In the aftermath of a horrific plane crash, former Pilot Chip Linton, his wife Emily, and their twin daughters relocate to the little hamlet of Bethel in northern New Hampshire in an effort to gain a fresh start. Chip quickly finds that it isn’t easy to escape the ghosts of his past, particularly when the ghosts are no longer all in his head.
There is a lot going on in The Night Strangers. A lot. First and foremost are Chip’s struggles with PTSD and survivor’s guilt. As the pilot of a plane that crashed shortly after take-off and resulted in the deaths of 39 people, he’s understandably dealing with some inner turmoil. Add in the fact that he’s become captivated by a mysterious door-to-nowhere in the basement of the family’s new home – a door that just happens to be sealed shut with exactly 39 bolts – and feel the tension build. Then throw in some very vivid (and in some cases very angry) ghosts who are making some unsettling demands of Chip. And once you’ve got all that? Don’t forget the new neighbors, who display some genuinely restraining order-worthy behavior and seem to have three extremely obsessive hobbies: herb gardening, baking appalling concoctions with the aforementioned herbs, and creeping on his twin daughters. Not necessarily in that order. To say that things are awkward with the neighbors would be putting it very mildly. If the Bethel welcome wagon were literal instead of figurative, it would look something like this:
In the hands of a lesser author, The Night Strangers could have easily turned into a garbled, impossible-to-follow nightmare. Bohjalian manages to tie everything neatly together and keep you going along the path in which he’s leading you, but without really letting you know that you’re being led. Part of this is because even with a fairly good-sized cast of characters he manages to give each one a unique voice and make them memorable. I particularly found this to be true in the case of the Bethel townspeople, who gleefully and with aplomb take “Stranger Danger” to new levels. Certainly, some characters were more well developed than others, but I felt that Bohjalian succeeded in giving everyone a distinct role to play and with one or two exceptions there were no purely filler characters. The book also provided some extreme creep-out moments that had my heart racing. As for the ending…let’s just say I didn’t see it coming. Like, at all. And at first I hated, hated, HATED it. I felt so disappointed because I had loved the book right up until the very end. It stuck with me afterward and I found myself stewing over it hours and even days later until I finally came around and realized that the more I thought about the ending, the more fitting I found it. And frankly, any book that gets that visceral a reaction from me has done its job and then some.
This is not to say that I thought the book was perfect. I would have liked Bohjalian to go deeper into the “coincidence” of the 39 dead passengers and the 39 bolts in the basement door. It was mentioned but somewhat glossed over in my opinion. I also had some issues with the behavior of Emily Linton that I won’t get into much in this review to avoid giving too much away, but suffice it to say that she was pretty much all over the board and her reactions to a few situations were a little dishraggy for my taste. I would also have liked to know a bit more about Reseda’s past, though I assume that could have been a book in and of itself so I understand the abbreviated history.
Overall I really enjoyed The Night Strangers and would put it up there among the best books I read in 2011. The issues that I had with it were so minor that they didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the book at all. Highly recommended for anyone looking for a well-written, scary ghost story.