The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian

Night Strangers cover

Imagine if someone set out to write a ghost story that was a combination of The Shining and The Haunting of Hill House, with some forgotten-in-ten-years current events tied in…and then the movies The Wicker Man and The Craft came along and vomited over everything. The result is Chris Bohjalian’s The Night Strangers.

I can’t even do a The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly-style review, because it’s all bad. Instead, I will now present the follow list of reasons this book failed me, in ascending order from minor to major offenses:

-False advertising. All the publisher-provided descriptions of this book make a big deal about how the story is about a  family who moves into a ramshackle Victorian house (+5 horror movie points) that has a creepy basement (+10 horror movie points) with a mysterious door that has been bolted shut 39 times (+25 horror movie points), and the house is in an isolated small town with creepy locals (+10 horror movie points), no cell phone reception and frequent power outages (+20 horror movie points). Also the father is a former airline pilot who recently crashed his plane into a lake, killing 39 of the passengers (+30 horror movie points). So with all that in mind, I was expecting a good, cheap haunted house story with some melodramatic family issues thrown in, a la American Horror Story. That’s what the book jacket promised me. But instead, I got a load of bullshit about the pilot’s PTSD and the creepy locals. The goddamn house wasn’t even haunted at all, but I guess it’s not Bohjalian’s fault that the publishers didn’t understand his book, which is why this is a minor offense.

-The people who buy the house have ten-year-old twin girls named Hallie and Garnet. What, you wonder, could possess two otherwise-normal people to name a child Garnet? Let the narration explain: “Garnet because her newborn hair had been the deep red it was even now”. For Christ’s sake. First, that is one of the most horribly-constructed sentences I’ve ever read. Second, garnets are dark, dark red, which is not a hair color that occurs in nature. Third, I get that the parents wanted to give their kid a name that references her hair color (which has a good chance of changing before she grows up) so people can make tired jokes about it for the rest of her life, but why Garnet? Was RUBY too mainstream? The point of all of this is that although I was supposed to be rooting for the parents, I immediately hated them because of the stupid name they gave their child.

-Bohjalian has no idea how children talk or think. Remember Danny Torrance in The Shining? He was obviously an intelligent and sensitive seven-year-old, but that doesn’t mean he talked or thought like an adult. Hallie and Garnet (ugh), on the other hand, talk like forty-year-olds all the time. At one point Hallie says, “Do you hear them? …You must!” WHAT. And the narration never bothers to explain why these girls talk like no ten-year-olds I’ve ever heard of. It was an easy fix: “Wow, those girls sure do love reading Dickens novels! No wonder they talk like that!” But no – we are expected to believe that these average children talk and think exactly like the adults. And by “think”, I of course mean, “don’t think at all”, because…

-Logic doesn’t even make an appearance in this story. The pilot has PTSD, which means he’s haunted by three ghosts of the people he killed – two of which are a man and his little girl. The ghost dad wants the pilot to murder his two daughters so his kid can have ghost kids to play with (obviously), and the pilot goes from “I’d never hurt my daughters!” to “Welp, guess it’s time to murder my kids!” in the space of a chapter and it made no sense. Similarly, there’s a coven of herbalists/Shamans (no, seriously) in the town, and they want to sacrifice the twins for witchcraft (obviously). And no, that does not count as a spoiler because basically the second we meet any of the herbalists they’re like, “We looooove your twiiiiins, they’re so…special” and their mom is like, “My, our neighbors are friendly! I love how they keep bringing my ten-year-old daughters over to their houses to learn about plants without my supervision, and the way they gave my daughters and me new names! This can’t possibly have sinister implications!” and it’s like WAKE UP, WOMAN. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU.

-Did I mention that the pilot has PTSD? Because Bohjalian would want me to mention that, judging by how goddamn insistent he is that we never, ever forget that the pilot crashed into a lake and killed a bunch of people. Until about 2/3 into the book, every single section told from the pilot’s perspective is just a rehash of the same exact idea: “the plane crashed, people died, and I am sad about it.” Nothing new is learned, aside from the fact that the ghosts want him to kill his daughters. It’s just repeated over and over and over and over again, like Bohjalian is afraid we’re going to forget about the crash. And this might be bearable, except for some reason all of the pilot’s sections are narrated in second-person present, while the rest of the book is narrated in third-person past tense, and I cannot stress how annoying this was. It got to the point where I would cringe and consider skipping ahead every time one of the pilot’s chapters began. “You pause in your work in the kitchen, replacing the paint roller in the tray and sitting back on your heels as you wonder: Where was He when Flight 1611 crashed?” *facedesk*

-The story is frequently ridiculous when it means to be scary. It has lines like “The child is losing blood fast and it’s being wasted. Wasted! You’re a New Englander, how can you abide that?” that I cannot imagine getting any reaction other than laughter. Towards the end, when everything is going off the rails and the cult is revealing their true crazy, the story becomes much more reminiscent of Hot Fuzz than The Shining. (honestly, towards the end, the herbalists might as well have started chanting “It’s for the greater good!” “The greater good” and I would not have blinked an eye.)

-The two main storylines have nothing in common with each other. There’s the pilot’s PTSD-related ghosts, and the creepy herbalists, and the two plots are kept completely separate for almost the entire story, and at the end when they finally do intersect, it’s in the most insignificant way possible. I think Bohjalian should have picked one story – either the PTSD or the plant cult – and committed to it wholeheartedly. Instead he tries to do both, and what results is a crazy mess of a book that fails at every opportunity: it fails at creating sympathetic characters, realistic and well-done prose, carefully crafted plot, and a scary atmosphere.

On the plus side, with all this evidence in mind, Bohjalian would make an excellent addition to the writers’ team over at American Horror Story. He’d better hurry up and jump on that crazy train before it derails halfway through the second season.

(yes I am a little addicted to American Horror Story, why do you ask?)

Verdict: one out of five stars
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1 Comment

Filed under Review

One response to “The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian

  1. Your excellent review is in direct contrast to some of the sycophancy on offer here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0307395006/ref=aw_d_detail?pd=1
    So glad I read yours first. And, yes, that Garnet line is truly awful! How do novels like this get published? (As a budding author, I feel quite harsh saying this, but hey…)

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