's boyfriend. He survived the crash unscathed -- physically. And his friend Kyle survived with massive head trauma, turning him into a simpler teen, a quieter teen, a more childlike teen. (The ghost of who Kyle used to be also lurks around The Night Country, but he's not with Marco, Toe, and Danielle. They're as mystified by him as the reader.)

The Night Country takes place over just over twenty-four hours, from just before midnight on Mischief Night (or Goosey Night, as we call it in my neck of the woods) to the anniversary of the crash. The living characters are Brooks and Tim and Kyle, Kyle's parents and two dim admirers of Toe. The dead characters are just as important -- and, again, our narrator is one of them.

This is a novel of ghosts and hauntings - literal and figurative. It's a horror novel and a literary novel. It's a tragedy: one in which the tragic end has already happened, and we're just waiting for the bodies to fall. It's brilliant and compelling and beautifully written and pitch-black. It has amazing sentences and awesome passages -- the entire first chapter is a tour de force. If horror was like this more often, I'd read a lot more of it.

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