Review by John Freeman
The Night Country
Writing fiction is an occult art, and no American novelist wields his Ouija board quite like Stewart O'Nan. In just 10 years, O'Nan has published 11 books, each one embracing an entirely new perspective. Everyday People conjured a blighted Pittsburgh neighborhood, while The Speed Queen spoke from the perspective of a death-row felon recording her final appeal.
As Halloween rolls around, this spookily gifted writer has crossed to the other side, emerging with a hair raising tale narrated by teenage ghosts. The place is Avon, Conn., where O'Nan himself lives. The time is midnight on Halloween. While the town sleeps, three prank happy ghosts come back to haunt the survivors of a terrible car accident that claimed their lives one year ago.
The story was inspired by a real case in East Haddam, Conn., in which a teenager committed suicide with a friend by driving into a tree, the same spot where his older brother died in a crash six months before. O'Nan takes this true life event and transforms it into The Night Country. After the novel's come hither prologue—which pays elaborate homage to Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes—we meet the accident's survivors.
Tim escaped with nary a wound, but wonders why he got to live. Kyle, once an arrogant bad boy, now walks like a zombie thanks to brain damage and a reconstructed face. Kyle's parents try to mother him with strength and dignity but it puts a heavy burden on their marriage. Finally, there is Officer Brooks, the first on the scene a year ago.
The ghosts of those who died keep watch over these three unlucky souls, observing and commenting on their thoughts, taunting them with flickering lights and other eerie pyrotechnics. They flit in and out of the narrative, steal the reins from O'Nan, even deny the event's inherent bathos. The accident was "just something random that happened to us, bad luck," one of them says cavalierly. In death they remain perpetual teenagers.
Not so the survivors. Shifting deftly from one character to the next, O'Nan sends a depth charge into the heart of a community wracked by guilt and grief. Officer Brooks and Tim each have an atonement to make, and, as this novel slips forward, we find them tacking toward one another. Brooks stalks Tim around town in his cruiser, while Tim—alone, still in love with one of the victims—contemplates an act that will end all of his pain.
In spite of its horror flick plot and goblin night atmosphere, The Night Country is not a scary read. It is, however, a chilling one. O'Nan plays upon the secret menace of the woods which surround Avon. Spangled with those plangent little memorial ribbons and crosses, they creep out and cloak this beautifully true novel in shadow. Something wild and dark lurks in them, and as the ghosts tell us, there is no safety in there. "We're past that," they announce with bared teeth, "the grinning pumpkins left behind, the stoops and warm windows, the reaching streetlights. Out here there's nothing but creeks and marshland. ... Here you can still get lost if you want to."
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