Summer of Night by Dan Simmons is a semi-autobiographical novel set in the rural Illinois town of Elm Haven in the summer of 1960. The ‘semi’ part is due to the use of fictional characters and unspeakable ancient evil featured throughout the story.
The edition I have is from 2011 and includes a new introduction by the author in which he underlines how much things have changed for kids since 1960, with the ‘safe’ distance they can travel from home being severely reduced and the preponderance of safety measures that act to stifle as much as protect. Like bike helmets or something. The whole thing comes off as a bit of a rant and worse, Simmons spoils a major part of the book without warning. If you happen to read Summer of Night (and as you’ll see I think it is very much worth doing so), skip the intro until after you’ve read the book.
The story begins with the end of school for the summer and the closing of the cavernous Old Central School that the half dozen boys of the self-named Bike Patrol attended. But the school happens to contain a wee bit of very old evil that wants out. The rest of the story sees the boys alternate between idyllic summer days spent playing baseball, swimming and hanging around and running for their lives to escape from the horrors slowly being visited upon their town. All the while they work to figure out what’s really going on and how (or if) they can stop it.
Simmons does a terrific job in capturing classic childhood fears–monsters in the closet (it’s true), things trying to grab you from under your bed (yep, true) and horrible monsters in the dark (true again, and it’s even worse than you imagined). There’s also an undercurrent of ‘teachers are evil’ that will probably delight many a school-aged kid reading this.
As with most horror novels there are a few things–notably a kid’s behavior here and there–that don’t make much sense when you start thinking about it, and the climax feels oddly rushed, as if Simmons was impatient to be done with the story or lost interest once it switched over from nostalgic reminisce to full-blown horror. I also didn’t care for the handful of blatant contrivances Simmons uses to help push the plot along (the smart kid’s father basically invents the telephone answering machine, as one example). Overall, though, it’s an enjoyable, albeit somewhat predictable ride. The recreation of small town America in the early 60s feels authentic as all get-out and the boys, parents and citizens of Elm Haven are all nicely drawn, whether they are upstanding and honest, unrepentant bullies or a bit undead.
You’ll also be glad to never set your eyes on a rendering truck.