Thursday, January 03, 2008

"The Night Country" - Stewart O'Nan

Well, "The Night Country" has a Stephen King blurb on its cover, and I've often thought it would be a fun project to read every book that has one ("Three Dog Life" is another). I got it second hand without ever having heard of the author.

Between the master's (and Peter Straub's) recomendation, the title and the cover, I was expecting something quite different.

New England, Halloween. It's always tricky to encroach on another man's territory, and this is most definitly King's hunting ground.

But "The Night Country" starts off with a bang, the chapter "Something Wicked" which is something poetic, all right. An invitation for a ride on Halloween night with some unknown creatures who turn out to be three teenagers killed in a car crash exactly a year before. O'Nan gives them a voice more seductive than mermaids, as they convince, indeed seduce us, into witnessing their last moments:

"Come, do you hear it? The wind - murmuring in the eaves, scouring the bare trees. How it howls, almost musical, a harmony of old moans. The house seems to breathe, an invalid. Leave your scary movie marathon; this is better than TV. Leave the lights out."
"Do you ever wonder?
"Do you want to know?
Come then, come with us, out into the night."

It reminded me of the end of the first chapter of Kingg's "Danse Macabre", October 4, 1957, and an invitation to a dance, which goes:

"But it's not a hunt, it's a dance. And sometimes they turn off the lights in this ballroom.
But we'll dance anyway you and I. Even in the dark. Especially in the dark.
May I have the pleasure?"

There is nothing more enticing than being lured into that which scares us, through a soft spoken voice - it's also so much scarier to be enchanted so that we walk willingly (if a little bit wary) into the night, instead of being dragged out.

But then the next chapters (aptly named I know what you did and Dawn of the Dead) gave me a funny feeling I couldn't quite name. Then the next couple of chapters came and went and I finally understood that it was anguish. By then I wanted to finish "The Night Country" quickly because it started giving me nightmares. Only after I finished it, and as I thought about it and described did it slowly dawn on me how good it was.

It has to be one of the most unsettling books I've ever read. And O'Nan pulls a dirty a little trick on the reader looking for cheap thrills - you see, "The Night Country" isn't a horror book, at all.

Sure it has teenagers, is set on the days preceding Halloween and there are ghosts - but those are just treats to lure you into the big dark house. Once inside there are no carved pumpkins, no escapism, no scary movies that make kids scream and give boys and girls a chance to snuggle up to each other. Inside are lives so completely destroyed that not even death can save them. O'Nan forces us to look despair in the eye, and for my money it was the scariest thing ever.

Toe, Danielle and Marco met their untimely fate in the shape of a tree, on Halloween last year. They wander among the living, seemingly, a bit unsure what their new duties as ghosts are - except for being present whenever someone remembers them.

As it is, they spend a lot of time with Brooks, the police officer who, it slowly becomes clear, might have contributed to the violence of the accident by giving chase to the speeding vehicle. Unable to stop himself he goes over the photos of the scene almost everyday; his girlfriend left sometime ago and he is completely alone - his only living relative is an Alzheimer riddled grandmother who he visits as little as possible - another something-something to escalate is self-loathing.

Whenever we meet him he is alone in his patrol car, working nights, watching reruns of the crash in his mind, the girl projected into a tree, the moans coming from inside. He also follows Tim.

Tim is the one who got away. He came out of the accident with barely a scratch. He's fine - he just lost his girlfriend and two friends. Make that three; because although Kyle, a heavy-metal loving, marijuana dealing, every parents' teenage nightmare didn't die, he is now more Gump than Hetfield. He sports a crew cut instead of mutton chops, carries a lunch bag, and his mother helps him with his buttons, while Tim drives him to the convenience store where they both re-stock the shelves and clean the floor.

Kyle's mother might be the saddest of all these sorry characters - estranged from her husband who takes refuge in his work, taking care of a severely impaired son, she is denied even the refuge of grief, for she is too busy taking care of a five-year-old in the body of a seventeen-year-old - of all the inhabitants of the night country she is the only one whom O'Nan will deny a final respite.

This much we understand: that Tim wants to kill himself in an exact copy of the accident he survived; that Brooks somehow senses it and is determined to stop him; that the three ghosts cannot stop what is already in motion or even comfort the living with a word, an apparition or a dream, themselves trapped in broken deaths just as their relatives are trapped in broken lives. Kyle too has a ghost, a badass ghost, capable of some telekinesis it seems, but unable to see the other three even though they see him - and are scared of him.

O'Nan offers no redemption. This tale is not told in order to give the reader, in the end, a sense of lives being picked up, however crooked, a whiff of a new beginning. We leave the characters at midnight, just as the final blow descends - after, there will be nothing left to pick up.

My only qualm was the inclusion, in Tim's last moments, of the lyrics of The Smashing Pumpkins song "Today" - frankly it was too corny for words...

But it's just a little thing, it hardly matters. What does matter, what I was left suffering about was - who drive Kyle to work from now on and take him to MacDonald's once in a while? Who will visit Brooks' grandmother? How many ghosts will now follow Kyle's mother as she volunteers at the local library?

In O'Nan's "The Night Country" what gets wrecked, stays wrecked maybe even gets worse. As if tragedy can only draw out more of its kind, as if once broken, people cross out into another country where only silent ghosts, bad memories and the dark keep them company, until they too heed to the seductive voices of the dearly departed to take one last ride into the night.

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