Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, September 28, 2012

1991: Summer of Night (Simmons, Dan)

Extrinsic threat eclipses intrinsic fear (3/5)

I'm not a horror aficionado but I do dabble in the genre occasionally having read other novels, outside of Dan Simmons, such as Stephen King's The Shining (1977), Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (1991), Clive Barker's Damnation Game (1985), and Iain Banks's The Wasp Factory (1984). Of the four, American Psycho and The Wasp Factory are my favorite because of their very real human element and the focus of human pain set against malevolent human thought... the keyword word here is, again, "HUMAN." I've said it before and, for the audience at hand, I'll say it again: Humans are scary. Supernaturalism is not.

I read Dan Simmons's The Terror (2007) two years ago and immersed myself in the human misery of the stranded crew. The supernatural element didn't fray the crew's narrative, but it DID add a predatory thread of lurking, looming death aside from the silent yet corrosive decay of botulism. The same essence Simmons instilled in Terror doesn't manifest itself nearly as well in this earlier work, Summer of Night.

Rear cover synopsis:
"It's the summer of 1960 and in the small town of Elm Haven, Illinois, five twelve-year-old boys are forging the powerful bonds that a lifetime of change will not break. But amid the sun-drenched cornfields and the sly flirtations of the local young girls, that loyalty will be pitilessly tested. From the silent depths of the Old Central School, a hulking fortress tinged with the mahogany scent of coffins, and invisible evil is emerging. And now Mike, Duane, Dale, Harlen, and Kevin must wage a fraternal war of blood--against an arcane abomination who stalks the hours after dark..."


I can relate to much of the material written in Summer of Night, not because I'm the same age as the reminiscing author but because I'm also from a small Illinoisan town near Peoria (about 50 miles away as the crow flies): the towering corn fields act as fortified city walls, each derelict building were imbued with adolescent folklore, and the hermetic citizens were given fictional histories. The atmosphere of small-town Illinois was perfect; Simmons expertly minded his P's and Q's of nostalgia, adolescence, and summer break:
Few events in a human being's life--at least a male human being's life--are as free, as exuberant, as infinitely expansive and filled with potential as the first day of summer when one is an eleven-year-old boy (19-20).
Like stated in the introductory paragraph, the supernatural theme of Summer of Night didn't have me sitting on the edge of my seat. The brainy character Duane researched the origin of the horrors taking place in Elm Haven, but because of an mortal misfortune on his part, the research nearly comes to a dead end and the true historical horrors of the Stele of Revealing (later becoming the the school's bell) aren't probed. Exactly why this horror is being inflicted upon Elm Haven is flaky and the manifestations of the bell's malevolence is silly at times.

Beyond the obvious horror of the bell's manifestations through Van Syke and the menacing burrowers, the real threat should have been the intrinsic fear of the boys' battle against the bell's fiendish agenda of their destruction. The extrinsic fear of the bodily ghouls and the once irrational fear of the mysterious Rendering Truck downplay the more human-oriented intrinsic fear of implementing action/inaction or expressing nominal/substantive concerns.

The supposedly genuine fear of the band of boys didn't materialize. Their reactions to the threats were adult-like: rational, detailed, and organized. The spontaneity of adolescent fight-or-flight was staunched by the their collective evolution to cold assessors of specific threats with tactile precision. Where once their imaginations of fantasy and flare dominated their lives, now the supernatural has materialized before them and their imagination is killed by its threat, spurring them into calculated strategists. This childhood-adulthood metamorphosis of rationality is too abrupt, which is surprising given the book's bloated 600-page length.


Dan Simmons injected a glorious amount of nostalgia in Summer of Night but the extrinsic supernatural threat overshadowed the intrinsic fear of the boys' stymied summer freedom amid the pervasive threats of physical and ethereal threat while fortifying themselves through camaraderie... lots of words to express the same the same thought: Humans are scary. Supernaturalism is not.

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