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The Night Strangers

by Chris Bohjalian

Crown Publishers | 2011 | 375 pages | $25.00

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

Ghosts in Vermont

Ghost stories have a great appeal to many.  I am amongst the many who enjoy unreliable narrators and characters in books that can be seen through multiple lenses. The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian, is a rich collection of either demonic or just plain kooky and eccentric side characters, and a protagonist who has apparently flipped his lid.

Bohjalian has made a career of writing books of topical interest. His novel Midwives, was an Oprah selection and made him a “best-selling author.”  And for good measure, the book was riveting.  He writes books about alternative medicine (midwifery), violence (often related to gun violence), the occult, herbalists, and people living on the margins.  Sometimes these topics merge in a compelling narrative.  But Bohjalian can sometimes be an uneven writer, with some clunkers mixed in with his better works.  Some of his novels hold up to the sometimes overly dramatic events, while the weight of his topics seem to suffocate others.  Midwives (perhaps his best known book) is—as countless people have pointed out—a “read-late-into-the-night,” book about a home birth gone awry.  The questions Bohjalian poses in this book about the responsibilities of our caregivers and what we expect from them (seamless childbirth, in this case, though in our hearts we know this is impossible) is fascinating.

My favorite Bohjalian book, however, is The Double Bind.  This book relies on the delicate balance between what is revealed in the narration and what is hidden or encrypted.  The main character in The Double Bind has suffered an unfixable trauma—she has been raped while riding her bike in the woods—and consequently has created a world for herself based on glass and mirrors, a world that can shatter at any time.  The reader magically gets under the spell that is woven and becomes a part of this tangled, confusing narrative.     

Other books that haven’t worked so well include Before You Know Kindness, which deals with the issue of gun control, and oftentimes feels contrived.  Although Bohjalian writes of horrific events, he often has an understated, almost mundane way of approaching the topic.  This combination—huge, life changing events (often violent) and ho-hum voices-- doesn’t always work well.  Bohjalian is not a subtle writer.

Which brings us to The Night Strangers.  Some of the flaws of The Night Strangers have to do with the complexity of what Bohjalian is trying to do—create a book that is startling, readable, realistic, and frightening all at the same time; and some of the successes of the book are similar to the successes of his previous books.

Like The Double Bind, The Night Strangers’ protagonist is a likable character—an average sort—who falls into madness.  There’s something frightening, yet thrilling, about witnessing the crumbling of a narrator’s psyche.  I can think of no one who does this more masterfully than Poe.  In his famous “The Tell Tale Heart,” the narrator is bothered by the look in an elderly man’s eye.  He eventually murders this fellow.  Like Poe, Bohjalian creates tension in this story that is truly remarkable.

Similarly, the decline of the main character, Chip, in The Night Strangers is told in an understated way. Chip Linton is a pilot whose plane crashes into Lake Champlain, in Vermont.  Unlike the true-life heroic accomplishment of Sully Sullenberger, who landed his plane safely on the Hudson River, only a handful of the passengers aboard Chip’s flight survive.  Thirty-nine passengers die, a number that becomes significant.  Unable to continue to exist in the world, and choked with grief (though the tragedy was not technically his fault—he ran into a flock of birds), Chip, his wife Emily, and their two twin daughters, Hallie and Garnet, move their family to Bethel, Vermont to begin their life anew.  Little do they know what awaits them in the tiny town surrounded by majestic mountains.

From the moment they arrive, they realize that something is askew.  Not only is the house they purchased puzzling, with its strange room arrangements and hidden staircases, but they soon realize the town is oddly full of female herbalists.  These ladies who are named after herbs and plants—Reseeda, Holly, Anise—fill their greenhouses with lush plants flown in from exotic locals.

It’s not particularly threatening at first, simply peculiar, until the family realizes that the women may be practicing a more menacing type of witchcraft and they may need the blood of a young twin (either Garnet or Hallie) to complete a potent tincture.

In the meantime, Chip has found a sealed-off door in the corner of the dirt floor cellar.  The small door is sealed with thirty-nine bolts (coincidentally, the same number as the passengers who died aboard the plane).  Compelled to open the door, Chip acts like a madman laboring over the door with an axe until he finally cuts through.  When he opens the door he is greeted by ghosts from the flight—including a young girl named Ashley, with a Dora the Explorer backpack and her father, Ethan.

Ashley’s body is disfigured and bloody, as are the other ghosts.  In between two worlds and smelling of the muddy lake water that suffocated her, Ashley seems to want one thing: friends.  Because Chip feels so guilty about causing her death, he feels that he should somehow provide her with playmates.  As he becomes more and more unhinged, he imagines killing his own daughters so the ghost girl will have friends, his mantra being She deserves friends.  Do what it takes.  

So the twins are at the mercy of the both the witches in Bethel (indeed, they do practice human sacrifice in order to concoct potions that will allow them to live forever) and their own father.  Bohjalian does a splendid job describing the pre-teen girls.  First there is Hallie, the more confident twin, and with a more outgoing personality; and then there is Garnet, a girl with startling red hair and a shyer disposition.

Both girls feel burdened by their father’s tragic flight, yet they also show the resilience of most kids—they just want to get on with their lives.  Bohjalian shows them in the greenhouse playing with their American Girl dolls and hanging out with a friend.  He gives them just enough grit and truth to make the reader care about them.  It is also clear that they are absolutely adored by their father.

This is why it is difficult to make the leap and believe that Chip would actually harm his daughters.  I recognize that there are predecessors for this sort of thing—the family man who becomes a murderer in The Shining and of course the narrator in the afore-mentioned “The Tell Tale Heart,” from the The Edgar Allan Poe Reader. But maybe we are too close to Chip to believe in his actual meltdown. 

In one scene, Chip is holding a knife and comes close to slashing his daughters.  This sickening scene is almost unbelievable.  Bohjalian uses the second person whenever he comes to Chip’s point-of-view, then switches the narration back to third person when a different character is evoked.  This technique is a bit jarring in the text, especially when Chip becomes more and more unstable. 

In fact, as the book progressed there were more and more scenes that seemed too over-the-top and heading towards kitsch with the reeling savagery of a B horror movie.  For example, Chip’s very sane psychiatrist is murdered by one of the members of the coven.  A placid lawyer is suddenly wielding a knife and murdering his victim in a most horrific way on a rainy night by the side of the highway.  And later, the book becomes all-too-frantic with an exorcism, as well as a witchcraft ceremony occurring on the same night.  Although cinematic, this converging of ghosts, human sacrifice, and child abuse seemed a bit contrived.

Likewise, the ending of The Night Strangers is awkward, though I was indeed surprised by it.  Bohjalian often has endings that pull the rug out from beneath you. 

Sometimes I’ve found this strange and delightful; in this case, it seemed too far from the original story, although one can appreciate what Bohjalian is attempting to do.  He plays with the ghost story genre in this book craftily and it has a lot to recommend it.  After reading the book, I was inspired to re-read “The Tell Tale Heart,” for it seemed that much of The Night Strangers borrowed from that story. Once again I found the story beautifully unsettling, and will always love to be horrified.

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