A ghost story that begins in everyday tragedy, from a distinctly American master of both forms: a "scary, sad, funny . . . mesmerizing read" (Stephen King)
At Midnight on Halloween in a cloistered New England suburb, a car carrying five teenagers leaves a winding road and slams into a tree, killing three of them. One escapes unharmed, another suffers severe brain damage. A year later, summoned by the memories of those closest to them, the three that died come back on a last chilling mission among the living.
A strange and unsettling ghost story, The Night Country creeps through the leaf-strewn streets and quiet cul-de-sacs of one bedroom community, reaching into the desperately connected yet isolated lives of three people changed forever by the accident: Tim, who survived yet lost everything; Brooks, the cop whose guilty secret has destroyed his life; and Kyle's mom, trying to love the new son the doctors returned to her. As the day wanes and darkness falls, one of them puts a terrible plan into effect, and they find themselves caught in a collision of need and desire, watched over by the knowing ghosts.
Macabre and moving, The Night Country elevates every small town's bad high school crash into myth, finding the deeper human truth beneath a shared and very American tragedy. As in his highly-prized Snow Angels and A Prayer for the Dying, once again Stewart O'Nan gives us an intimate look at people trying to hold on to hope, and the consequences when they fail.
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About the Author
Stewart O’Nan's novels include Last Night at the Lobster, The Night Country, and Prayer for the Dying. His novel Snow Angels was the basis of the 2007 film of the same name. He is also the author of the nonfiction books The Circus Fire and, with Stephen King, the bestselling Faithful. Granta named him one of the Twenty Best Young American Novelists. He lives in Pittsburgh.
Date of Birth:February 4, 1961
Place of Birth:Pittsburgh, PA
Education:B.S., Aerospace Engineering, Boston University, 1983; M.F.A., Cornell University, 1992
Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from The Night Country by Stewart O'Nan. Copyright © 2003 by Stewart O'Nan. To be published in October, 2003 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
COME, DO YOU HEAR IT? The wind-murmuring in the eaves, scouring the bare trees. How it howls, almost musical, a harmony of old moans. The house seems to breathe, an invalid. Leave your scary movie marathon; this is better than TV. Leave the lights out. The blue glow follows you down the hall. Go to the window in the unused room, the cold seeping through the glass. The moon is risen, caught in nodding branches. The image holds you, black trunks backlit, one silver ray fallen across the deck, beckoning. It's a romance, this invitation to lunacy (lycanthropy, a dance with the vampire), elemental yet forbidden, tempting, something remembered in the blood.
Don't you ever wonder?
Don't you want to know?
Come then, come with us, out into the night. Come now, America the lovesick, America the timid, the blessed, the educated, come stalk the dark backroads and stand outside the bright houses, calm as murderers in the yard, quiet as deer. Come, you slumberers, you lumps, arise from your legion of sleep and fly over the wild woods. Come, all you dreamers, all you zombies, all you monsters. What are you doing anyway, paying the bills, washing the dishes, waiting for the doorbell? Come on, take your keys, leave the bowl of candy on the porch, put on the suffocating mask of someone else and breathe. Be someone you don't love so much, for once. Listen: like the children, we only have one night.
It'll be fun, trust me. We're not going to get caught. It's a game anyway, a masquerade.This is the suburbs; nothing happens here.
So come, friends, strangers, lovers, neighbors. Come out of your den with the big-screen TV, come out of your warm house and into the cool night. Smell the wet leaves crushed to mush on the driveway, a stale mix of dust and coriander in the wind. It's the best time of year up here, the only season you want from us, our pastoral past-witch hunts and woodsmoke, the quaintly named dead in mossy churchyards. Never mind that it's all gone, the white picket fences easy-to-clean vinyl, the friendship quilts stitched in the Dominican, this is still a new
dn0 England, garden-green, veined with black rivers and massacres.
