Stewart O’Nan’s ghostly trio takes the driver’s seat One Halloween night, a speeding carload of partying teenagers misses a turn and collides head-on with the hereafter. What happens next, to those who survive and those who don’t, makes for a wild and wicked ride in Stewart O’Nan’s The Night Country, a spooky little tale in the Ray Bradbury tradition guaranteed to give parents the pre-Halloween willies.
It’s Cabbage Night, the night before Halloween, in Avon, an affluent Connecticut suburb. With manicured lawns, peopleless, well-lit streets and stores of every ubiquitous, national brand, Avon is vanilla, vanilla, vanilla. Nothing wicked this way comes, ever. (Just ask the author; he’s lived in the actual Avon for years.) Tim and Kyle, two teenage buddies headed home from their bagboy shift at the Stop’n’Shop, are tailed by kindly, troubled Officer Brooks. All of them were there one year ago when a Camry carrying five teenagers slammed into a tree. Three kids died that night: Toe, the driver; Danielle, Tim’s girlfriend; and Marco, our narrator. There were two survivors: Kyle, whose massive injuries rendered him childlike, and Tim, whose survivor’s guilt has hardened into suicidal intentions.
Brooks, the first officer to reach that gruesome scene, has retreated into the bottle to battle his demons. His only mission now is to prevent Tim and Kyle from repeating that horrible scene on purpose this Halloween.
What makes The Night Country so chilling is the haunting presence of the wisecracking undead. The ghostly trio drifts in and out of the lives of Tim, Kyle and Brooks, dropping vague references to an otherworldly agenda of their own. Although O’Nan chooses Marco, “the quiet one,” to narrate, Toe and Danielle add plenty of adolescent commentary via parenthetical, and often chiding, asides. O’Nan, the critically acclaimed author of seven previous novels, says he read a newspaper account of an actual multiple teenage fatality in a nearby community and couldn’t shake it. “A year later, on the very day, the two survivors got in a Jeep with a suitcase of Bud in cans and a mobile phone and went driving around town to visit all these old spots that they used to go to with their friends and they telephoned all their other friends saying, Ã”We’re going to kill ourselves, we don’t want to live anymore because of the accident last year. We just wanted to say goodbye to you.’ And they ran into the exact same tree that their friends had hit. Afterward, all their friends and the town put all these bouquets and teddy bears around this particular tree. The town came and cut the tree down because they didn’t want any copycats after that. Very weird.” A horror fan from his earliest days growing up in Pittsburgh (also home to director George A. Romero of Night of the Living Dead fame, he notes proudly), O’Nan had long dreamt of writing an homage to Ray Bradbury, to whom this book is dedicated.
“He was one of my first great loves. There was something magical about his short stories. One of my favorite books of all time is Something Wicked This Way Comes. I loved that book and for years I’ve said that I’m going to try to write something like that,” he says.
The teen accident and double suicide seemed the perfect basis for a novel. “In Something Wicked, the dark thing comes to the small town and it’s up to the innocents there, the two boys and their librarian father, to fight off this dangerous thing. There are no small towns anymore where I live; they’re all suburbs. So when I started writing this book, I thought OK, let’s bring the magical thing into this place that is decidedly un-magical.” Like Halloween, one of his favorite fright flicks, O’Nan conjures up foreboding from the very ordinariness of life in Avon. As horrifying as dying young in twisted wreckage might seem, surviving with Kyle’s array of disabilities may be even scarier.
“In movies and TV and pop writing, it’s always about events instead of consequences,” he says. “These things happen and that’s supposed to be the big climax. But it’s really living with this stuff; how do you keep living with this stuff? Because we all do. Your life doesn’t just stop; you’ve got to go on somehow.” O’Nan, like Bradbury, is a decidedly free-range author, although some aspect of the gothic is never far from view in such disparate works as Wish You Were Here (2002), A Prayer for the Dying (1999) and A World Away (1998).
So what exactly is it that scares him? “Everything!” he chuckles. “I thought for a long, long time that I would die in a car crash. Fear of economic collapse. Fear of Republican presidents. Fear is one of the big subjects I always take on in every book.” That said, he doesn’t intentionally set out to write intelligent horror with every book. In fact, each book tends to send him in the opposite direction, as if to “completely obliterate” the previous novel. It would be fair to say that distraction is the key to his creative process. “What happens is, I will start one book and have the characters and the action and the setting, all that stuff, and one lone little tiny character will zip across a sentence and will seem so much more interesting than what I’m doing that I will follow that character that I know nothing about to somewhere I hope is more interesting. And that’s the book that I will end up writing, and the book that I had planned to write, I’ll never get to,” he says.
Though it didn’t get under his skin during the writing, O’Nan can now add The Night Country to that list of things that keep him up nights. “Now it sort of creeps me out a little bit. I have a daughter who just got her license and she goes to that high school. It’s very weird. My great fear is that something bad will happen this fall when the book has just come out in our town. I’ve very worried about that.” Jay MacDonald is a professional writer based in Mississippi.