Written by: James Keen
“You seem to have your head in the clouds tonight…” – ‘The Night Strangers.’
In an interview Chris Bohjalian gave to ‘The Diane Rehm’ show in October 2011, the author outlined his modern day ghost story pointing out that it was also a study of a man suffering from trauma; an airline pilot who finds himself returning again and again in his mind to a tragedy he is unable to rationalize. In 2009 Chesley Sullenberger managed to save the lives of everyone on board US Airways Flight 1549 by landing his malfunctioning aircraft safely on the waters of the Hudson River and becoming a hero in the process. ‘Chip Linton’- Bohjalian’s middle-aged protagonist here is not so fortunate and his attempt to land his own aircraft on the water of Lake Champlain results in the loss of three quarters of everyone on board flight 1611, killing thirty nine people and although exonerated by investigators he becomes ensnared in his own ensuing depression, uprooting his wife and twin daughters and relocating to the relatively calmer climes of the White Mountains so that Chip, – referred to at one point as “a man who had overcome a really disastrous childhood” – can give himself time to recuperate and mull over his future career options.
The book begins promisingly enough with a harrowing description of the plane disaster and Bohjalian quickly injects an early ominous note into the story with the abrupt death of the real estate agent responsible for selling them the 1800’s Victorian three story near the town of Bethel that the Lintons purchase. In the basement of said house, Chip finds a door -evidently a coal chute of sorts- sealed shut with THIRTY NINE six inch long carriage bolts.
If this were a movie: Cue the sinister wail of a distant oboe…
Formulaic, often painfully predictable, the author’s narrative takes a big nose-dive in terms of tension at roughly the halfway point in this novel when the text rapidly morphs into something of a unwieldy synthesis of Ira Levin’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, Dennis Wheatley’s execrable ‘To The Devil A Daughter’ and evokes memories of movies from the seventies that did the whole cult/coven thing a hell of a lot better than this (‘The Mephisto Waltz’, ‘The Wicker Man’ and so on).
A ghost story for people who perhaps haven’t picked up a horror novel in something like forty years and while there are adult themes running throughout the text I can’t imagine even the average fourteen year old getting anything more than a passing chill from one or two set-pieces in the book, never mind a diligent follower of paranormal fiction. It’s well-written, though bloated in places – a three page section discussing cup-cakes had this reviewer leaving the book for a few hours for fear the constant eye-rolling might pull a muscle. A rambling mess of a novel, Bohjalian can’t seem to decide which plot should take the dramatic center stage and taken at face value this is very much a case of two ideas clumsily dovetailed into each other. The book’s title is confusing also as it is arguably not a book about vengeful spectres but is more concerned with ‘The Stepford Wives’-like theme of secret, sinister communities. We have a greenhouse-obsessed society who name themselves after herbs and go about their dastardly business wearing ‘burgundy colored robes’ while flourishing ‘sacrificial’ blades. The multiple instances where characters are introduced with monikers based on plants become wearying to the point where this reviewer was waiting for Mayor Thistle, Doctor Nettle and Traffic Cop Weed to show up at any moment and our hero Chip adopting the nickname of ‘Potato’.
Published forty years ago this likely would have made a splash (apologies for the plane-crash pun) in the horror/ ghost story genre, but as it reads today, this is an embarrassingly obvious by-the-numbers tale that really highlights the fact that the author should really stick to less supernaturally-themed conceits as he seems wilfully ignorant of the recent milestones in horror fiction. Bohjalian can write really well, with the sections dealing with the plane crash being very effective, but it’s perhaps advisable that he avoid the horror genre as a filter for his narrative ideas in the future; this is a genre novel for people who don’t read genre novels.