Keep coming, past the last square of sidewalk, past the new developments and their sparse lawns, past the stripmalls with the Friendly's and the Chili's and the Gap, the CVS and the Starbucks and the Blockbuster, the KFC and the Chinese, their signs dying comets in the night, traffic signals blinking. Come back through Stagecoach Lane and Blueberry Way and Old Mill Place, solving the labyrinth of raised ranches where the last kids (too old but not wanting to grow up just yet) spill from minivans like commandos, charging across lawns for the front door, their bags rattling. The candy is serious here, full-sized Hershey bars and double Reese's Cups. No, there's no time to stop, no need. That's in the past, the happy childhood we all should have had, did have, half missed, didn't appreciate. Keep your mask on. Say something now, it would give us all away. We're past that, the grinning pumpkins left behind, the stoops and warm windows, the reaching streetlights. Out here there's nothing but muddy creeks and marshland, stone fences guarding back pasture gone wild. Here you can still get lost if you want to.
So come ride with us, driving the night in circles, the trees startled in our headlights. What, you don't recognize the road, the blind curves and crumbled cutbanks twisting so we lean into each other, intimate, even cozy, laughing as we crush the one on the end against the locked door? Remember the incense of cigarettes, the little attendant rituals. Make your fingers a scissors and bum one, it's okay, just don't pocket my lighter. The music's too loud to talk and there's no reason, we're happy trapped in ourselves and the night, this illusion of endlessness-high school, the freedom of wheels. Be seventeen again and ready for the world to love you. Feel the speed through the floor, the air lipping the windows. We're cutting corners, bowing the yellow line, floating over bumps. A deer and that would be the end of us, yet the driver only goes faster, the woods dark as space, still wilderness.
Look around now. Do you remember any of us? Your face has changed; ours are the same, frozen in yearbook photos in the local papers, nudged up against the schoolboard news, the football scores, the library booksale. One week we're history, martyred gods, then forgotten. Our names, you can't even make a guess (it's those kids that died), but you remember what happened. So you know where we're going.
Have you seen it? Not just driven by, but have you stopped and gotten out and looked at the tattered bows and ribbons, the sagging mylar balloons and greening pictures sealed in freezer bags, the plastic crosses and browning flowers, the notes written in girlish script, illegible now, pledging to remember us forever? Have you searched the trunk for scars, amazed at nature, since there's not a mark on it?
Of course not. Even if you were from around here you'd be used to it, maybe even annoyed at the cards and flowers, the shameless sentimentality of teenagers. Don't worry, they'll graduate and move away, and then our younger brothers and sisters, off to college and jobs and marriage, leaving our parents, a mother who dedicates herself to a larger cause, a father who turns inward and strange. One wraps herself in bitterness, another discovers religion. Do they change into gaudy polyester snowbirds or let the house fall down around them? Whatever. Everyone forgets--you have to, isn't that true? Isn't that proof that time is merciful, and not the opposite?
Don't answer. You'll have time to think about it later--an entire night, an eternity. Halloween comes once a year.
Can you breathe inside that thing? It's not too hot, is it?
But look, we're almost there, where the curve bears down on the crossroads. There's no other car, no bad luck, just the tree, the slick of wet leaves on the road, the romance of speed. It's the time of year that kills us, a lack of friction combined with a sideways vector, loose and centrifugal. The police will reconstruct it, pacing off the distances with a limp measuring tape (there's my lighter by the red X), taking statements from the people on-scene, photocopying the long report for the courts and insurance companies. Someone you love has read it or not read it, the contents life-changing and unimportant, checks deposited, money spent.
From the backseat you can't see the tree, or only at the last minute, if you happen to be backseat driving, chickenshit ("Slow down"). There's a second in which we realize we're not going to make the curve--all of us, even the most hopeful. The sound of the road, so constant, disappears, vacuumed into black silence. Light comes back from the trunk, as if the tree has flashed its brights, warning us off at the last second. It is a game of chicken.
"Oh shit," Danielle says; you feel it because she's on your lap, your arms wrapped around her ribs, her perfumed thinness.
"Toe, you fuck"--Kyle, right beside you. (Who? Toe, Kyle, Danielle. See, you've already forgotten. What's my name? What's yours?)
