Thursday, July 4, 2013

Summer of Night by Dan Simmons (1991): No Cure for the Summertime Blues

How much of a book do you have to read before you decide to quit? Most readers hate leaving a book unfinished, and I'm no exception. When I was younger I left all sorts of classics half read - have you ever tried to get through Nausea, The Magic Mountain, or all three volumes of The Rosy Crucifixion? - but I'm usually able to finish most horror novels. But Summer of Night, the sixth novel from Dan Simmons, joins that sad small shelf of the unfinished (and damn, I just remembered - I never finished Carrion Comfort when I tried to read it back in '90 or '91). Shame, because of course his debut novel Song of Kali is great, as are the two Hyperion novels, but otherwise I've not had much luck with the few other books of his I've tried. Really, I've got so many other horror paperbacks waiting to be read...

Summer of Night is obviously Simmons attempting to set up camp in some familiar horror territory. However the book simply doesn't have its own identity while laboring under the shadow of the largest horror of all, Stephen King's 1986 thousand-plus-page It. Sure, Simmons writes without all the junky pop-culture references that can clutter King's style, and actually I started to miss that as Simmons tries for universality and ends up with cliche, goes after profundity but gives us triteness. In fact I didn't find it all that, uh, Kingian: Summer of Night feels like it was plotted and written on autopilot. Although I am sure much of it is based on the author's own childhood, nothing feels real or lived. Everything could have been written by someone who was simply regurgitating It, maybe "The Body," maybe Dandelion Wine with a smidge of The Outsiders thrown in. Several hundred pages elapse before we get any kind of real palpable menace, madness, or evil, only threads of mildly interesting bits that dissolve into thin air.

Paperback edition Warner Books, Mar 1992

One major problem is that few of the children come truly alive as characters. The kids in this story aren't nearly as rag-tag as the Losers in It; one is a devout Catholic who loves assisting "Father C" - you know, the cool priest - with Mass, and another is well on his way to becoming an overly bookish intellectual. Other kids in their gang are weakly drawn, meek and mild kids whom you can't really keep straight because they're all such squares. Strictly dullsville. The other problem for me was Simmons's story is so normal and so middle-America I wasn't fearful for the characters or the town's safety; I was bored nearly to death by its banal, prosaic lifelessness. But on I trudged, on past repetitive chase scenes and descriptions of summer evenings and fields of corn and gravel roads. Kids on bikes bug the fuck outta me, why do I wanna read an entire 600-page novel about 'em?

There is also a cloying sentimentality throughout the book, but especially in the last few pages - I cheated - that made me cringe. After surviving the epic final battle, the kids then sit around and talk about what they're going to do when they're grown up. Ugh. These passages aren't profound; they're mawkish and lazy and I could almost hear sappy orchestral strings from emotional '90s Hollywood flicks rising in the background. Even scenes of horror - if you stick around long enough to get to 'em - have been done before:

Father C's smile continued to broaden, pulling back to show his back teeth, broadening further until it seemed the man's face would snap in half as if on a hinge. The impossible mouth opened wide and Mike saw more teeth - rows and rows of teeth, endless lines of white that seemed to recede down the thing's gullet...

There were lamprey-like creatures burrowing beneath cornfields, chasing folks, in some cinematic sequences, cool, okay, but these scenes weren't anything fresh, almost rehashes of Tremors. Scenes of characters investigating historical documents and ancient tomes to determine the true nature of their adversary is an aspect of horror fiction near and dear to my heart, but here it seems by-the-numbers. The bookish kid, Duane, tries to learn about the Borgia Bell, supposedly hidden inside the public school's bell tower, and which may have supernatural properties, the well from which the horror springs. This simply did nothing for me, sounding more like a droning history lecture in a stuffy classroom.

Today it seems readers, going by reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and various other blogs, love love lurve this Summer of Night. And I remember well back in the early '90s Simmons was riding pretty high, based on the originality of Kali and the imaginative prowess of Hyperion, as well as various very good short stories. But I can distinctly recall the disappointment I felt when Summer of Night came out; this seemed like a huge step backward for Simmons. Growing up in 1960, kids face a monstrous evil? I really thought he could do better than that. I never once thought about reading it till I bought a copy - in mint condition, which was my true impetus for picking it up - two or three weeks ago, hoping maybe it'd be one of those great summer reads you lose yourself in. I was wrong.

21 comments:

William Malmborg said...

I remember having similar thoughts while reading this one back in high school. It seemed very much like it was going for an IT feel that simply made me want to read IT once more instead. I did, however, enjoy it, though not as much as his other work.

