Written by Dan Simmons, 1991
There is an unexpected advantage to being my age. I’ve been around, sure, but there is still so much outside my footprint. I’ve got feelers out everywhere, normally yielding at least a geographical plotting of everything in the arena even if I never take he/she/it one on one, but from time to time something I had no inkling even existed blindsides my radar and when that happens I feel like Jed Clampett. A month ago I had never heard of Dan Simmons. After having finished his early ’90s novel SUMMER OF NIGHT, I can declare full bore that I am now seeking out every syllable the man has ever put his name on.
It is moments like this that I regret my hyperbole. I regret that I have fun engaging in over the top praise for things from time to time. The more instances I do, the less impact a statement such as the following will have: I love SUMMER OF NIGHT. It honestly isn’t that hard to fall into the echelon of material things I love. I made sure STARSHIP TROOPERS would have been the last film I’d ever see if my eye surgery went awry, for Christ’s sake! Every now and then something rises above what would appear to be the apex, though, like a toy resting towards the top of a pile of other favorite toys. And when this happens, I struggle with how to communicate that this top of the pile toy is somehow quantifiably superior to its peers. And when this happens, I usually resort to even further hyperbole, like saying I wish I had every page of SUMMER OF NIGHT tattooed on my body so I could read it whenever I wanted to.
I’ll not do that here. I’ll stick with my original claim, hoping that its simplicity carries a clout that exaggeration does not. I love SUMMER OF NIGHT. But I must reiterate; I am young. There is still legion my feelers have never even categorized, but at this year, this day, this June minute, SUMMER OF NIGHT is my favorite book. I request that you appreciate and heed the adjective-lite recommendation of that flavor-free accolade. It takes a lot of restraint for me to not say something like I love SUMMER OF NIGHT so much I want to take it behind the middle school and get it pregnant.
Situated in the summer of 1960 in the self-contained town of Elm Haven, Illinois, Dan Simmons tells a tale of a group of preteens who escape their final year in a school scheduled for demolition, only to have an ancient evil awake within the dreaded Old Central School, yawning its rebirth into the teens’ summer of freedom. When one of their number goes missing on the last day of school, a tight nit gang decide to investigate, each tailing the aging school staff in secret, reporting back anything queer. In addition to the odd behavior of the staff, an unseen man is using the town’s roadkill rendering truck to run down the youngsters, an undead WWI soldier is seen lurking in the shadows while massive tunnels are discovered under the porches of all the lads, each passageway leading like a Roman road back to the foreboding Old Central School.
I didn’t grow up in the ’60s, not by a longshot, but even I can relate to the authenticity of the childhood gang Simmons’ assembled. Dale and Lawrence Stewart, Duane McBride, Mike O’Rourke, Harlen, Kevin and Cordie – each characterized with an irrefutable reality. Anyone who went on mini neighborhood adventures as a kid has a place in their heart for each one of these brave souls and their believable struggle against a most unbelievable scenario. They are the Goonies to the most fleshed extreme, people that Simmons’ will force you to fall in love with, laughing and weeping with each turn of the page.
Which is precisely what I love about Simmons’ novel. There is palpable fear to SUMMER OF NIGHT. Not just because the author can stage a terrifying series of events, but because there is a consequence to each and every one of his threats. Simmons’ has no qualms with placing any character, large or small, in danger. Not just ‘close call’ danger, either. Real, ‘sorry, they’re gone from the book’ danger. Few writers I’ve read put equal effort into composing the characters you think will survive and those that can be cast aside. Simmons’ does and the return on investment is huge. I can’t recall a work of fiction that has left me as sad about losing a character as was the case in SUMMER OF NIGHT.
I’ll not go spelunking into all the caves of terror Simmons does. After all, the man goes to great length to inspire in his readers the same sense of discovery as his characters, so to speak of each turn in plot would be unbecoming. Know this though, there isn’t one of these 600ish pages that I would want altered. Not a single action seems out of character, not a single development is forced by the hand of plot necessity, and, most importantly, no matter how fantastical the evil threat becomes, it will remain grounded by soulful characters.
In full disclosure, it took me over a month to read SUMMER OF NIGHT, though not for lack of want. Non-reading time kept getting in a way, which tends to happen with every book I pick up these days. Usually when such is the case, I end up losing interest. Not the case here. Every opportunity I had to read was like a gift. Catching SUMMER OF NIGHT in spurts felt like catching up with old friends on an epic adventure. When I finally had time to finish the book at my own leisure, I felt a sense of loss, as if my time with the brave boys saving Elm Haven and the world from an ancient evil suddenly was running out. Every page towards the end became sacred, a welcome delay from having to say goodbye.
I may be young, but I’ve read, I’ve gotten around, had my eyes opened wide reading many a favorite writer for the first time, but I’ve never felt as much a connection with an author and their material as I have with Dan Simmons and SUMMER OF NIGHT — And I’m the kind of guy who worships at the alter of Stephen King. But, of course, since this review is coming from me, inmate of Exaggerationtraz, I must against my better, objective judgement end with some word embroidery. I hope I never get Alzheimers, which may just be the most fearful prospect I can envision – and let no one out there hear and half grant my wish – but were such a mournful plight to befall me, one of the few benefits of its mental eraser would be an ability to read SUMMER OF NIGHT again and follow along with Dale, Lawrence, Duane, Mike, Harlen, Kevin and Cordie again as if it were the first time.
I love this book. I hope you do too.