Have I got a haunted house book for you! It’s a very decent read,; a brilliant piece. And, it is seasonally appropriate. Published in 2002, it is called A Winter Haunting by author Dan Simmons. The action of the story begins at Halloween and ends post New Years Day. Yes I know, we already finished those holiday celebrations. To reengage in the them would require us to look back instead of moving forward. Well golly gee, isn’t that what hauntings are about, looking back? Don’t you want to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with the slightly unbalanced professor Dale Stewart in a haunted farm house from his boyhood town? But of course you do. Besides, it’s got the wintery stuff that targets us Midwesterners right now, including, but not limited to, snow, chilling breezes, and a house to escape the elements of the cold season (although this house must be shared with…certain things. Scary things). Well, enough of all that, come along now. Come on!
First a disclaimer. A Winter Haunting is the second book of a series. Technically, it’s full title is A Winter Haunting (Seasons of Horror Book 2). To date, the only other “seasons” based book by Simmons is Summer of Night (Seasons of Horror Book 1), published in 1991. Summer of Night has spawned several successive works. It is a story about the memorable summer of 1960 and the group of pre-adolescent boys (and one girl) that participated in it. Filled with the stuff of nostalgia, it successfully makes the reader yearn for those summer days of our youths. But that is not what makes the summer memorable; not for The Bike Patrol (the name of the club the boys of 1960 had formed) anyway. For those characters inside the book, it is a memorable summer because they were put in a situation where they had to spend a good deal of their time combatting evil, supernatural forces.
Simmons follows Summer of Night with several books that contain some of these children characters as adults. These include Fires of Eden and Children of the Night. As far as I know, these two books do not belong in the “Seasons of Horror” series. A Winter Haunting also deals with one of the Bike Patrol boys all grown up. While I do think the book stands well on its own, it’s probably wise to read Summer of Night first, if anything than to avoid a major spoiler that unfolds about “that summer.”
So, why am I reviewing A Winter’s Haunting before Summer of Night? Two reasons.
1) As previously mentioned, A Winter Haunting is seasonally appropriate at this time. For those of us who live in a wintery climate, we are more apt to relate to Dale’s walks across snowy fields when we ourselves are blanketed in a frosty climate. The holidays mentioned in this book are fresh in our memories.
2) Technically, Summer of Night is not much of a haunted house novel. True, the school building is facilitator of the things that haunt the town of Elm Haven, so technically it is about a haunted structure (a certain part of it is any. Oh but I can’t tell you about it. Spoiler!) But the book is more about the supernatural manifestations that spread throughout the town of Elm Haven. The most frightening elements of the book occur in cemeteries, children’s bedrooms, nearby forests, and down country roads.
But since the school is a respected historical structure, and since some of the book’s supernatural activity does occur inside its walls, I will review the book. But I will do this at the beginning of summer 2018. Mark your calendars!
Back to A Winter Haunting, which is in some ways very different from its predecessor. Different in time, different in tone. Summer of Night, while horrific, contains elements of timeless joys and youthful freedom. It is a story of young boys. A Winter Haunting closes those chapters of our lives many years later. It is about settling rather than striving. It is about coming to terms with what you’ve become and living with the sins of the past. Professor Dale Stewart (a Bike Patrol member) in not happy with the way things in his adult life are going. He leaves his wife and children to start a relationship with one of his students. The student, in turn, leaves him. He attempts suicide. He turns a pistol on himself. When he fails to kill himself, he seeks therapy.
Dale decides to rent a farm house in his childhood town of Elm Haven for a winter. There he will write a book about that memorable summer – the summer of 1960. He seems to want to revisit the past, perhaps to see how far back things had gone horribly wrong. Maybe the answers to his current problems are here in Elm Haven; here in the house. If the bullet had discharged from the gun he turned on himself, the wound he would have suffered would have been considered self-inflicted. In a way, what he experiences at the farmhouse is a self-inflicted haunting. If you dig for ghosts you just might find them. And Dale does. The places in and around the farm house, the people he meets from his past, all of this is part of this self-inflicted haunting. Dale is romanticizing his past while at the same time – it scares the shit out of him.
It’s very difficult to describe this story without encountering spoilers. There is some very interesting backstory surrounding this farm house, but I can’t get into that for fear of ruining parts of Summer of Night. It has an upstairs that is mostly sealed off from the rest of the house. Weird things occur beyond that plastic sealing! There is a basement with interesting books and devices. There is something about one of these devices that comes as a shocker to Dale near the end of the story. Then there is the ghost that is most important to the story, but I cannot delve into it’s nature. This ghost is with Dale at the beginning, becomes more intertwined with his current state of affairs while he is at the house, and remains with him at the story’s end.
There is a lot of psychology at play in the book, although it is not always obvious. The overall scenario is a common one: a writer is alone with his or her thoughts trying to write a book, struggling with both fantasy and reality. We see this play out in The Shining. This plays out in my book The Housesitter as well. But as the story unfolds, we the readers discover things that are uniquely Dan Simmons, such as his knowledge of ancient epics and religious myths. This knowledge fits in remarkably well in what is otherwise a folksy down-to-earth tale.
I cannot recommend this book enough. It is one of the bests of its genre. You may want to give Summer of Night a read first, which is, admittedly, a long book. But is you choose to pass on Summer of Night (And I don’t recommend skipping this book), please read A Winter Haunting. The story can be well understood without reading any previous books. Whatever you do, don’t miss it!