Now, A Winter Haunting, which follows one of the kids into adulthood was fantastic and something I would recommend. I remember sitting down with that and plowing through it.

tarbandu said...

I have yet to read - or attempt to read- a Simmons novel that isn't a crashing bore.

I've been slogging, on and off, thru 'Drood' for the past 18 months. I'm currently on page 421 of 946 (this is one of those larger-size, 'WalMart aisle' mass-market paperbacks).

The book's advertising suggests it's a quasi-Steampunk adventure, but in reality, 'Drood' is a labored melange of psychodrama and vaguely 'mysterious' goings-on.

At 1107 pp, Patrick Rothfuss's 'The Wise Man's Fear' was much more digestible.....so it can be done. But Simmons just doesn't know how.....

Kat Cara BiblioBabes said...

I'm currently reading The Terror, and I'm having a helluva hard time with it. I've been reading it for almost a week and I'm only a hundred pages in. Not to mention the fact that I've only just realized that what I thought were two different characters are really one and the same. Balls.

matthew. said...

I've definitely read all four of the Hyperion Cantos, as well as a couple other Simmons novels but for the life of me I could never finish Song of Kali, Carrion Comfort, The Terror, or this. Song of Kali I couldn't finish because of the ludicrous racism on the surface, and others are just... boring.

Plus you add in the fact that Simmons is a pretty open racist about Muslims, well, he's not getting any more of my money!

Authorfan said...

What a breath of fresh air to actually see a horror enthusiast go against some of the biggies in horror lit. Yes, kids, even renowned writers such as Simmons here can bomb big time.

Jay said...

Simmons was promoted as the next big thing in the 80s by Harlan Ellison and Twilight Zone Magazine. It makes me think maybe the horror genre thought they could turn him into the next Big Thing, a new suburb of King-land.

Song of Kali I recall as a singularly unpleasant reading experience whose moral seems to be" Never Visit the Third World. This was not a book inspired by travel, as were books by Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Paul Theroux. Seemed arrogant to me.

"Iverson's Pits" in the collection Prayers to Broken Stones was strong, and had an authentic energy behind it, like a twice-told conte cruel inspired by Bierce.

Summer of Night seemed like Simmons launching a colonailist expedition against King-land, as he launched forays into sci-fi, thriller, and historical fiction.

King clearly has attempted to write a Great American [Horror] Novel, as had Peter Straub. Summer of Night, taking King/Matheson/Bradbury motifs, is a similar attempt, and comes up short.

I am perhaps more generously disposed toward the book than our reviewer. But when I read it twenty years ago, I believed the Simmons hype.

Luis said...

I'm a big fan of Simmons and think that both Song of Kali and Carrion Comfort are absolute classics. I've shied away from reading Summer of Night because it has one of the elements that turns me off in a horror story - kid protagonists. The only one that can get away with that (sort of) is King, and "It" is the last word on that subject.

Bob The Wordless said...

For the love of God, don't read Children of the Night.Jesus, what a drag that was.
What I got from The Terror? It was cold.It was very fucking cold.
Ilium,now, that was a cracker,but, the sequel, Olympus was the complete opposite.It was like two different people wrote it.
Then there's the fact that he allegedly posted that every Muslim should be wiped of the face off the earth.WTF?
And, if you are going to try to*ahem*do an homage to Stephen Kings' It, then you are fucked from the get go. It may have one of the weakest endings, but, the road traveled to get there was absolutely awesome.
Dan Simmons, like most creative people lost his muse, and may not find it again. King lost his for a while with the Dark Tower series,but, it's finding it's way back slowly.
Then again,Dan, probably found out his muse was Muslim,and, exterminated it with Extreme Prejudice.

Jonathan Stover said...

The best part of THE TERROR is the list of the names of all the crew-members of the two ships. Well, and the revelation that Inuit women Brazilian wax their nether-regions. And the partially underwater sex scene. Come to think of it, what a novel!

Blofeld's Cat said...

I couldnt disagree with (most) everybody more...I read SUMMER OF NIGHT recently and absolutely loved, precisely BECAUSE it was Stephen King-esque. In fact, its the best Stephen King book I've read in quite some time. I left Steve King around the time of THE DARK HALF and since then, whenever I have gone back looking for that excitement I felt (as a kid) reading CHRISTINE or CUJO or THE STAND, I have always been severely disappointed...SUMMER OF NIGHT brought it all back...I though THE TERROR was amazing as well, a great history book wrapped in a horror tale...its very cinematic and I cant believe it hasnt been made into a flick yet...

Ron Clinton said...

