Teen ghost tales

Fiction writing is occult art, and no American novelist wields his Ouija board quite like Stewart O’Nan. In just 10 years, O’Nan has published 11 books, each one embracing an entirely new perspective. Everyday People conjured a blighted Pittsburgh neighborhood. The Speed Queen spoke from the perspective of a death-row felon recording her final appeal.

In time for Halloween, this spookily gifted writer finally has crossed to the other side, emerging with a hair-raising tale narrated by teenage ghosts. The place is Avon, Conn., where O’Nan himself lives. The time: midnight on Halloween. While the town sleeps, three prank-happy ghosts come back to haunt the survivors of a terrible car accident that claimed their lives one year ago.

The story, O’Nan told Northeast Magazine earlier this year, was inspired by a real case in East Haddam, Conn., in which a teenager committed suicide with a friend by driving into a tree at the same spot where his older brother had died in a crash six months before.

O’Nan takes this true-life event and turns it into a near-mythic story with The Night Country. After the novel’s come-hither opening prologue, we meet the accident’s survivors and get to know their pain intimately.

Tim escaped with nary a wound but wonders why he got to live. Kyle, once an arrogant bad-boy, now walks like a near-zombie, thanks to brain damage and a reconstructed face. Finally, there is Officer Brooks, the first policeman onto the scene one year ago. Brooks finds himself reeling into middle age with a lake of sadness in his throat.

The ghosts of those who died keep watch over these three unlucky souls, observing and commenting on their thoughts and taunting them with flickering lights and other eerie pyrotechnics. They flit in and out of the narrative, steal the reins from O’Nan, and even deny the event’s inherent bathos. The accident was “just something random that happened to us, bad luck,” one of them says cavalierly.

That’s not so for the survivors, though. Shifting deftly from one character to the next, O’Nan sends a powerful depth charge into the heart of a community wracked by guilt and grief. Officer Brooks and Tim each have an atonement to make, and as this novel slithers onward, we find them tacking toward one another in an awful march. Brooks stalks Tim around town in his cruiser, while Tim—alone and still in love with one of the victims—contemplates an act that will end all of his pain.

In spite of its horror-flick plot and goblin-night atmosphere, The Night Country is not a scary read. It is, however, a chilling one. By juxtaposing the angst of teenage years with the hoarier dread of middle age, O’Nan has put his finger on how frightening and swift the hand of fate is.

The accident and its aftermath are doubly upsetting because of where they take place. Avon is a bucolic suburban town, where the busy production of beauty and convenience ought to demonstrate control over fate, over nature, over life’s darker forces. Car crashes explode that sense of safety; they are providence’s cackling guffaw.

O’Nan understands this dichotomy beautifully, and he plays upon the secret menace of the woods that surround Avon. They creep out and cloak this beautifully true novel in shadows. And as the ghosts tell us, there is no safety in the woods: “We’re past that,” they announce with bared teeth. “The grinning pumpkins left behind, the stoops and warm windows, the reaching streetlights. Out here there’s nothing but creeks and marshland. … Here you can still get lost if you want to.”