Book Review: The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian

10209997Title: The Night Strangers
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Genre: Horror, Psychological Thriller, Witches, Ghosts
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication Date: October 4th 2011
Rating: 4,5 stars
Goodreads | Amazon (Hardcover) | Amazon (Kindle) | B&N | Book Depository | Author Website

In a dusty corner of a basement in a rambling Victorian house in northern New Hampshire, a door has long been sealed shut with 39 six-inch-long carriage bolts.

The home’s new owners are Chip and Emily Linton and their twin ten-year-old daughters. Together they hope to rebuild their lives there after Chip, an airline pilot, has to ditch his 70-seat regional jet in Lake Champlain after double engine failure. Unlike the Miracle on the Hudson, however, most of the passengers aboard Flight 1611 die on impact or drown. The body count? Thirty-nine – a coincidence not lost on Chip when he discovers the number of bolts in that basement door. Meanwhile, Emily finds herself wondering about the women in this sparsely populated White Mountain village – self-proclaimed herbalists – and their interest in her fifth-grade daughters. Are the women mad? Or is it her husband, in the wake of the tragedy, whose grip on sanity has become desperately tenuous?

The result is a poignant and powerful ghost story with all the hallmarks readers have come to expect from bestselling novelist Chris Bohjalian: a palpable sense of place, an unerring sense of the demons that drive us, and characters we care about deeply.

The difference this time? Some of those characters are dead.

Although The Night Strangers is the first book by Chris Bohjalian I’ve ever read, I did hear a lot about this author earlier on. Even after the first few chapters of this book, I understand why that’s no surprise. From all the authors I’ve read for the very first time this year, Chris Bohjalian is without a shadow of a doubt the most talented one. He has a writing style that is both gripping and enthralling, both mesmerizing and mysterious, and draws you in from page one. It’s a writing style I connect to the horror genre almost instantly, and which reminds me of certain masters in the genre like Poe, Faulkner and Stephen King. Chris Bohjalian fits right up that alley. I wonder if his writing style is similar in his other works, which aren’t situated in the horror genre, but in any case, it fits this genre perfectly. The narrative voice is both distant and eerily familiar, both disfigured and logical, and that all adds up to the twisted, demented feeling you get while reading The Night Strangers.

The most intriguing part about this novel is that it’s based partially on reality. Well of course the horror parts are imaginary, but some parts of this novel are actually based on things that really happened to the author. As he admits in this article on CNN, Chris Bohjalian got his inspiration from two random occurences. For starters, when he purchased a Victorian townhouse, he found a sealed door in his basement. Nailed shut, actually. Curiosity killed the cat, and it forced Chris Bohjalian to open up that door and enter what can only be described as a crypt or closet of some kind. Secondly, a plane crashed in The Hudson River nearby, adding him the second part of inspiration he needed to create this book. Eerie, especially that door. I wonder what it was really used for…well, in any case, Bohjalian offers a plausible although creepy solution in his book.

The Night Strangers tells the story of Chip and Emily Linton and their twin daughters Hallie and Garnet. By moving to the small town of Brethel, they hope to escape the trauma that has ruled their lives after Chip was forced to land his airplane – he is an airplane pilot, or well, he was one – in Lake Champlain on August, 11. Thirty-nine passengers died that day, and although it isn’t Chip’s fault per sé, he does suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and a severe case of survivor’s guilt. Convinced that they have to start over somewhere new, the family moves into a Victorian townhouse with quite the chilling history. As legend has it, a young boy killed himself in that very house when he was twelve years old. His mother went crazy afterwards and was convinced that someone – or something – was after her and her family. The depths of her madness are only discovered by the Lintons when they find three curious objects hidden in places all around the house: a crowbar, a knife and an ax. Why would someone hide these objects in their own house? And what are they so afraid of?

Like it’s not worse enough that the previous owner of their house was a raving lunatic, Chip also discovers a small door in their basement. This door is conveniently nailed shut with thirty-nine long nails. Thirty-nine. The exact same number as the passengers who died during the planecrash. In an attempt to discover what is hidden behind that door, Chip destroys it with the ax and discover a small cabinet of sorts. The room is so small that an adult probably couldn’t stand up straight in it. And it’s definately not a coal chute, like everyone wants to believe.

Moreover, the longer Chip spends in his new house, the stronger and more frequent his visions and hallucations become. At first, he only dreamt about the people who died in the planecrash and occassionally suffered from flashbacks. However, the longer he spends in Brethel, the more vivid these hallucations, until he can actually see three of the people who died in the crash: a young girl named Ashley, her father Ethan and a young woman named Sandra. It soon becomes clear to Chip – with a little help and encouragement from Ethan – that Ashley really deserves some friends in the afterlife. These thoughts only add to Chip’s insanity, as he spirals down into madness.