It's a trick (not a treat), but the tree seems to leap out, seems to drive right at us, wide as a semi. Scream if you want to. After the first few times you'll realize it's useless. You'll remember us, and remember to say good-bye. You'll grow as sentimental as our friends and make this night and this drive stand for our lives, the five of us inseparable. So keep your eyes open. Don't cover your face as we leave the road and shoot through the high weeds (sifted by the grille like wheat meeting a thresher). Remember what happens, how it sounds and smells and tastes. Enjoy the ride.
Didn't I tell you? There's a reason we call on you, why this night comes again and again, bad dream within a dream. You think it's torture but you know it's justice. You know the reason. You're the lucky one, remember? You live.
I KNOW WHAT YOU DID
BROOKS'S WATCH GOES OFF IN THE DARK CAR, military, the way he's set it since basic, another inelastic habit, and tomorrow starts at zero, a clean slate. There is no midnight, just a digital tick at 23:59:59 that crosses off yesterday, says he's got seven more hours before he can go home to no one (just us, sitting in his kitchen, flitting through the woods). The dogs bark, even with the kitchen light on (and you know we love to tease them), but where they're at it's not a problem. All the way to the front door he'll hear them warning him to leave, just get back in the truck and drive, and don't think he hasn't thought about it. If it wasn't for Gram, Brooks thinks he would--leave it all to the realtor--but that might be a lie. He's lived here his entire life, a real townie; he wouldn't know where to go. (He's going nowhere. We've seen him hang up his gun in slow motion, deliberate as a horror flick, and only Toe's twisted enough to make the holster swing, a cheesy temptation. Don't think about us too much, Brooksie.)
His watch goes off, cheap Korean double-beep, and wherever he is around town--cruising the shadowed docks of the Stop'n'Shop, cherrypicking in Battiston's parking lot for fathers trying to get their videos back on time--he can see the fastest route to the tree, like a diagram, the map on the wall at dispatch lit up, Old Farms branching off Country Club, taking him there too late, always too late.
So no one has to tell Brooks it's the anniversary. There's one every night-bee-beep-and he's been dreading it since mid-September, watching the leaves drop, the wind dragging them scratching over the roads, massing drifts in the lee of his truck, maple seed whirlybirds lining the wipers. Weekends he skips his wake-up shower and rakes himself into a dizzy sweat. He knows he can't stop the fall, the painfully clear days, the frost on the grass; it's just the rotation of the earth, its senseless spin around the sun-out of control, no brakes. He's lucky there were no tasteless jokes at the station, no cardboard skeletons squirted with runny vampire blood and shoved in his locker (maybe there are, maybe right now Ravitch is scheming at his console, deciding how far he can go with him; it's a night for phony phone calls).
Tonight it's Battiston's, old faithful, running radar, his cruiser tucked behind the landscaped hump, the darkened cleaners at his back with its still carousel of plastic hanging bags-stiff tuxedos and Cinderella gowns for the fall formal. Last Friday's movies are due. Brooks waits in the dark, the tiny red light shuttling over the face of the scanner, searching for voices. He put too much sugar in his coffee and it's making him twitch. He wants something routine, something dumb, just something to chew on, like the plastic stirrer he realizes he's chomping flat, another bad habit. He stops and folds it into the ashtray among the gum wrappers. He hates midnights; days there are errands to run, favors to do for the chief. He never thought he'd miss them.
Across 44, a silver Mercedes SUV slips into Webster Bank's drive-thru. Brooks files away the state plates. The rest of the plaza's bare, nothing but parking spots-white lines and oil stains, the high lights burning without purpose.
Today's the day, tonight's the night. What does it mean, if anything? Every season has its tragedies, and how can you take back something that's done? It's the argument he used to have with Melissa. Now that she's gone he takes both sides and fights by himself. (We don't have to do anything, just sit and listen in; Danielle says it's cruel, and that starts a different argument.)
