Written by: James Keen
“I have to go back. Something’s waiting for me there.”
Back in 1991 Dan Simmons published ‘Summer of Night’, a terrifying novel set in small-town mid-western America in 1960, an emotionally affecting book that took as its focus a group of kids fresh out of school for the seemingly propitious summer break and finding themselves confronting an immensely devious force of evil. In many respects Simmons novel had much in common with Stephen King’s ‘It’ with its story of the end of child-like innocence and the unique bonds forged at that age. King’s book took the kitchen-sink approach to scaring readers using recognisable icons of horror topography to elicit scares, whereas Simmons’ narrative develops a manifestation of evil that is wholly of his own creation. ‘Summer’ had a large cast of characters and had the sense of the whole town of Elm Haven being inexorably overwhelmed by supernatural menace. With ‘A Winter Haunting’ Simmons returns to Elm Haven some forty years later, but it’s with a subtly altered conceit. Moving from the group dynamic in ‘Summer…’, we have a much more insular and introspective premise in its ‘sequel’ in that we’re primarily concerned with a singular character here, a survivor of the events of that dark and bloody summer.
Simmons protagonist here is Dale Stewart, a 52 year old English professor, who returns to Elm Haven taking up temporary residence at the home of his murdered childhood pal, Duane McBride. The McBride home now devoid of family, Dale decides to rent the place while writing a novel about the events of that summer in 1960, but it’s also seen as an opportunity by Dale to re-set his life and re-appraise his circumstances. Having estranged his wife and his family by a dalliance with one of his students in a fit of mid-life compulsion, Dale has also managed to survive his own subsequently fudged suicide attempt – a Hemingway-esque self-destructive endeavour. Considering the character’s history and his ominous choice of relocation, Simmons prepares the reader for the horrors he’s about to unfurl, but this time around the scares here are-by and large- those of a much more delicate and ingenious variety.
‘A Winter Haunting’ is an enticingly slippery literary affair, Simmons story appears determined to avoid lazily repeating what worked so well in its predecessor; the dramatically effective big shocks, the descriptions of the monstrous nemesis and the endearing sense of community between the kids. Here we have in its stead, a scenario concerned with growing dread and the harrowing sense of isolation exemplified by Dale, an isolation not only of the physical but mental variety with Dale often solely dependant upon his anti-depressant pills and his often faulty memories to help him wade through his existential crisis. This is a novel as much concerned with unnerving the reader as it is with discussing the nature of perception and the corruption of memory by time and experience. Dale’s floundering quest for meaning in his own life is given the center stage for much of the novels run and in a lesser author’s hands might have proved to be a rather maudlin affair. Simmons triumph here is that his conceit has a multi-layered dramatic dynamism always in play; the reader is nudged here and there into questioning the events as we see them unfold and it’s to the author’s credit that ultimately this methodology doesn’t come across as overly manipulative or trite. The narrative structure is familiar but it’s what Simmons does with the framework that ultimately rewards the reader, playing as he does with expectation while managing to adhere to the overall logic of his plot.
Those who enjoyed this novel’s predecessor will find some small delight in re-acquainting themselves with the people of Elm Haven, those who are still alive, that is, but this isn’t a saccharine-sweet reunion. Much like the opposing qualities of the seasons mentioned in the titles of both novels the intention here is entirely different and commendably so, given the temptation on the part of the author to play up to the audience’s expectations and deliver more of the same. ‘A Winter Haunting’ counters those anticipations and is a remarkable instance of an author tackling a central concept from an entirely different perspective and producing a work that stands on its own as an effective piece of horror fiction.
Do yourself a favor and order it here.