The Night Country: Far more than a ghost story

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsfantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Night Country by Stewart O’Nan

In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.

To call The Night Country a ghost story or horror story does a disservice to both the author and the work. It’s like calling The Odyssey a ghost story because Odysseus speaks to the shades. Yes, there are ghosts, but The Night Country aims to be far more than ghost story, and for the most part succeeds admirably and movingly.

The ghosts are the novel’s narrators — a group of teens killed in a single-car crash exactly one year ago this Halloween (present time in the novel). Called up whenever they are thought of, this night as on many nights they follow the actions of those most deeply affected by the event: the policeman who was trailing them before the crash (Brooks), the boy who survived physically but not emotionally (Tim), the boy who survived but was left brain-damaged (Kyle), and Kyle’s mother, who tries to reconcile her desire to save her marriage and her responsibilities to her dependent son. One would assume the ghosts’ parents would also be thinking of them, especially this night of all nights, but in one of Stewart O’Nan‘s many beautifully small touches, the ghost narrator tells us those thoughts will remain private.

The small-town car crash, the ennui of the suburbs, the grieving mother and guilt-ridden survivor: these all could have easily fallen into the bin of cliché. They are saved from this by details such as the one above, by O’Nan’s wonderul array of voices, by his language which is both spare and poetic, and finally by the sheer depth of sadness in this book. The reader is sad these young kids died, but then is sad again as the narrator speaks of how already they are becoming nameless — just those “car crash kids.” One first mourns the deaths, then mourns the lack of mourning. And then one mourns more for the living — for Brooks and Tim who are bound to that night and to each other and seemingly can find no way out of that endless circle. For Kyle’s lost potential, though he is probably the happiest due to his brain-damaged oblivion. For Kyle’s mother, who has lost both the son and the husband she had only a year earlier, for Tim’s parents who take good grades and a job as the marks of recovery and don’t see the train bearing down on the tracks toward them. The reader feels too for the small sadnesses, such as the principal who doesn’t know how to or even whether to commemorate this day in the daily announcement. One of the many nice surprises in the book is that the reader feels sadder for the adults in the novel than the dead kids. Despite being alive, despite having lived if not full lives at least large portions of a life, or perhaps because of that, the reader feels their losses more heavily. Their reactions, their thoughts, are those of bitter experience and that lifetime experience lends a sense of weight to their grief and deprivation that outweighs the more abstract sadness over the lost “potential” of lives cut down too early.

There is an accretion of detail and sadness and poignancy that envelops the reader, drawing them more and more into the world of the dead or the dead-in-living. Doom hangs over the novel, past, present, and future; we are told early on that Tim plans some huge memorial act and it doesn’t take many pages or much hard thought to realize what it will be. Through the narrators we know Brooks and Kyle will be involved as well and like the narrators, we are mere helpless witnesses who can only go along for the ride. We want Tim to wake from his nightmare before it’s too late. We want Brooks to be the hero the narrator tells us he is (though we are told he is as close as we get — fair warning). We want Kyle’s mother to get smoothly through the night out with her husband. We want Kyle to recognize the faces in the photos Tim shows him. We want all the way to the end though we have a sense where all that wanting will get us. The impending doom makes this a suspense novel and the compression of time and place — a single day, a single small town — along with the spare language keep us heading forthrightly toward the disaster we are told to expect.

The book, though, is not unremittingly sad; O’Nan leavens the tone here and there with some observational humor and on several occasions through the actions of two friends of the dead who feel obligated to memorialize them through various acts of vandalism. So there are spots of humor, but they are just that — spots — and the book remains mostly bleak.

As for the ending, without obviously saying too much, I’ll say that it is unfortunately the weakest part of the book. Much of it I found simply too hard to believe. Characters seemed to start acting to serve the purposes of pre-ordained plot rather than as they would have acted if just left to respond like normal (or as close as they get in this book) people. But despite the disappointment of the few closing pages, I couldn’t help but be moved repeatedly by The Night Country and it will be hard to shake for some time. In that sense, perhaps it is a ghost story, one haunting the reader who has the luck to pick it up.


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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