Dan Simmons has achieved his greatest fame with clever, complex SF novels such as Hyperion and Illium. He plays with mind-bending concepts, though his work has at its core a fairly conservative world-view. Both the genre-bending and the political leanings should probably be kept in mind when one reads his earlier, more conventional thriller fiction.

Thus we come to Summer of Night, a Lovecraft/Stephen King-influenced horror novel wherein a group of supremely competent children in 1961 Illinois uncover an eldritch evil whose awakening will bring about the apocalypse.

Title: Summer of Night
Author: Dan Simmons
ISBN: 1455810436, 978-1455810437
First published: 1991.

Available from Amazon.uk, Amazon.com and Amazon.ca.

Premise:

An ancient horror waits in an aging school in a small town. A brave band of children, who alone know (or believe) the truth, must work to destroy the thing and its minions or the world will end.

Imagine Buffy with younger heroes and the absence of the humor and stylization needed to pull off this sort of plot.

High Points:

1. A section appears late in the book in which the adults try to rationalize the strange events that have transpired in town. It strains somewhat, but it remains an entertaining bit of satire, aimed at the stereotypical small, settled minds of a small, settled community.

2. At the beginning, Summer of Night felt like it would be a superior version of Stephen King’s It. I admire Simmons’ SF, and his ability to juggle multiple impossibilities. The opening strikes the right tone as it draws us into a plausible community about to face unspeakable horrors. As the story develops, Simmons gives us several creepy encounters between kids and the supernatural. Still, I kept coming back to King….

Low Points:

King’s greatest hits always seem to have moments where his grasp of human psychology fails him. Carrie has the crowd reaction to an incident at the prom (which occurs differently in the book than in the film). King’s prose tap-dances here around trying to justify something that simply wouldn’t happen, given the circumstances as he presents them. It has boys watching a horror movie the day after witnessing something that would have left them traumatized into next year. Dan Simmons’ Summer of Night follows in this tradition.

We have, for example, a strong incident concerning a baseball game, one that makes several points about the time, place, and characters, and might have become a short story in its own right. It happens, however, at a time when baseball would be the last thing on these kids’ minds. It’s a sign of things to come.

A forward in some published editions presents studies showing how over-protected children are in the present, and how little adult responsibility they have compared to the children of the past. These studies ring true, and certainly, serve Simmons’ nostalgia for what childhood once was. I recall when children were permitted to grow up without layers of bubble wrap around them. Simmons apparently thinks that these studies justify his depiction of childhood. Sorry.

These kids, twelve years of age and younger, demonstrate cunning, talent, psychological health, composure, and strategic thinking that much older people could not manage. I can buy Lovecraftian horrors, but not this presentation of preteens. Some of their characterization might work if Summer of Night were a YA sort of novel, with a more stylized world and a less realistic tone.

Unfortunately, he has already established that this is horror in something akin to the real world. Half the time, we’re in a scary story featuring children, and the other half, in the sort of scary story a child might tell—-with the mean teacher, the principal, the local creepy guy, the bully, and the smelly rendering truck all a part of the villainous conspiracy.

This blended reality doesn’t work, and referencing studies about the changing nature of childhood don’t make it any more convincing.

The Scores:

Originality: 2/6 The influences couldn’t be more obvious. Elm Haven, Illinois clearly exists in the same world as King’s various New England towns, while the things haunting its night are pure Lovecraft. The specific similarities to It (from basic premise to creepily out-of-place underage sex) cannot be missed.

Imagery: 5/6 The amount of description, geography, and history may become excessive, but Simmons knows how to flesh out the physical world. The town feels real in its details and, if he goes overboard into funhouse cliché in describing the horrors that wait in the night, he at least describes them with the same attention to detail that he gives the SF elements from other books.

Story: 3/6 The mystery develops in an interesting manner. I found myself interested in creepy “Tubby” Cooke and his fate, events which open the story and draw us into the bigger, darker mystery. Unfortunately, what follows disappoints.

Simmons never works out the conflicts of tone and genre, and too often he propels his plot with things that wouldn’t happen, even in a world where Lovecraftian horrors exist. Kids hire/hijack a car, gain access to a millionaire’s mansion, and then by luck steal the one book that provides them with a vital clue? On the Disney Channel, maybe, but not in the world depicted elsewhere in this story.

Characterization: 3/6. See “Low Points”– despite the fact that the characters show so much potential at the start.

Failure to differentiate many of the central characters from one another further affects the book.

Emotional Response: 4/6. The book’s initial creepy mystery gives way to eye-rolling disbelief.

Editing: 4/6 Summer of Night features some elegiac, poetic passages, but also a good deal of excess and repetition. Simmons needs an editor who will tell him when he needs to STFU trim judiciously.

Overall score: 4/6

In total, Summer of Night receives 25/42