I remember liking SUMMER OF NIGHT a good deal (though CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT was a severe disappointment) when I read it a couple decades ago. Same with CARRION COMFORT. R.e. his more recent works, THE TERROR was, I thought, outstanding, but DROOD was a true chore to get through. I'm not sure there's an author I read with some consistency that's more hit-and-miss with me (in fact, probably more miss than hit, if I really gave it thought), but I always approach teasers about his new books with a fair degree of optimism.

MikeGibbonz said...

I've attempted to read this one and abandoned it as well. I did, however slog through the entire mammoth "Carrion Comfort" and it was pretty good. Severely in need of a serious editing job, like to the tune of 2 or three hundred pages being cut out, but still pretty good. Very few authors besides Larry McMurtry and Stephen King can pull off the epic, 1,000 pager novels.

Will Errickson said...

When I posted this review I was half-expecting a kind of showdown from Simmons's defenders (like what happened when I trashed Laymon's THE CELLAR). It's a relief, and a confirmation, to see other readers who feel *precisely* the same as I do!

I struggled with THE TERROR, finished it, but felt it was ridiculously bloated, but had some great scenes. CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT was a disappointment, don't think I got 50 pages in; same with ENDYMION.

I hate to use the word "boring" when describing any book, movie, whatever, but ultimately that's the only way I can describe SUMMER. Ah well, not everything can be a classic!

And I really appreciate the time you all took to comment. Thanks again!

David T. Wilbanks said...

I'm with you on this one but really dug the sequel A WINTER HAUNTING. One of the spookiest books I can remember.

Doug Brunell said...

Simmons just never really did it for me. I've tried to enjoy his work, but it always fell short in one sense or another. I read the description of this book back in the day and put it right back on the shelf. "Why bother?" I thought. Seems like I made the right decision.

Kevin F said...

One of the good things I can say about Children of Summer is that it is not Drood. Drood is unbearably dull. Its, quite literally, a 1,000 page meditation on how Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens are basically unlikeable people. *yawn* The nemesis of the novel seems to be The Master from 1980's Doctor Who.

When not wanting gouge out my eyes, the only thing I could think while reading Drood was, "gee, I could be reading Les Daniels."

Fernando Brambila O. said...

Dan Simmons... I read "Carrion Comfort" a while ago, and I mostly remember it as being one of those novels that managed to be both overwhelming and underwhelming. Overwhelming in that it's so, SO long and insists that we hear every single think each character is thinking and saying, and underwhelming in that, after a while, it was basically the same scene (psychic vampires molesting people) over and over and over. I have heard very good things about "Hyperion" and I remember that introduction he wrote for Z. Brite's "Wormwood" --and if some of what I'm reading in these comments is true, boy is this another of those once-promising authors who fell hard.

Will Errickson said...

I swear, HYPERION and SONG OF KALI were two of the greatest experiences of my life! Alas, I read both in 1991. Nothing else I've read has come even close, and much of what I have read I haven't even been able to finish.

Tinderbox said...

I recently read Summer of Night, my first Simmons book, and count me among those who really enjoyed it. I have not read King's IT, but I found SoN a good mix of The Halloween Tree / The Body - Stand by Me / and Lovecraft.

Despite its flaws I mention below, I savored the time it took to get to where it was going, because I felt that Simmmons' point was to evoke that type of bygone childhood era rather than simply tell a horror story. He's describing a vivid nostalgia for a bygone childhood freedom from helicopter parents and all the modern media BS over child issues that perhaps readers under a certain age just cannot recognize or appreciate.

SPOILERS
Perfect? No. It had three major flaws that did bug me: 1) the kids were hard to distinguish early on and I couldn't keep them straight until about halfway through the book; 2) we get history but never a good explanation of the whole Borgia Bell entity or what its intentions were. In fact, there isn't much of a confrontation with the "Master" itself at the end though the ending itself is explosive and effective. And 3) the last hundred pages turned the kids into little Rambos, placing them into action situations I just can't believe ten-year olds could pull off.

None of that would dissuade me from recommending it. There were moments in this book scarier than anything I've read since early King. I'm not a horror fiction fanatic, but for someone with a moderate amount of horror under his belt (that sounds bad) that's saying a lot.

Chanti said...

Oh good, it's not just me then who felt like this. The book fell short for me too. It felt rushed somehow, not well thought through. Never got close to the characters and the plot was all over the place.

Will Errickson said...

Over the last couple years I've noticed, on various horror-fic threads throughout the internets, that reaction to Simmons's books is indeed widely, widely varied. That wasn't the case back in the day when he was pretty much universally acclaimed, but that was when he'd just written some short stories, KALI, and the first two HYPERIONs, maybe another SF novel. Oh well...