For the better part of the past six weeks, I have been in a hardcore reading slump, and I mean bad. For the past three years or so, I have averaged 8-12 books a month, but in the past six weeks I had barely read anything, and what I did attempt to read I almost immediately put down because I couldn’t get into it.
Which is why I didn’t expect this book to catapult me out of the worst reading slump I’ve had in the past five years.
The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian follows Chip, his wife Emily, and their twin daughters, Garnet and Hallie, as they settle into their new house in a small town in New Hampshire after a tragic event that has affected the whole family. While fixing up their Victorian home, Chip comes across a door in their basement sealed with 39 carriage bolts–the same number as the passengers who perished during the emergency water landing he had to make while piloting a jet that hit a flock of geese. Plagued with the guilt of their deaths, Chip starts to succumb to visions of the passengers while his wife and daughters face some horrors of their own.
Two of the biggest tropes in horror/thriller is A) scary old haunted house that family has just moved into and B) struggling with mental illness/trauma which makes it difficult to discern if someone is “crazy” or experiencing supernatural events. As I abhor overused tropes (and poorly depicted mental health) I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. Typically, it’s pretty obvious (at least to the reader) that what the main character is experiencing is not trauma/mental health related, but is actually a supernatural event. This book, however, does it in a way that I was genuinely flipping back and forth over whether what was happening was supernatural or not.
The author made a great stylistic choice of having this story told in second and third person, with Chip’s point of view being told through second person while every other character’s point of view is portrayed through third person. This creates a distinctive disconnect that really creates a feeling of dissociation through the story, even though Chip is in the rest of the book. What we know is happening in his head verses what we see through the other character’s point of view of him is so different, which makes watching him descend into his Shining-esque break down even more compelling.
While half the book focuses on Chip’s declining mental health, the other half focuses on Emily, Garnet, and Hallie’s relationship with the town’s herbalists, who many other townsfolk have a distain for. The head herbalist, Anis, is a friendly older woman who helps care for the ten year old twins after school in her greenhouse, where she teaches the girls about horticulture. Things start innocently enough, but Emily starts to become concerned when other people in town stop associating with her simply because she is friendly with the herbalists, and things get kicked into high gear when she discovers her house was home to a pair of twins years before, one of whom committed suicide.
One would expect an extreme amount of twin troping here, especially since we have already seen two of the most classic of horror tropes, but that actually does not happen. As weird as it sounds, this novel somehow pulls off a twin trope while simultaneously not having to use twins at all (and if you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I mean by this).
I’m a pretty big fan of horror/thriller books and this is one of the best I have read in quite a while. I loved the portrayal of Chip’s anxiety and intrusive thoughts and how these can easily lead to a destructive path of self-hatred, and there were a lot of plot threads that were completely unrelated but tied all together in the end. There was even the addition of absent seizures, which is something I have never seen before. Whenever seizures are shown in any source of media, they are always grand mal seizures (the ones where you fall on the floor and shake a lot). While the author did incorrectly state that Garnet would have these seizures for 10 to 30 minutes at a time (holy shit, if someone is having a seizure for more than 5 minutes it’s considered a medical emergency) the fact that a different type of seizure being portrayed is enough for me to overlook that.
Since I did enjoy this book so much, I am going to put one of Chris Bohjalian’s other books on my to read list. As I am now looking at Goodreads to add another of his books, it seems that the top three reviews for this book are all one to two star ratings, which I think is absolutely hilarious. This is one of the things that I love about books and reading; a book that is incredible to me is shit to someone else. I guess the only way to find out if this book is good or not is to read it yourself!