Why is it that so many writers of spooky stories–Edgar Allen Poe (Massachusetts), H. P. Lovecraft (Rhode Island), Stephen King (Maine)–have been New Englanders? Now Vermont’s Chris Bohjalian joins the lineup. Or should I say the coven?
After reading Bohjalian’s The Night Strangers, I wonder how much it has to do with our architecture. Every small town in the region has a haunted house, or a house that at least looks as though it ought to be haunted. In Bohjalian’s fictional Bethel, New Hampshire, it’s a three-story Victorian with gingerbread trim and a grand view of Mount Lafayette.
It’s the perfect weekend or retirement home, say the ads in the Boston Globe, but no one’s buying. There’s something disturbing about it, especially the low-ceilinged, dirt-floored basement: There’s a strange door in the wall, obsessively secured with 39 carriage bolts. “Further capable of inducing claustrophobia,” the narrator informs us, “there were the immense lengths of copper tubing for gas and hot water, the strings of knob-and-tube electrical wiring (some live, some dead), and the horizontal beams that helped
buttress the kitchen, the living room, and the dining room.” Some live, some dead, indeed.
But this isolated house in a remote corner of New England sounds like the perfect refuge for Chip Linton, the man who wasn’t Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. Like Sullenberger, the real-life pilot who landed safely in the Hudson River after his jet was crippled on takeoff by a collision with geese, Linton loses both engines in a similar accident just after takeoff from Burlington, Vermont. Like Sullenberger, he attempts a water landing, in Lake Champlain. Unlike Sullenberger’s, Linton’s crippled jet cartwheels and disintegrates. Linton survives, haunted by 39 dead passengers and constant comparisons.
Put a haunted man in a haunted house; throw in some traumatized twins and a bouquet garni of avid herbalists named Anise, Reseda, Sage, Ginger, Clary, and Valerian; add a pinch of sex and a dollop of blood … and you have a Halloween hair-raiser.
But it’s more than that. Bohjalian, with a dozen well-received novels to his credit, understands trauma: how long it takes to recover from unimaginable pain, and how people who have never experienced it rarely understand. At one point in the story, a neighbor asks the wounded pilot whether he and his family are happy in Bethel. He replies, “Sometimes, happy is asking a lot.”