Editor’s Note: Bill Jackson of the Tech Writers Bureau and Cybereye fame will be reviewing a series of classic books for GiN over the next few weeks. These are great stories that you might have missed, or might just miss, and which some of our favorite videogame tropes are likely based. This week, although summer is winding down, it’s not too late to dive into an amazing horror tale set during summer vacation in Dan Simmon’s Summer of Night. This was the Stranger Things of its time, and is still a great read today.
Summer of Night by Dan Simmons
This combination of Ray Bradbury and Steven King—with just a dash of H.P. Lovecraft—is a genuinely scary book.
Every boy is pretty sure that his school is next door to hell and that his teachers are in league with the forces of darkness. It turns out that this was true in Elm Haven, Ill., in 1960.
Summer of Night, published in 1991, by Dan Simmons is a genuinely scary book. But at the same time it manages to be a wonderfully nostalgic story of boyhood and summer. If it weren’t for the curses, undead demons and flaming trucks chasing them it would have been an idyllic summer for this group of adolescent friends.
Cervantes reminds us that comparisons are odious, but I mean it as a compliment when I say this book is a combination of Ray Bradbury and Steven King, with just a little H.P. Lovecraft thrown in. Simmons’s Elm Haven bears more than a passing resemblance to Bradbury’s fictional Green Town, Ill. And although Simmons identifies himself and his brother as the models for two of the main characters, brothers Dale and Lawrence Stewart seem to also owe a debt to Douglas and Tom Spaulding of Dandelion Wine.
I grew up in the 1960s in a small Midwestern town where I attended school in a turn-of-the-century building, and except for the evil haunting the town, Summer of Night reminds me of my own childhood. I recognize my brothers and friends in it, which makes it all the more frightening. But you don’t have to be a Midwestern child to enjoy this book.
Despite a few mysterious disappearances or deaths at the end of the school year, summer is shaping up to be pretty good for Dale and Lawrence (don’t call him Larry) and their friends. There are endless baseball games and girls are beginning to be interesting. This is the era of free-range children, when you could get on your bike after breakfast and disappear, and as long as you showed up for lunch and supper nobody worried. But it soon becomes evident that something new and malevolent is happening in Elm Haven.
Doing something involves sleuthing and increasingly dangerous situations as they approach the heart of the problem. Some of the threats are as innocuous as schoolyard bullies and others are decidedly more frightening. (What is that floating in the flooded basement?) Some are completely otherworldly. In the end the threads come together, the crisis is met and the summer is not completely lost. But things will never be the same for the children of Elm Haven.
Dan Simmons is a prolific writer in a broad range of genres, including sci-fi and fantasy, horror, mystery and historical fiction. He probably is best known for his Hyperion series and for the Ilium and Olympos saga. But Summer of Night is my favorite, hands down.
Some of the characters from Summer of Night appear, gown up, in later novels not directly related to the goings on in Elm Haven in 1960. Simmons did write one direct sequel, A Winter Haunting, which brings Dale Stewart back to Elm Haven as an adult trying to straighten out his life and confronting some of the ghosts of his past. It is an interesting book with some nice twists and revelations, but it doesn’t match the original and doesn’t really add to the story.
Summer of Night is a popular book and there are several editions in print to choose from. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding one at your local library or bookstore. If you get a copy that includes the author’s lengthy 2011 introduction, don’t read it before reading the book. It’s worth reading, but it should be an afterword. This applies to introductions in most books, but is especially true here. Good luck.