He wants a call to stop him from thinking and checks the green screen, the cursor tinting his hands like Frankenstein. He has reason to be hopeful; it's still Cabbage Night, home of soaped windows and pegged eggs and toilet paper orchards, the free delivery of sizzling dog doo, and that staple of Avon, mailbox baseball. Just the aftermath, that's all he wants, one of our fathers pissed-off in his slippers, asking what Brooks is going to do about it--some unhappy taxpayer used to pushing his secretary's buttons. "First I need to take your information," he'll say, letting whatever kids did it get away clean, no muss no fuss, all the while the cherry strobing over the housefront, telling the neighbors everything's under control. "And you said you didn't see a car, just heard the mailbox and that was it?"
This is your big hero. Because there has to be a hero, right, someone to root for? Sorry, he's all we've got, him and Tim, and Tim can't be the hero, can he? (Toe thinks what Tim is going to do is heroic, or at least supercool, but Toe, of course, is a psycho. Danielle thinks it's stupid, that's all she'll say; she's still mad at him. Me--hi, I'm Marco--I'm in the middle. I'm the quiet one. You'll see, nobody listens to me.) I don't even know if we're going to try to do Kyle, he's so messed up. You'll see, he's a good guy, Brooksie, a little whacked after everything but who isn't. It's not a perfect world. It's not a perfect story, just something random that happened to us, bad luck. Of course you can't tell that to Brooks. He's the kind of guy who needs reasons for everything, who needs everything to make sense.
A call, a false alarm, a fire, a barking dog, a heart attack, backup on a car stop, a domestic, a prank, a prowler, but there's nothing coming in, no one screaming down 44 for the Blockbuster. He runs the Mercedes' plates for the hell of it, using two fingers. Enter, send. The screen goes black, the faded light trapped in his eyeballs, then flashes on again.
Registered to a local: Ronald Seung, 25 Candlewood Terrace--no wants or warrants. What did he expect?
He knows he has to relax. Midnights you have to just let time go by. Five minutes into the longest day of his life (by a mile; this one he's taking to the grave), Brooks is clockwatching. He thinks of closing his eyes right there and cooping-ten minutes, that's all he wants. He had to wake up early and clear out of the house so Charity the realtor could show it empty, and now that missing sleep is catching up with him. He's never going to sell the place with the roof looking like that, but he doesn't have the money to fix it; he's going to take a hit on it one way or the other. He dreams of Florida and fishing for tarpon, walking the dogs on a white beach, throwing bony driftwood sticks for them to fight over, but it's just a dream, a cheesy ending to a movie. He's got six years till he can take retirement--seven, really--and Ginger's already ten, Skip's eight; they won't make it.
Reading Group Guide
1. Why do you think Marco is chosen to narrate the story of he and his friends' return to Avon?
2. What do you believe is the purpose for the many cultural references – store names, brand names,
movies and music – throughout The Night Country?
3. On page 26, it is said of Tim, "It isn't so much that he wants to die as not exist like this anymore."
Do you believe this statement to be true? And furthermore, what is it that Tim actually wants?
4. Also of Tim: "He used to have Danielle, now he has Kyle." (p. 30) What are the dynamics of Tim and Kyle's current relationship? In other words, why do you think Tim become the friend that he is to Kyle? See, in particular, the scene towards the close of the novel on page 208.
5. Just as there are two Kyle's in this book, there seems to be a split in the reaction to his survival
(also, perhaps, in reaction to the accident itself). It's said of Kyle, "Everyone wanted him to get better, everyone wanted him to die." (p. 113) What does the author, or Marco as the narrator,
mean by this statement?
6. Why does Tim's "plan" go unsaid for throughout the course of the book?
7. Discuss the term "the justice of his own ruin," in reference to Brooks? Is he a man destroyed,
undone, or reinvented by guilt? Was the teenagers' deaths just a catalyst for a failure that he already carried within him?
8. Why are we given the story of Travis and Greg (Toe's friends)?
9. On page 170, Brooks looks at Tim as though he were "a father spying on a son." What does this imply about Brooks' connection to Tim? Is there an obligation deeper than protection that he feels toward the boy?
