Review: SUMMER OF NIGHT (Novel)

Posted by Peter Hall - June 3rd 2008 @ 8:47 pm

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.

comments are closed
  1. Sean
    June 3rd, 2008 | 10:33 pm | #1

    I understand what you mean. A lot of times I’ll walk through book stores and pick up a book randomly, and make myself read it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

    For instance, I’d never even heard of Dean Koontz until I picked up Odd Thomas, and that book was amazing. How do you improve on a book that has the main character seeing ghosts, and the ghost of Elvis follows him around? Every book of his that I’ve read since has been similarly spectacular.

    Now I have to hope I can find this book. If I can’t, I’ll blame you for getting word out about this and causing the book stores to pull it from the shelves.

  2. R.J. Sayer
    June 4th, 2008 | 4:02 pm | #2

    man, you have no idea how happy i am that you loved this book as much as i did.

    and i have a bit of parade-day rain for you, unfortunately.

    but there’s still a parade.

    a lot of Simmons’ other horror work is pretty bad. well, maybe not a lot. but some. i tried reading two of his other horror books, and didn’t make it past page fifty in either case.

    there is a sequel to SUMMER OF NIGHT, called A WINTER HAUNTING. it’s serviceable, but nowhere near the masterpiece of its predecessor, in my opinion.

    i keep hearing, however, that TEARS OF KALI and CARRION COMFORT are astounding. i have yet to read either. i was pretty set on a quest for CARRION several years ago, but got distracted and lost interest. if you check it out, let me know what you think.

    his newest, THE TERROR, is getting mixed reviews. some say it’s boring. others say it’s his best book yet. as soon as i’ve dug my way through the four books stacked on my desk, i plan on heading to the library and setting to work on that one, weather permitting.

    from what i understand, Simmons is better known in sci-fi circles, for his HYPERION books. i have the first one. still haven’t read it yet, though.

    Sean – you shouldn’t have much trouble finding it. i’ve seen it in paperback at almost every chain bookstore i’ve been in.

    also, can you believe this shit Hillary is pulling now? man, what is wrong with that chick?

  3. R.J. Sayer
    June 4th, 2008 | 4:06 pm | #3

    also, on the subject of hyperbole and toys:

    “I wish I had every page of SUMMER OF NIGHT tattooed on my body so I could read it whenever I wanted to.” = best praise a book has ever received.

  4. Sean
    June 4th, 2008 | 4:31 pm | #4

    Speaking of that, I have several friends who have Kurt Vonnegut sayings tatoo’d on themselves.

    Wut about hillary?

  5. Brian
    June 4th, 2008 | 4:46 pm | #5

    What is a “book”?

  6. June 4th, 2008 | 4:51 pm | #6

    Brian, a book is something to hide heroin needles inside. SUMMER OF NIGHT was merely a cold-turkey withdrawal fever dream I had. Figured I should tell you guys about it.

  7. Brian
    June 4th, 2008 | 5:23 pm | #7

    What did Peter just start talking about heroin?

  8. Brian
    June 4th, 2008 | 5:23 pm | #8

    What = Why

  9. Sean
    June 7th, 2008 | 9:52 am | #9

    I don’t know. That’d be a great movie, wouldnt it?

    End it in rehab with the guy dying of an overdose.

    OH NOBODY WOULD HAVE SEEN THAT COMING, stupid psychological thrillers.

  10. June 16th, 2008 | 12:11 pm | #10

    Dan Simmons is terrific. I wrote a biographical article about him ten years while I was working for a reference book company, and that got me interested in him. I’ve read his sci-fi novels Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, and both were excellent. As for horror, you can’t go wrong with Carrion Comfort, which won the Bram Stoker Award.

  11. bluerosekiller
    June 27th, 2008 | 9:28 pm | #11

    SUMMER OF NIGHT is, indeed, one of THE very best genre novels ever. EVER.

    Infact, in my long experience with horror fiction, only King’s ‘SALEM’S LOT & the under-rated, sadly NON-prolific T.E.D. Klein’s THE CEREMONIES equal it. And of those three all time favs of mine, Simmon’s epic is, by far, the scariest of the three.

    It has my personal vote as the scariest book of all time, hands down.

    If SUMMER OF NIGHT fails to illicite chills from you, then I figure you’re simply impossible to get a scare out of with the printed word. Which, if that’s the case, why are you even on this site?!!

  12. Sean
    June 28th, 2008 | 1:07 am | #12

    I’ve actually never really been scared by any books I’ve read, except for two.

    And it’s not really a horror, it’s more like…science/fantasy/horror.

    There was a part about a guy who walked in on his mother doing drugs and having little demon things eating her brain while she was still alive that totally freaked me out.

    And 1408, the novel, absolutely terrified me. Don’t ask me why, it just did. And then, when I heard him read it, it scared me even more!

  13. Jodessa
    July 21st, 2010 | 10:22 pm | #13

    Well said! I have been looking for the author and title of this book for YEARS, and after a quick google on “scariest books involving a rendering truck” came across your blog. I read this book about 15 years ago in my early teens, and it was the only book I’ve ever had to stop reading and put it away for about a year because it scared the bee-geezes out of me! And then, when I finally worked up the nerve to finish it a year later, I sold it in a garage sale because it’s mere presence in my room made me uneasy. CREEPY ASS STORY. But I must say, I’ve been searching libraries and flee markets all over the world for it every since-that impressivly scary. So I’ll be making my amazon purchase tonight so I can share the scariest book ever written with my fellow horror book lovers, after I’ve revisited once again. THANK YOU, for your well written review and kudos, I’m there with you ;)
    p.s. the funniest part of all is that I dated a guy who’s dad’s name was Dan Simmons for years – so close…and no idea…always searching…

  14. Flemming
    August 12th, 2011 | 9:50 am | #14

    Bought my edition of “Summer of Night” (danish title Sommer nattens rædsel) along with some other books in a small 2nd hand bookstore. Judging by the danish cover i mistook it for beeing a kind of childrens book that could provide some laughs and som half hearted scares. I haven´t been more wrong in my life, this book is so darn creepy. It starts out slow and semi dull, but it manages to keep you reading and almost wihtout notice evil seeps into it and it just get worse and worse for every page.
    I have read a lot of books including the complete works of Stephen King, and only one book has scared the shit out of me and that is “Summer of Night”. It is by far the most evil and twisted story ever laid down on paper, it has no happy ending, it is so utterly unpleasant in every way and if i ever was to read something even scarier my heart would stop.
    I have read it several times now and it does the same to me every time. Duane and the other guys stays in the back of my mind for month after i am done reading and every time my thoughts crosses their path it fills me up with sorrow and despair.

    I cant remeber the names of the other books i picked up at bookstore that day, but “Summer of night” i can never forget.

    Go on read it, but you have been warned, i for one has not been the same person since i first started reading it.

  15. Joem
    August 24th, 2011 | 6:17 pm | #15

    Thank you thank you. I read Summer of Night a long time ago and I forgot the name/author as the years went by. I searched the web for books involving kids and a rendering engine/evil school and finally found this thread after many searches. I’ve loaded it on my iPad and I can’t wait to read it again.

  16. Chris Braz
    July 26th, 2012 | 3:41 am | #16

    I was in my local bookstore and picked this book up at random. I just wanted something fresh. And man, am I glad I did. By far one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It blew me away. Finished it in less than a week. Needless to say, I am now a die-hard fan of Dan Simmons and will try to read everything he will and has put his name on.

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