Summer of Night – A Novel of Sweet Summer Nostalgia Doused in Terror – A Great Summer Read

Summer of Night - Dan Simmons - Warner Books - Mar 1992I’ve been writing about haunted apartments lately. I will continue  to do so, but for right now, it’s time to step out of those oppressive flats and enjoy  the summer – before it’s gone. (It’s already late July, folks! Yikes!) Yes I know, apartments are my theme for this summer, but doggone it, summer is a time to read and write about topics that directly relate to this fun and sunny season. Topics such as bike riding, movies in the park…and ghostly forces. Ghostly forces? Yes you read that right. Summer is no time to “give up the ghost” (I used the same expression in a wintertime ghost article. Hee hee! Here it is, for further reading: Wintertime Ghosts.)  There are plenty of summer horror novels out there. But in my opinion , Summer of Night  by Dan Simmons is the best of the bunch.

Last summer, I read two books about the summers of youth – Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury  and Summer of 42 by Herman Raucher. Then I wrote an article comparing these two books with later works  by these same authors that take place in the autumn and winter. They are, respectively, Something Wicked Comes This Way (Bradbury) and Maynard’s House (Raucher). The latter are horror novels. In the article, I argue that similar themes are found in both the summer books and the novels of fall and winter, but that the “flavor” of these themes vary with the season. The link to the article is posted below:

From Summer to Autumn: The Spirit Remains the Same (The Darker Sides of Ray Bradbury and Herman Raucher.)

I’d like to think of this article as a sequel to the one I wrote last summer. Only this time, I focus  only on one book and one author. What’s so unique about this book is that it unites two themes that are usually  allocated to separate stories. On the one hand, I’m talking about fun summers of boyhood pleasures, oh that precious  nostalgia! On the other hand, I’m referring to dead soldiers that walk the night, phantom trucks that will plow over its victims, farm machinery that acts on its own accord. For the record , the similarities  and differences stressed is last summer’s article  are more nuanced than Summer = longing /Autumn = foreboding. (There is fear and death in both last year’s summer novels and a bit of nostalgia  in Something Wicked…) Still this article ties into last year’s piece since its goal is to balance seemingly opposing themes on the thin edge of your screen. Plus it’s a season based book. Summer  = youthful joy. Night = many things scary. Put that together and we have Summer of Night, a book that forces its pre adolescent characters into a dawning of the full gamut of human emotions – joy, sorrow, fear and all the stuff in between.

If I were to do a theme involving haunted schools, Summer of Night would certainly make the list. What is more terrifying to a young boy than the sight/site (both words SummerOfNight6work in this context -I think!) of his school building after classes have been dismissed for the summer! But the boys of Elm Haven, Illinois have no choice. Living in a small town, they can’t escape its looming presence. But there is more to fear here than its symbol – an oppressive environment of rules and structure; the antithesis of summer vacation and everything those two and a half months of freedom represent. On the very last day of classes, a boy wanders down into the lowest floors of the building to a sequestered part of the school. Classrooms go unused here and the halls are empty. The boy goes to use the bathroom. Inside the bathroom, he witnesses something terrifying. And he’s never heard from again!  The teachers, the townsfolk search for him to no avail.

This episode of the boy gone missing is only the beginning of the horrors that with haunt a group of friends throughout the summer. It begins at the school. It continues throughout the town and its rural surroundings; in the cemetery, out in the woods, down the long country roads, and even in their own homes – in their basements, in their bedrooms, underneath their beds. That which haunts them will be traced back to the school in the end. It harbors something evil.

SummerOfNight4The events in this story take place in the summer of 1960. The boys of summer  are as follows: Dale Stewart, Lawrence Stewart (Dale’s younger brother), Mike O’Rourke, Duane McBride, Kevin Grumbacher, Jim Harlen. Included in this group is one girl – Cordie Cooke. Together they must solve this mystery that plagues them. If they fail, the consequences are deadly.

Much of the story takes place from the view point of Dale. With his brother Lawrence, they represent typical “All-American” boys of 1960 – good hearted, nice parents with a solid upbringing. Mike is the ambitious one of the bunch. He holds down part time jobs. He’s an early riser and he regularly performs duties as an altar boy at his parish. Duane is an odd one, often silent, but when he does speak, he outdoes his peers with his vocabulary. Though intelligent, this precocious farm boy is not “the nerd”.  He is self-assured and comfortable with his modest, simple attire. Cordie is the outcast, the “backwards” redneck. She is also tough and can probably take on any of these boys in a fist-fight.

The point of all this is – the kid characters are extremely well-developed. Aside for their relatable personalities, their daily summer activities are made up of the youthful rituals that many of us engaged in when we were young. Reading this book will create within you a longing for those innocent days when the world was fresh and new, and excitement was always minutes away. Sounds like I’m describing a carefree atmosphere, doesn’t it? A carefree environment in the midst of a horror novel, with death and suffering? Believe it or not, Author Simmons succeeds on both fronts. You just have to read it to believe it. When the kids are not scared out of their wits, they are playing baseball all day, losing track of the time. They are taking bike trips to far away places; down the country roads, into the woods, where they have “club spaces”, where they have good natured rivalry with other “kid clubs” (there are also some serious incidents of bullying in other parts of the book that is not good natured, but that is part of the horror). They watch movies in the park, they look for hidden “bootlegging chambers” that are supposedly hidden underneath some field.