10. "We're visitors here," it's said of Marco, Danielle, and Toe. "Our powers are limited." And yet we're also told that they've returned to Avon on a mission, to affect some sort of change. How can their intentions be both empirical and active?
11. The Night Country is a ghost story in many ways. But more forcefully communicated than all else is the fact that the characters in the book are haunted by who they were before the accident. But
not Kyle. Other than his brain damage, why?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
O¿Nan takes a typical small-town tragedy-a carload of teenagers crashes into a tree, killing three, leaving one permanently brain-damaged and one survivor obsessed with why he didn¿t die-and transforms it into a haunting ghost story. Like the other two books I have read by this author, the time in which the story takes place is finite and very short, just the evening before and the day of the anniversary of the accident, which also happens to be Halloween. The three dead kids are forced as ghosts to hop from observing one person to the next, as the people whose lives were permanently disrupted by the tragedy think about them constantly and thus ¿call¿ them. The ghosts are helpless to do anything but watch as events unfold with a sense of inevitability, as their friend prepares to recreate that terrible night and the police officer who discovered them obsesses over an awful secret.Two things prevented this book from getting more than an average rating from me. The first was that I found it to be a bit repetitive as the ghosts move from their friend Tim to the police officer, Brooks, to the mother of their damaged friend, Kyle (whom they refer to as Kyle¿s mom). Since every moment of the night and day leading up to the anniversary is narrated, it feels like we¿re wallowing in pain and maudlin tragedy ¿ for me, it was a bit much. Also, I was disappointed and unsatisfied by the ending, which I won¿t spoil here. But I felt like I needed something more to tie up the story for me.
Every small town in America has a tragedy that goes something like this: a car full of teenagers crashes on a dark road and young lives turn to legend. Maybe some live while others die horribly, maybe they're on their home from the prom, maybe they've been drinking, maybe they're stone sober and an evil patch of black ice is the culprit. Whatever the circumstance, the teen car crash is a sad part of our nostalgic culture. In death, the dead teens take on a grandeur and status they probably never enjoyed in life, their legacy a smiling yearbook photo and a small white cross erected by the side of the road. In the Wyoming town where I grew up, a sweet-faced girl, one year younger than me, died when her brakes failed on an icy turn less than two miles from her home. Even today, I can't picture that stretch of road without the words "snuffed out" coming to mind. Avon, Connecticut knows all about brief candles prematurely snuffed. The town's latest tragedy took place on Halloween night when a Camry loaded with five teens wrapped itself around a tree on a country road, instantly killing three, leaving another severely brain damaged and the fifth miraculously unhurt. Now, exactly one year later, the town is painfully reliving the memory of that October night. That's the premise for Stewart O'Nan's new novel, The Night Country, a tale that literally haunts the reader from page one. The story is narrated by the ghost of Marco, who died in the crash along with Toe and Danielle. The trio of spirits restlessly roams the town, watching over their parents, their friends, the police officer who responded to the crash and, especially the survivors, brain-damaged Kyle and unscratched Tim. In the course of the twenty-four hours covered by the novel, Brooks the cop will try to come to grips with decisions he made a year ago, while Tim will put into motion a plan he's been plotting for the past five months, an act he thinks will bring him peace and redemption. The ghosts serve as our guides and Greek chorus as we watch the day's events unfold. In O'Nan's hands, the sentences pop and crackle and are never less than enthralling: Brooks remembers jumping out of the Vic and running for the tree and the Camry¿unbelieving¿and then stopping once he'd gotten there, his training evaporating at the sight of us. (Because the car was small and we weren't pretty.) His first instinct was to look around for someone else who could help. In the backseat a boy's voice was trying the same hurt vowel sound over and over, a cat meowing. As in his masterful The Circus Fire, O'Nan displays an uncanny knack for describing common tragedy¿there, the 1944 Hartford fire; here, the Halloween car crash which kills three teens nobody cared about while they were still alive (now, "we're the kids in that car wreck"). Like Ray Bradbury (to whom