January 06, 2012

BOOKS: The Night Strangers, Chris Bohjalian (2011)

Shortly after taking off from Burlington, Vermont, pilot Chip Linton is forced to land his plane in Lake Champlain; thirty-nine are killed. It wasn't Chip's fault, but that doesn't relieve his guilt and depression. Hoping for a fresh start, Chip relocates his family from Philadelphia to upstate New Hampshire.

The social life of Bethel is dominated by a circle of "herbalists" who spend hours in their greenhouses, growing a variety of plants, common and obscure, culinary and medicinal. As a group, these women take a disquieting interest in Chip's ten-year-old twin daughters.

And what on earth is that mysterious door in the basement of the Lintons' new home, and why has it been so securely bolted shut (with thirty-nine bolts exactly)?

This is a departure for Bohjalian, who frequently focuses on some hot-button social or legal issue (midwifery, transgender people, interracial adoption, etc.), but here gives us a creepy tale of ghosts and haunted houses. It still reads like Bohjalian -- the prose is elegant and graceful without being stuffy, and the characters are beautifully and precisely detailed -- but it's Bohjalian's Stephen King novel. (Except that it's better than King, because Bohjalian knows how to edit himself instead of blathering on for 800 pages or more.)

The ending will infuriate some; I appreciated the fact that it was less tidy and predictable than I'd expected. Those who are bothered by children-in-peril stories should probably avoid; otherwise, happily recommended.

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