The Night Strangers: A Novel
- Chris Bohjalian
- 379 pp.
- Reviewed by Natalie Wexler
- October 20, 2011
This novel brews up a mixture of witches, ghosts and guilt for the protagonist, a pilot who failed to avert a catastrophic plane crash.
Reviewed by Natalie Wexler
Ghosts and young children can be a compelling literary combination. Just think of Henry James’ classic ghost story The Turn of the Screw, in which a governess battles demonic apparitions for the souls of her young charges.
Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel, The Night Strangers, offers a new twist on James’ set-up. Chip Linton, along with his wife and twin 10-year-old daughters, moves into an old house in New Hampshire and discovers in the corner of the basement a door sealed shut with 39 wrought-iron carriage bolts. Thirty-nine happens to be the number of passengers who died on the plane piloted by Chip a few months before, after a flock of geese wreaked havoc with the engines and he unsuccessfully attempted a water landing.
Traumatized and obsessed with the door in the basement, Chip pries it open and finds a cache of human bones. Soon he begins to encounter three strangers in the house, all ghosts of passengers on his plane. One, still carrying her Dora the Explorer backpack, is a little girl named Ashley. Another is Ashley’s father, Ethan, who repeatedly tells Chip, “She deserves friends.” (The third is an unrelated woman named Sandra who seems to be there mostly to argue with Ethan about whether the crash was Chip’s fault.) It soon becomes apparent what Ethan means: Chip should kill one or both of his own daughters, because Ashley needs a playmate.
But wait, that’s not all. The Linton family finds itself embraced by a group of eerily well preserved locals who display an unnatural interest in the twins. Although they present themselves as “herbalists” — the women all have plant-based names like Sage and Anise — in fact they’re a coven of witches desperate for the key ingredient in one of their prized tinctures: the blood of a traumatized twin.
Bohjalian deftly switches point of view among his various characters, employing an especially effective device in the passages told from Chip’s perspective. Instead of writing in the third-person and the past tense, as he does in the rest of the novel, Bohjalian uses the second-person and the present tense, e.g., “At the bottom of the stairs you pause.” The present tense ratchets up the tension and the unusual second-person voice forces the reader into Chip’s shoes. It also creates the feeling that Chip is being watched — which, of course, he is.
Bohjalian also convincingly renders the thoughts and feelings of the twins, Hallie and Garnet. Although occasionally their vocabulary sounds a bit too adult, their quiet bewilderment over their father’s increasingly bizarre behavior and their complicated feelings towards each other have the ring of truth.
But for the most part, the other characters fail to come to life, and their actions — even allowing for the supernatural forces at work here — don’t always make sense. Would Chip, after finding human bones in the basement, really just slip them into a Ziploc bag and not mention the discovery to his wife, Emily? Would Emily continue to entrust her girls to the care of the “herbalists” even after she’s been warned they’re not as benign as they seem?
And, despite the multiple supernatural threats to the twins’ existence, the book simply isn’t all that scary. Perhaps it’s a problem of credibility. One plotline alone might have worked, but the combination of the party of ghosts from the crash and the coven of witches — apparently unrelated, and each unaware of the other — seems like overkill (if you’ll pardon the expression). It’s asking too much to have the reader believe that these things just happen to occur simultaneously.
If I were choosing one, I’d go with the ghosts. The herbalists are intriguing — and Bohjalian has fun with the names, christening an herbalist/therapist “Valerian,” and inserting made-up herbs like “hypnobium” and “eternium” alongside real ones like skullcap and ashwaganda. But to my mind, the most powerful ghost stories are the ones in which the apparitions could be psychological projections. Critics have suggested that the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw may be products of the governess’s fevered, sexually repressed imagination. Similarly, the ghosts from the plane could be manifestations of Chip’s irrational but understandable feelings of guilt. Why should his daughters be alive when little Ashley, whose life had been in his hands, is dead?
Limiting the plot to the ghost story would also have allowed Bohjalian greater opportunity to explore Chip’s state of mind. As it is, Chip acts like a zombie, accepting the ghosts’ appearances matter-of-factly and generally attempting to carry out their wishes. His one attempted act of rebellion occurs, for some reason, offstage. Perhaps the book would be scarier if he were a little more afraid.
The most frightening parts of the book are those that describe, in apparently meticulously researched detail, exactly what happens when a jet hits the water and breaks apart on impact. Read this book late at night and alone, if you will, but whatever you do, don’t read it while you’re on a plane.
Natalie Wexler is the author of the novels The Mother-Daughter Show (Fuze Publishing, December 2011) and A More Obedient Wife.