the book is dedicated and whose influence whispers across each page), O'Nan uses the horrible, chilling events of our lives to show how we humans continue to press on undaunted through this mortal coil. There's truth to be found on nearly every page of this book. There's also a lot of damned fine writing. O'Nan's imaginative vision is intriguing, convincing us we're overwatched by ghosts¿the just-killed and the long-dead, who haunt our steps, trail their foggy fingers through our heads. Parenthetically interrupting their narration, O'Nan's teenage ghosts are sardonic and wise ("One week we're history, martyred gods, then forgotten"), as if the afterlife has given them X-ray vision into the hearts of the living. Witness the book's hypnotic opening words: Come, do you hear it? The wind¿murmuring in the eaves, scouring the bare trees. How it howls, almost musical, a harmony of old moans¿.Come with us, out into the night. Come now, America the lovesick, America the timid, the blessed, the educated, come stalk the dark backroads and stand outside the bright houses, calm as murderers in the yard, quiet as deer. Come, you slumberers, you lumps, a
The aftermath of a Halloween tragedy haunts a New England town on the one-year anniversary of a typical teen joyride that ended with a car wrapped around a tree. Toe, Marco, and Danielle were instantly killed. Kyle lives on, sort of; a severe brain injury obliterates the rebel in him, the accident leaving him with the mind of a child. Tim, "the lucky one" in the backseat, his arms around Danielle, survived but now has a death wish. Officer Brooks, the first on the scene, was terribly altered by the event, and his life is in shambles. Now, on Halloween, he fears that Tim is going to do something horrible. Travis and Greg, buds of Toe, don't want the day to go by without memorializing their dear departed friends. At times this was confusing, it was hard to tell what was current or in the past. The shifting points of view is not my favorite type of writing; however, the story was a good one and I enjoyed reading it.
A ghost story, ghosts abound. But, it is the inner ghosts that haunt nus, not the free-floating vaporous apparitions that stay behind.
I was expecting a lot more from this book. The reviews were very good which is why I bought it. I was completely confused by who the narrators were and what in the world the plot was! It took me a long while to figure out everyone's names, since most of the characters were ghosts and the narrator (also a ghost) addressed each of them without using their names most of the time. I also didn't like any of the characters at all, so I didn't care what happened to anyone. Boring and complicated. Borrow it from the library. Don't buy it.
This book will stay with me for a long time. Much like 'The Lovely Bones' this is told from the 'dead kid's' perspective and shows how a tragic event impacted the lives of others. The similarities end there--this is a moving and powerful story of survivor's guilt, told with profound insight and some humor. It's not a ghost story, nor is it a mystery, but it's haunting and it will keep you guessing throughout.
Versatile voice performer John Tye brings a moving reading to this spectral tale of an American tragedy. It is, in actuality, a ghost story. It was a Halloween night in a small Connecticut town when a car carrying five teenagers went heads on with a tree. The result? Three were killed, one survived with irreversible brain damage, and another escapes without injury. The crux of the story is the aftermath. Tim, the uninjured survivor, attempts to atone for his good luck one year later, the anniversary of the collision. Kyle, the brain damaged victim, far from the rambunctious teenager he once was, has shattered not only his own life but his mother's as well. The policeman, Officer Brooks, who was the first to come upon the accident, is fearful of what may happen on the first anniversary of the tragedy. And, rightly so, as the three who lost their lives return to confront the living. Mr. O'Nan has crafted a tale which might well tell the story of every small town's greatest fear - only he delivers it with an eerie, rather supernatural twist.
This is a grim story well told. Particularly if you, like most of us, recall your high school days and the car accident which killed several of your friends. Is there a high school without such an event? Onan brings back the ghosts of the three 'crash kids' on the one-year anniversary of 'that night', which was Halloween. They are conjured up anytime friends or family think of them. You will recall similar nights in high school when you were a passenger in a car full of teenagers out for a night of cruising too fast. It is a wonder that any of us survive. You will think about the characters long after the reading...always the mark of a good writer.