J.B. Blackford

Refine. Hone. Distill. The self is a text, too.

The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian

The Night Strangers opens with a house and a door in its basement sealed shut with thirty-nine carriage bolts. There’s just enough foreboding that if you’ve read a ghost story, seen a horror movie, or watched even one episode of American Horror Story, you know that nothing good will come of this. But you aren’t given time to dwell on it because you’re yanked away to a second-person narration where you are pilot Chip Linton and you’re attempting to prevent your plane from crashing after its engines shred a flock of geese. You do this, and you do that, trying to keep your passengers alive. The water ditching would have worked were it not for the wake created by a boat coming to help. Thirty-nine die, and the nine still alive don’t outweigh them. 

Emily, Chip’s wife, decides that the best thing for their family is a fresh start, so they and their ten-year-old twins, Hallie and Garnet, move from a West Chester suburb to a remote New Hampshire town in the White Mountains. There, Chip renovates the house while Emily settles in at her new law firm and the girls familiarize themselves with their new school, Girl Scout troop, dance classes, and music teachers.

If all that The Night Strangers did was narrate the experience of a tragedy, its fall-out, and human attempts to adapt, the novel would have its hands full. Bohjalian builds a stellar portrait of grief and guilt, giving us access to both Chip’s and Emily’s inner monologues. We are privy to the self-loathing and blame heaped upon Chip by himself, and the debilitating effects of stress and anxiety on his wife who has no respite from watching and worrying and waiting.

But The Night Strangers is more than a drama about PTSD; it’s also a ghost story, with a bit of the occult as well. The Lintons have more to worry about than their own grief as they become embroiled with neighbors who display an overzealous obsession with Hallie and Garnet (not to mention greenhouses, herbs, and tinctures). And Chip is visited by dead passengers from his plane, among them an angry father whose demands for a playmate for his daughter only further destabilize Chip’s tenuous mental state.

The collision of these varying parts leaves The Night Strangers only a bit disjointed in that the tragedy-half of it sometimes has to bear a greater share of the narrative load than the supernatural plotline. Yet I still found myself surprised by the ending, not quite expecting it to play out the way that it did, and so what more can I ask for from a ghost-story-thriller?

Unexpected inspiration, that’s what.

Each time Chip Linton has a dream or a thought or an experience, you’re pulled into a second-person narrative. It’s enough of a deviation that I found it jarring, but pleasing, and even anxiety-inducing as I assimilated my perspective with Chip’s. This reading experience ignited the epiphany that my current work – a piece that will likely be a novella – should be written from the second-person perspective, rather than the first. So, while the machinations of The Night Strangers were entertaining but not life-altering, it turns out that the form had an impact of its own that I couldn’t have anticipated.

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