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Book Review: Summer of Night, by Dan Simmons

Middle America, 1960s, boys' adventure, ancient evil.


Summer of Night

Putnam Publishing, 1991, 555 pages



It’s the summer of 1960 and in the small town of Elm Haven, Illinois, five twelve-year-old boys are forging the powerful bonds that a lifetime of change will not break. From sunset bike rides to shaded hiding places in the woods, the boys’ days are marked by all of the secrets and silences of an idyllic childhood. But amid the sun-drenched cornfields, their loyalty will be pitilessly tested. When a long-silent bell peals in the middle of the night, the townsfolk know it marks the end of their carefree days. From the depths of the Old Central School, a hulking fortress tinged with the mahogany scent of coffins, an invisible evil is rising. Strange and horrifying events begin to overtake everyday life, spreading terror through the once-peaceful town. Determined to exorcize this ancient plague, Mike, Duane, Dale, Harlen, and Kevin must wage a war of blood against an arcane abomination who owns the night....




If you're thinking a story about a group of children in an idyllic small town forced to confront an ancient evil that all the grown-ups are unconsciously aware of but refuse to do anything about sounds familiar, it's probably because you read Stephen King's It, which remains the definitive novel about a group of children in an idyllic small town forced to confront an ancient evil that all the grown-ups are unconsciously aware of but refuse to do anything about.

I'm not sure if Dan Simmons was writing a tribute to King, or was inspired by him, or thought he could do better, or just happened to come up with a similar idea. But it's hard to avoid comparisons and hard to believe Simmons wrote this in a vacuum, unaware of the book he was very nearly imitating.

Unlike It, the core group of friends is all boys, though the class misfit, an odd, ugly girl who everyone assumes is retarded but turns out to be just a quiet survivor does eventually join them. Cory, the girl with the shotgun who casually forces the pair of bullies (naturally, there is a pair of bullies, like every other stock character type) to back down, was one of the more interesting characters, while I often had a hard time distinguishing between the boys. There is Duane, the brilliant, fat, well-read farmboy, and Mike, the pious altar boy who's friends with the local priest, and Dale, who has the obligatory little brother who will have to be rescued, and Harlen, who has the resentful slut single mother, and Kevin, with the closest thing to a normal home life. Those bits of characterization and background sum up their identities, and while they all behave like believable twelve-year-old boys, I can't say any of them were really memorable the way King's characters are.

The ancient evil in the town of Elm Haven turns out to be related to the "Borgia Bell," supposedly an ancient bell imported by one of the town forefathers and installed in the tower of the big, spooky high school. Duane, the scholarly farmboy, is the first to realize something bad is happening around town when another boy goes missing, and as he and his friends begin to sense the bad juju gathering around them, they start investigating, while dodging the psychotic town bullies, unhelpful and/or sinister adults, and occasionally dealing with even scarier creatures - girls - in a handful of scenes that were a little bit cringeworthy, and even seemed to also emulate the rather skeevy ending to Stephen King's It.

If I hadn't read It, I would probably be less critical of this book. It's got horror and small town Americana and captures effectively what I think Simmons was trying to achieve, the feeling of being a kid standing on the border between childhood innocence and the deadly terror of pitiless reality. The climactic scenes are violent and action-packed and of course you're meant to cheer for the kids who save the town. But besides feeling like Stephen King did it first and better, this is also a rather slow-moving horror story... whereas King had Pennywise show up in chapter one, Simmons spends the first part of the book only hinting at supernatural horrors, and it's a long time before either the protagonists or the reader have any real idea of what they're up against.

Like King, Simmons requires a few blood sacrifices. Like King, Simmons includes tweens engaging in dubious sexual behavior. Like King, Simmons can evoke really nasty and scary creatures who are more than just ghosts and vampires. Summer of Night is not a bad horror novel, but it's just not as good, nor as deeply creepy and unsettling, as King.

Rating: 7/10



Also by Dan Simmons: My reviews of Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, The Rise of Endymion, and Ilium.




My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, dan simmons, horror, reviews
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