Friday, January 13, 2012

The Night Strangers Will Creep Inside

When author Chris Bohjalian first started writing The Night Strangers, he didn't have to look far for inspiration. In the basement of his own house in Vermont was a door. It was five feet high and three feet wide, consisting of rough wooden planks that were nailed shut.

He convinced himself it was nothing more than a coal shoot, much like one of the principal characters of The Night Strangers. A few years later, curiosity finally had gotten the better of Bohjalian and he pulled the door open using a crowbar, wrench, and ax.

When he finally opened it, he found nothing more than a space about the size of the door and 18 inches deep. It also spooked him enough that he nailed it shut again, and steered clear of the basement after that.

The Night Strangers Is A Creepy Chiller From Chris Bohjalian.

Unlike the door inside of Bohjalian's basement, the door inside the rambling Victorian house owned by Chip and Emily Linton would hold a much more sinister secret. Sealed shut with 39 six-inch carriage bolts, it slowly became an obsession of Chip Linton as he remodeled his family's new home in New Hampshire.

His fixation on the door in the corner of the dirt floor basement isn't a side effect of curiosity alone. Thirty-nine was a number that meant something to Linton. It was the number of people who died aboard Flight 1611 and Linton, the pilot of that ill-fated flight, was one of a handful of survivors.

With the promise of a fresh start, neither he nor his wife had noticed the odd door when they purchased the home for themselves and their twin girls. But there were many oddities about the house that they ignored.

The move from Pennsylvania to a northern New Hampshire town was too important. Although the people would still recognize Linton after months of being splashed across the headlines, the slowness of a small town seemed easier to endure than the judgment of an entire urban city.

"When your Philadelphia therapist refers to this as a flashback, you wonder if you should correct her. It's a nightmare, not a flashback. In reality, you didn't actually auger into the ground." — The Night Strangers

Of course, the book doesn't open on one of Linton's many nightmares. It opens in the minutes leading up to a bird strike, very much like the one that caused US Airways Flight 1549 to go down in 2009. But unlike pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who succeeded in landing his disabled plane without incident on the Hudson River, Linton's emergency landing on Lake Champlain goes horribly wrong.

Bohjalian meticulously paints the details of the accident — the actions, the reactions, and the thoughts of the crew and passengers — as the plane attempts its emergency water landing. Some of the passengers remain surprisingly calm in their reflection of what Sullenberger had done months before, adding even more tension because you know they're wrong.

The difference between life and death all comes down to a single wave, a small wake caused by a boat turning to assist any survivors. And as the wing tip crashes into it, Linton's chapter as a carefree pilot and attorney raising twin girls is over. Something wicked in on the horizon.

A ghost story at its heart, but with the head of something more sinister.

Most people consider The Night Strangers a ghost story. It is much more than that, blending elements of haunting, a coven, and psychological strain of post-traumatic stress disorder into a novel that sometimes putters along with slow-motion melancholy and other times at a feverish pace.

It mostly works, largely because two opposing forces — both with misguided and malicious intent — bear down on a broken family in a tight and frightful squeeze. However, that doesn't mean it all works.

At times the similarities between the book and well-known movie material (Rosemary's Baby, The Shining, and The Sixth Sense specifically) are so apparent that it steals any attention away. Along with this small annoyance, Bohjalian also runs the first person perspective of the pilot using "you" as the operative pronoun, apparently in an attempt to put "you" in the story.

The technique doesn't work well, especially when coupled with the pilot's predisposition toward rehashing the accident. At times, it even makes you want to rush ahead to the more interesting points of views, predominantly the wife, children, and occasional outsider. And then, unfortunately, there is the epilogue. It's hard to like, especially because whatever feelings you have for any character in the story will be irreparably changed.

The Night Strangers Creeps And Crawls To 4.0 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The story is still worth the share for the creepy atmosphere Bohjalian conjures up. He does an exceptional job making the supernatural subtle and more believable as a result. While the earlier chapters are almost more climatic and engaging than the balance, it's rare to find an author so willing to keep everything from tumbling toward an epic cosmic struggle between good and evil. This is about people.

The Night Strangers: A Novel by Chris Bohjalian is on Amazon. You can also find the novel at Barnes & Noble. The Night Strangers is also on iBooks as well as iTunes. The audio version is read by Mark Bramhall and Alison Fraser. Bramhall covers the point of view of pilot Chip Linton, even though the story is told as if it is "you." Fraser's voice isn't always as engaging, but she does a solid job covering the rest of the characters, especially the wife and two daughters. It will also be published as a paperback in April.
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