Warning: this review may contain minor spoilers. The reason for this is that I need to talk it through. By doing this, I’m hoping for a cathartic effect. It’s either that, or I need to sign myself up for some therapy.
On the surface, The Night Strangers is a ghost story. Start reading, and you’ll find that it’s something far more sinister. Menacing qualities reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining culminate into something that is positively jarring. (Having read both of these other novels, I must be honest that I actually found this one to be more disturbing.)
Hands down the darkest of the Bohjalian books that I’ve read, The Night Strangers can leave a reader with a literary scar. If you’re a fan of Mr. Bohjalian, you will appreciate this novel’s exhaustive research, complex characters, and intelligent dialogue. I can make the promise that if you’re likely to get absorbed by a brooding and haunting premise, then this novel is for you.
What I can’t promise, I’m afraid, is that you’ll be ok when you hit the book’s epilogue.
The premise: Chip and Emily Linton have just moved themselves and their darling 10-year old twin girls to Northern New Hampshire. Here, they have purchased an old and neglected Victorian home in the small town of Bethel. The move was a purposeful one; they are attempting to start anew, following the devastating crash of Flight 1611. It was this flight that was interrupted by a flock of geese on takeoff, and wound up in Lake Champlain. 39 people were killed in the crash. Chip Linton was the pilot.
Now suffering from PTSD, Chip is a shadow of his former self. He is quiet, distracted, and sullen. His guilt for having survived the crash is palpable. He is also more than a little concerned when he discovers a door in the basement of his new home, which is sealed with no fewer than 39 carriage bolts. The devastation of his past was not left in their previous town. It has followed Chip to New Hampshire, and it isn’t there to wish the family well in their new home.
Couple this with the fact that the family’s new friends and neighbors are taking a very strong liking to their twin daughters, and you really have something to fret over. Are these people harmless? Simply curious? Perhaps they just think that Hailey and Garnet are adorable? It quickly becomes evident that several of the people of this new town, the “Herbalists,” have an agenda. My last promise is that you aren’t going to like it.
In The Night Strangers, Bohjalian moves back and forth between second (Chip) and third (Emily) person narrative. It works. This approach allows the opportunity to observe Chip at arm’s length, making you wonder if he is fully succumbing to mental illness, or just the victim of a malevolent haunt. When the third person narrative kicks in, you are permitted to watch Emily and her girls as would a close friend. You feel their hesitations. You sense their suspicions. When they look over their shoulders, you’re tempted to do the same.
Bohjalian’s attention to detail is just as sharp as ever in this novel, making the characters and their experiences wholly authentic. The plane and aviation details seem penned by a veteran pilot. The vast knowledge of plants, their roots, and their roles in questionable tinctures seem described by a longtime botanist. The background and detail provided by every scene envelop the reader. Simply put, you’re entering a different, unsettling world.
It’s the town’s “Herbalists” that may haunt your memory of this book. They were the dynamic characters of the story, changing the book’s direction from spooky to horrifying. The cast of Herbalists was lengthy, with each character less trustworthy than the last. Truly, there were so many forces at work in this novel that any one of them could have been spun into a separate novel. When put together, their combination brings the book to a full crescendo.
While Bohjalian’s characters are beautifully developed, I found that I only became attached to three: the twins, and one “Herbalist” who will remain nameless. (Don’t want to divulge too much.) Chip and Emily Linton remained on the outskirts of my connection, as I could not identify with either. Chip was spiraling downward into an unfathomable combination of depression and madness, while Emily’s chronic indecisiveness about her neighbors left me bewildered.
The book’s end is what left me completely slack-jawed. It was not what I had expected, or what I had hoped for. While I am accustomed to Bohjalian’s twists, I was not prepared for the close of this story. I have been left wanting by books before, but in this case, I was shocked and somewhat devastated. Part of me now has high hopes for a sequel; as I do believe that there are characters who have some unfinished business.
There were two narrators for this audiobook: Mark Bramhall for Chip and Alison Fraser for Emily. At the outset, I was not fond of the robotic quality of Bramhall’s voice for the pilot. I found it to be terribly distracting. Then, I started to understand that it represented Chip’s detachment very well, and I enjoyed his performance much more. He grew on me. Alison Fraser, on the other hand, was excellent from the start. She embodied her characters with great enthusiasm, and represented their personalities beautifully. She could go from meek to emboldened in a split second. Well done.
I could discuss this forever. Instead, please read The Night Strangers for yourself, and let us know what you think. In the meantime, 4 stars from me, and hats off to Mr. Bohjalian for getting under my skin.