But wait, you thought that was it? The combination of survivor’s guilt, PTSD and some ghostly visions? Wrong. Chris Bohjalian clearly isn’t done yet. Because in the town of Brethel, not everything is at it seems. The local women, who are all conveniently called like herbs – Anise, Reseda, Sage, etc. – have a dark secret of their own. They call themselves herbalists, and each of them has a greenhouse much like the one standing in the Linton’s backyard, but somehow they don’t seem as harmless as they would like others to believe. When they develop an uncanny interest in Chip and Emily’s twin daughters for the sole reason that they’re twins, Emily is the only one who can still save them. And is there a connection between the town’s herbalists, the suicide of that twelve-year-old boy, her husband’s increasingly strange behavior and that door nailed shut with exactly thirty-nine nails?

As you can gather from this synopsis, The Night Strangers is a lot more than just a ghost story. Although that was definately my favorite part of the book, it focuses on a lot of other things too. It focuses a lot on how Chip deals with his PTSD and his increasing hallucinations, and how he slowly but definately descends into madness. It’s a psychological journey that is both mesmerizing and terrifying, and Chris Bohjalian’s excellent and engaging writing style makes it all the more real. The real question at the end of this book, is what’s more terrifying. A town where half of the population is driven by egoistic, animalistic reasoning? One man’s increasing insanity because he cannot deal with the guilt of what he did? Ghosts who are stuck in a world inbetween? It’s up to the reader to decide and I for one, have a hard time deciding what exactly scared me the most. Perhaps a combination of everything, because the way the author combines these different parts and turns them into one fluent, enthralling story is flawless.

The narrative switches between a third-person narrative from either Emily’s, Hallie’s or Garnet’s viewpoint, and a second-person narrative from Chip’s viewpoint. Let me say a thing or two about this second-person narrative. That’s the ‘you’ form, and it’s rarely used in literature, although it’s one of the easiest ways to compell a reader into a story, because as an author you’re continuously talking to the reader himself basically. It goes like this: “When your airplane hits the flock of birds, the passengers in the cabin behind you feel the jolting bangs and the aircraft rolls fifteen degrees to its starboard side.” (taken from page 3). Notice how that you-form simply draws you in, as if you’re really an aircraft pilot and your plane really is going to crash soon? Well, at least it did that for me. I enjoyed the you-form especially as it made it a lot easier for me as a reader to relate to Chip, and to follow him as he slowly descended into madness. I think it’s something psychological, because that ‘you’ points to the reader directly and immediately makes them part of the story, makes them become the character. Eerie, to say the least, but so is the rest of this book.

To classify The Night Strangers as a horror novel, seems a bit one-sided. This book just offers so much of everything. It’s a drama, in which the main characters need to deal with their traumas, it’s a story of coming-to-age for the two young twins Hallie and Garnet as they each develop from children into puberescent teenagers, it’s a ghost story, a psychological thriller when we view Chip’s side of things and there’s event hints of a mystery: what’s going on, and who is the real bad guy here? I personally think it’s nothing short but a masterpiece. I can already see this book being compared to other classics in the genre and not coming short at all. Bohjalian’s characters are rich and compelling and I especially liked Garnet. She just had this vibe around her that told me there was more to her than meets the eye. And guess what…I wasn’t mistaken. Another bonus is that from point one, you’re continuously wondering what’s going on, what’s the explanation for this and that, but you have to wait till the very last chapters to hear the entire story, which means you’re literally sitting on the edge of your seat for over three hours. As a bonus, scary things can happen all the time, and you have to be prepared for it from start to end, meaning that those shivers running down your spine never cease until you’ve turned the last page.

Additionally, it’s clear that Chris Bohjalian put a lot of time and effort in writing this book and investigating things like aircraft, botanica and New Age rituals. I always love it when an author takes the time to put genuinely interesting information in his books, and once again, Bohjalian doesn’t dissapoint. This author has got me completely hooked. This is the kind of horror movie that would make excellent film material, although the film would probably be well over two hours. The madness, the weird and distant but compelling writing style, the interesting characters, the countless secrets and the ghostly apparitions make The Night Strangers into the perfect Halloween novel. I, for one, am absolutely hooked.

Giveway

One lucky winner will receive a paperback copy of The Night Strangers, sponsored by yours truly. Please fill in the contest form below and leave a comment to participate.


Comments

  1. I have this on my wish list. I read one other book by Chris and loved it. The reviews for this book have been fantastic. Fabulous review! Now I really want to read this book. Thanks for offering the giveaway!

  2. Even the cover looks scary! Perfect for this time of year. 🙂

Speak Your Mind

*