I hope it is only cruel synchronicity and nothing more malign that causes me to learn, on the morning I decide to write this particular book review, of the deaths of seven teenagers in Troutman, North Carolina. The Tarheel teens had been joyriding in a car that was not theirs and, in an attempt to outrace a police car, lost control of the vehicle, went off the road, and hit a tree. All of them died.
A similar accident forms the sour, stricken heart of Stewart O'Nan's latest novel, The Night Country. A year prior to the opening of the novel, five teens in Avon, Connecticut, out cruising on Halloween, lose control of their car and crash into a tree. Three of them die instantly, one suffers severe brain damage, and one escapes relatively unscathed—at least physically. Taking place the following October 31st, the book examines, in heart-wrenching detail, twenty-four hours in the lives of the survivors.
In an intriguing narrative twist, we watch the story unfold through the "eyes" of Marco, one of the accident victims. He, along with Danielle and Toe, has returned to Avon as a—well, "spirit" is the best way to put it. Where they've been in the intervening months and what they've experienced—if anything—O'Nan (probably wisely) ignores. Certain occult "laws" govern the spirits. Whenever a living person thinks or speaks about the dead trio, they are drawn to that person, instantaneously crossing whatever physical distance is between them. They cannot manifest themselves to people, but animals are aware of their presence. They can hear what the living are saying, they can perceive their thoughts, and they can ride along in cars. This point-of-view trick gives the reader first-person recollections of the accident itself and omniscient insight into the minds of the living at the same time.
The spirits are particularly interested in three townspeople. The first is Brooks, an ex-Marine cop who discovered the accident last Halloween. He's keeping a secret close to his chest, and like the worm in the apple, it's eating him alive from the inside. He knows he needs to get as far away from Avon as he can, but he's stuck in suburban inertia and can't make that initial move. The second is Tim, the unharmed survivor, Danielle's former boyfriend, who is beginning to think that he might not want to live in a world that doesn't have her in it. The third is Nancy Sorenson, the mother of the brain-damaged Kyle. Kyle had been a rebellious teen, a death-metal-headbanger and a small-time drug dealer/abuser. Now he has been lobotomized back to the mental level of a four year old and cannot even button his own shirts. Nancy's portrayal is the most painful, since she is still trying to come to grips with her unwanted role as zombie caretaker. She both loves and despises Kyle. She realizes he will never get better, and she will never be able to do anything else with her life. She knows everyone else in town talks about her, and even her marriage is feeling the strain.
The intriguing question is how much responsibility the spirits have for the tragedies that ensue this particular Halloween. (Bad things happen, but I'm trying not to include any spoilers.) The spirits genuinely seem to have affection for their friends, yet there are hints sprinkled throughout they may have returned in order to exact a "sacrifice." One of the spirits alludes to the movie The Wicker Man, which is also centered on ritual sacrifice. (Interestingly, we learn the least about Marco, the narrator. At one point, he says, essentially, "This is the story I'm telling, and I can leave out what I want to leave out.")
O'Nan deliberately invokes the small-town feel of Ray Bradbury's early work, especially Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes (the novel is dedicated to Bradbury). The opening passages, especially, utilize prose poetry to conjure the swirling, slightly chaotic atmosphere of Halloween (although spiced with a contemporary, ironic tone):
It's the best time of year up here, the only season you want from us, our pastoral past—witch hunts and woodsmoke, the quaintly named dead in mossy churchyards. Never mind that it's all gone, the white picket fences easy-to-clean vinyl, the friendship quilts stitched in the Dominican, this is still a new England, garden-green, veined with black rivers and massacres.
The Night Country has made 2003's top ten dark fiction list from some genre reviewers, most notably Paula Guran in her Darkecho newsletter. Although told from the point of view of ghosts, The Night Country is less a meditation on the supernatural than a lyrical and claustrophobic hymn to small-town life and the resonant effects of loss.