The Night Country, by Stewart O’Nan

The Night Country cvr

With cover endorsements by Stephen King and Peter Straub, plus name checks to Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson on the jacket flap, expectations were high.  Finishing, one could imagine King writing it, not least because of its New England setting (Avon, Connecticut), the psychology of youths in a bland small town with little to do, and the supernatural element.  For the story is narrated by a ghost, Marco, one of three revenants of teenagers killed when their car hit a tree on Hallowe’en exactly a year ago who are still present, observing those left behind.  Another passenger in the car, Tim, climbed out physically unscathed but feels an overwhelming sense of guilt, while a fifth, Kyle, survived but with extensive brain injuries which have left an indelible mark physically and mentally.  The narrative revolves around Tim, Nancy (‘Kyle’s mom’, as she is known to the group of ghosts), and a policeman, John Brooks, who was on the scene shortly after the crash occurred.  He too has been psychologically damaged by the event, his life unravelling, his wife gone, on the brink of dismissal from the force and bankruptcy.  His involvement in the crash was greater than his report suggested, and while hinted at through the novel, just how direct it was is only revealed at the end.

Now, as the anniversary of the fatal crash comes round, the living, shadowed by the dead, try to cope in the face of their devastating losses.  Tim partially assuages his guilt by looking after Kyle at their part-time evening job in a supermarket.  His girlfriend, Danielle, was killed along with Toe, the driver. Tim had swapped his front seat with Marco to sit in the back with Danielle on his lap, an act which saved him but led to their deaths.  He harbours negative thoughts and plots his own destruction as an act of atonement.  Kyle has reverted to childhood, which has put pressure on his parents, his mother forced into a role she had thought she had long ago been able to discard, suddenly faced with it for the rest of her life, while his father is in denial, focusing on work and leaving Kyle’s care completely to his wife.  The other significant characters, Travis and Greg, were not in the accident but, as friends of Toe’s they feel obliged to take action to honour his memory by punishing Brooks, whom they consider to have been the cause of the catastrophe. Brooks meanwhile is tracking Tim’s movements in a way that seems odd, but he has an understanding of Tim’s mental state.

The deceased trio have limited agency (though come to that so do the living), and are drawn to those who are thinking about them; what happens if more than one person is thinking about them at a time is not tackled.  Why they are still around is a mystery, they are not atoning for sins or trying to influence the living.  They have some slight effect on the living at a subconscious level when passing through them, but not enough to make a significant difference.  They have not gained any wisdom in death; rather they seem much like the annoying bickering teenagers they must have been when alive, people too immature to be trusted with motor vehicles.  At one point they come across a pair of girls who had died before them and were becoming faint, suggesting that eventually they too will pass beyond, but this is not a town full of spirits like themselves.  If the ghosts are drawn to living people who are thinking about them, it is possible that they take their substance from those thoughts, then disappear when forgotten, a ‘second death’, but Avon should be full of ghosts, even if the disembodied state is limited to those who have suffered a traumatic demise.

Kyle is in an in-between state, both a living shell and a ghostly ka who is not quite on the same level as the regular ghosts and does not interact with them, but who is referred to as the ‘real Kyle’ by them, experiencing an ambiguous existence that befits his here/not-here state.  But that raises the question, while the three ghosts move on at some point, or perhaps just fade away, does Kyle remain in some earthbound state until his body dies?  And then does he have to begin the process like Toe, Danielle and Marco did?  The suspicion inevitably arises from these uncertainties that the mechanics of this afterlife are tailored to fit the requirements of the plot rather than to display internal logic.

A theme is the effects of time passing on the living – people change, the town is growing and becoming more affluent, pricing locals out – compared to the stasis of death: ‘Your face has changed; ours are the same, frozen in yearbook photos in the local papers…’ (p. 5).  With the passage of time we should forget, but it is not always possible.  It might seem a blessing if we could, when it holds the dead back and prevents the living from moving on.  In that case memory is pathological; yet the only character who is able to forget is Brooks’s grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s, and does not even remember who Brooks is.  Remembering may be a curse, but the alternative is worse.

The most poignant moment in the book is the attempt by Kyle’s parents to cover the cracks with a veneer of normality by going out for a meal.  They try to put their troubles out of their minds yet are not able to engage freely in conversation as they would once have done because of the need to skirt round Kyle and the long-term impact the situation is having on their lives, both careful not to spoil the moment by letting harsh reality intrude.  They achieve a rare moment of physical intimacy that night, but Nancy still has to be the one to get up to let Kyle in when he returns home.   All sorts of questions are raised in the restaurant scene: what will happen as Nancy ages and is no longer able to manage Kyle physically, will she cope psychologically with the perpetual monotony of looking after an adult-sized child, will her resentment at her husband’s unwillingness to take his share of responsibility explode, what happens when he retires and is unable to hide at work?   Their plight reminds us that our lives (not just our bodies) are fragile and can be crushed in a heartbeat.

It’s a slow-burning story with an evocative atmosphere but few surprises, the climax as inevitable as the wayside shrine which marks the fatal tree.  Chapter titles allude to horror films:  ‘Something Wicked’ (from a Bradbury novel of course), ‘Dawn of the Dead’, ‘Day of the Dead’, ‘Halloween’, ‘Night of the Living’, and ‘Return of the Living’, the omission of ‘Dead’ from the last two implying an equivalence of living and dead.  ‘Return of the Living’ is a beautiful coda in which the crash and the events leading up to it are described in reverse so at the end we see simply a ‘a bunch of dumb kids having fun’ (p. 229) unaware of what is round the corner.  Death turns back to life, all losses are restored – but only in fantasy.  This is not a horror story, it is a study of character, dissecting people living with the legacy of a terrible moment as they unravel in their various ways until the threads pull taut, and in some cases snap.  Its major lesson is to remember to buckle up, and preferably not get in a car with an idiot teenager driving it in the first place.

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