23 July 2011

Books: Summer of Night by Dan Simmons (1991)

Dan Simmons is an “insanely prolific, multi-genre writer,” writer Barbara Ehrenreich said during a review of Simmons historical/supernatural tome Black Hills, which was published last year. Indeed, Simmons began his career in the mid-1980s with the horror genre, before breaking big with his science fiction novel Hyperion, which would spawn 4 novels in what became the Hyperion Cantos series. He continued in the sci/fi genre in the early 2000s with Ilium and Olympos. He’s also published three mysteries starring the detective Joe Kurtz. He also began writing historical novels that took on true stories, such as the fate of the lost Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage, and wrapping a supernatural story around it. And while 2007s The Terror was overlong, and perhaps did not need a “monster,” and could have stood on its own as history of that time, it’s still an absorbing drama. Simmons continued his historical fiction tales with 2009s Drood, a brilliant alternative biography/horror tale of the last five years of writer Charles Dickens life.

While Black Hills is sitting on my book shelf to be read (and have, at this time, little plans to read his Hyperion Cantos series), I picked up 1991s Summer of Night. The novel, set in the summer of 1960 in a distant town near Peoria, Illinois, the book does resemble Stephen King’s 1986 novel IT. And while I say that, it’s not done as a disservice to Simmons novel. I say it only because they have very similar themes. While IT took place in both 1957 and the mid-1980s, and Summer is set in a few months’ time period in 1960, both novels feature pre-teen kids battling an ancient evil that have taken over their small towns, King’s Derry, Maine and Simmons Elm Haven, Illinois.

Five boys, Dale Stewart, his brother Lawrence, Mike O’Rourke, Jim Harlen and Kevin Grumbacher are having the best summer of their lives when they discover, through another boy, Duane McBride, that something is not quite right about their town, including the Old Central School. Duane convinces the others to help him discover the truth, only they all start to run afoul of whatever evil is haunting the town and in particular, the school.

As with most horror novels, the central premise is pretty silly, even King’s IT has a child killer that looks like a clown and who turns out to be an ancient alien who can’t seem to defeat a handful of children, but King was able to pull it off with deft plotting and characters that were believable, almost real (something I’ve been say for 30 years about King’s work, because no matter how high concept the premise is, King can create wonderful humans who you swear are people you know). Simmons characters are pretty interchangeable here and ill defined; you sometimes get confused as to who was who. Plus, if this was just the way Simmons remembered his childhood, it appears he has created a town full of alcoholics (which include most of the parents of these boys) and racists. I know it was 1960, but still, it seems a bit extreme (though I never grew up in a “small” town, so maybe this is the way he remembers it?)

And, of course, the adults here are clueless to what’s actually happening in there town, able to pass it off with gossip and logic right out those B style 1950s monster movies.

Still, I did not find it a horrible novel, just a bit depressing. The paperback clocks in at 600 pages, and we could have easily seen about 250 of those pages excised, but it does hanker back to a time when I thought America was innocent, the 1950s. Setting the book the in the summer of 1960, just before Kennedy was elected, just before the world and the US teetered on a knives edge due to racial imbalances, Summer of Night evokes –or tries too – the last summer of innocence in a small town in central Illinois.

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