Summers are frequently associated with a carefree and optimistic approach to life and the development of self-identity. Nights are a time of fear, mystery, and possibly terror. However, what is to be said when the terror of the night jeopardizes the serenity of summer?
Dan Simmons’ Summer of Night attempts to counterbalance the blithe air of a coming of age novel with the psychological horror of the Gothic tradition. Simmons sets his novel in the ‘60s and deserves praise for his attention to historical detail and ability to capture the nostalgia associated with childhood and whimsical summer nights. However, his attention to detail is also cumbersome, resulting in a very slow-paced tale. The endless characterization and plot development diffuses the horror and creates expansive divides between textual action and torpor.
Summer of Night centers on a preteen cadre made up of Mike, Dale, Lawrence, Kevin, Harlen, and Cordie, characters who lead the reader through their attempt to exorcise the evil overtaking the quiet town of Elm Haven. The story begins with the mysterious disappearance of the boy Tubby, this acts as the first link in a chain of terrifying and deathly events. Occurring in the shadows of the closed down Old Central School, these teens must bond together and test the capacities of their loyalties and friendships. The protagonists are determined to preserve and conquer a maniac rendering truck, saw-jawed worms, and symbolically, the limitations of childhood and the realization that adults are sometimes monsters themselves. Simmons’ background in Sci-Fi was clearly influential in the drafting of this text, as moments of horror and terror move into the realm of the supernatural.
Categorized as horror, when Summer of Night fits into this genre the novel is indeed terrifying and suspenseful. When they are well chosen, Simmons’ details involve the reader in the fantastical moments of terror, but too often the reader is lost in lengthy intermissions of characterization, description, and the building of traumatic tension. On the one hand, Simmons’ writing is clear and descriptive as, for instance, in his explanations of the evil gripping Elm Haven. The intricate rendering of the characters’ fear and anguish affects the reader, thereby establishing an immediate, symbolic relationship between reader, character, and pending doom.
Moreover, many of the details and literary devices Simmons employs derive from the Gothic tradition, including the emphasis on architecture and edifice to support the structuring of the plot. For example, the looming presence of the Old Central School and its ominous bell tower evoke psychological and physical terror casting a severe counterpoint to the idyllic and pastoral Elm Haven.
Simmons develops characters, locations, and relationships but in general, they lacks the vibrancy and depth needed to uphold the moments of horror. The main characters are stereotypes—we have read about these boys in countless other stories; the leader, the outsider, the tag-along, the token girl, etc. Moreover, Simmons’ characters are often based on gender essentialism, as for example when the author declares, “like most guys, Dale liked junk” (114). Simmons’ characters lack profundity and grow to be the textual representation of characters from Stand By Me (or Grease, as the title of this book is a single prepositional difference from one of the movie’s hit songs and the novel shares many narrative tropes with both movies).
That said, the symbolism of drafting a coming-of-age story enveloped in the cloak of horror is conventional. Critics laud Simmons’ writing style as at the level of Stephen King, however, Simmons lacks King’s knack for characterization and stylistic dexterity. Sentences such as “His Dad believed him about the weird guy in the army uniform” (261) attempt to recreate the language of teenage boys but only succeeds in creating a disconnect between reader and character.
One of the greatest achievements of Summer of Night is Simmons’ understanding of childhood and the frequently unwanted responsibility associated with growing up. Each character is located in the in-between stage where they are still comfortable with their immaturity but acknowledge the gravity of their familial and friendship interrelations, and of course the responsibility of solving the mystery engulfing their small town. More so, the season in which this text takes place, summer, creates an ideological slant. Arguably, Simmons is suggesting that summer is a crucial period in a child’s social and cognizant development.
Throughout, Simmons reminds the readers that the characters learn more about themselves and their relationships with other people during the summer than they learn in school. This is not only Simmons’ own critique of the education system but also the importance of freedom and independence and the need to let a child learn, make mistakes, be scared, and indulge in a fantastical daydream/nightmare that only makes sense to the dreamer.
Thrill seekers might not find fodder for heart palpitations here. Rather, the story is drafted for the patient reader and those willing to sift through endless details to achieve occasional moments of terror.