My favorite part of the book – the introduction. Or maybe it’s called “Author’s note.”  It occurs before the story, was added in later editions of the book. It’s a commentary by the author about the social environment of today’s youth. Simmons mentions how many of the pastimes of the kids of yesterday, pastimes he himself took part in, are just not available to today’s youth anymore. At least not in the same kind of way the he and his storybook characters experienced them.  Today’s kids often grow up in overprotected, over structured environments. They are not allowed to be bored. Boredom can inspire kids to be creative, to create the kind of fun that lasts within memories forever. The kids in Summer of Night might say “Goodbye” to their parents in the morning, not see them again until dinner, then off they go again on another adventure. Many kids today the same age as these characters are barely allowed out of their yards. And often they don’t want to, since they can stay home with their tablets, video games, etc. etc.

I recommend reading this commentary AFTER finishing the story, for there are spoilers within its message. In many ways, I agree with what Simmons is getting at. Still, I just have to believe “that spirit” conjured by the summertime youth of a bygone era still exists in some form today. To appreciate this book, one does not need to have grown up in 1960.  There are elements of timelessness in it – celebration of youth, curiosity with the unknown, a freedom from supervision. Yes even today I believe (or at least hope) that kids have amble time away from the prying eyes of adults.

This book owes a lot to Stephen King’s IT.  However, it stands on its own. And it does something that IT does not – by describing so many minute but welcoming details concerning the daily activities of these child characters, it wraps readers warmly, strange enough, in a summer of bygone days. In sum, it succeeds as a nostalgic tale in a way that King’s novel does not (although this comparison is not entirely fair; King was not necessarily striving to invoke a longing for a past era.)


We All Have “That Favorite Summer”

 

I dream of one day writing the ultimate summer nostalgia novel. I am especially attracted to the title of Simmon’s book – Summer of Night. I remember the summer nights fondly back when I was fifteen years old. There was a song from the House music genre titled I Fear the Night.

I was mistakenly convinced that the singer was singing the words “I Feel the Night”. Under this false presumption, I had made this the theme song for the summer of 1986. See, I truly believed that there was this vibe, this “magic” if you will, that existed in some kind of objective state. It was there for the taking, and was most potent during the nighttime – the nighttime of the summer. All you had to do was “reach out with your feelings” (thank you, Star Wars, for that quote) and the night and all its magic was at your disposal. It was called “feeling the night”. Ironically, the song’s real title and subject are more appropriate for a horror movie, or a horror novel like – Summer of Night.

Back in 1986 I had a group of friends. We all navigated around our neighborhoods on our bikes.  Every late afternoon, I wondered where the night would take us. Sometimes it took us to Mikey’s backyard where he had the pool. Sometimes it took as to Tracey’s front porch. Sometimes it took us to Johnny’s alley. Often we would have beers, bought at a bar a mile away that sold to us minors. We pedaled our bikes with six-packs wrapped in our arms.  We snuck out late at night and hung out at park benches. We had bottle rocket wars. We smoked an occasional joint. We “felt the night.”

Now I know what you’re thinking. Earlier I was lamenting the loss of freedom for the children of today. Some of the things my friends and I did that summer fall into the delinquent category. So one might say, “See! When children are left unsupervised in an environment without structure, this is what happens. Kids do bad things.” Well, touche’. But we really weren’t bad kids.  And for the record, we were a bit older than the kids of the novel , and Simmons argues more for an adventure-filled summer for the pre-teenage kids, before things like drinking and drug use enter the picture.

For better or for worse, I love remembering the summers of my youth, adventures and misadventures alike;  I learned from both. Therefore, I just love books about summer nostalgia. Since I am a horror novel fan, Summer of Night is the perfect book for me. And it just might be the perfect book for you too! Read it and find out for yourself.


A Winter Haunting

Dan Simmons follows up with several sequel books. They catch up on the lives of the children characters after they become adults. I’ve reviewed one of these books.  It’s called A Winter Haunting. It’s also a great book. As with Summer of Night, it makes use of the season as a metaphor for the character/s current state of affairs. In this book, Dale Stewart returns to his childhood home town for the holidays (Pre-Thanksgiving – New Years Day). There, he tries to piece together what happened during the events of “that summer”. His memories haunt him. He is alone, isolated in a farmhouse. It’s cold and snowy. He has made several mistakes in his adult life. In this isolated environment, he is forced to confront his demons. Are they literal or metaphorical? Both. It’s a complex book. I recommend this book as well.  Here is the Amazon Link: A Winter Haunting

 

 

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