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First published in 1991, Summer of Night by Dan Simmons is a horror classic. Stephen King and I like it a lot. “Stephen King and I” is a fun way to begin a book review. Fun for me and that’s what matters.

Reading Simmons reminds me of Shel Silverstein’s “Boa Constrictor” song. Remember?

I’m being eaten by a Boa Constrictor
A Boa Constrictor
A Boa Constrictor
I’m being eaten by a Boa Constrictor
And I don’t like it one bit

His stories swallow you and you do like it. You’re fully aware that they’re swallowing you and yet there’s nothing to be done about it. I discovered this just last year with The Terror, a  historical fiction/ monster/ adventure epic that blew me away. I shoved the tome into my SO’s arms confident he would love it as I did. It took him 3 weeks to make it through 50 pages before giving up. He’s drunk on depressing nonfiction lately.

I guess, like all authors, Simmons isn’t for everyone. Hey, neither is Crack. Open Summer of Night and you’ll know in the first 50 pages whether you’re on board with Stephen King and I. We have room for more and I’ll even share my bubble chocolate.

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This book is made of everything I love. Set in an idyllic, small Midwestern town in the 1960s, it follows a group of boys through one terrifying summer. When we meet them in their final moments of class it’s impossible not to share and envy the boy’s enthusiasm for that endless freedom that seemed to lie ahead. The opening is steeped in nostalgia, not just for childhood summers, but the simple glory of disappearing on a bike with friends until dinner time. (In his new intro, Simmons broods over this loss of unsupervised childhood adventures. I usually skip intros, but this one is masterful.)

Simmons writes in expansive layers with such nuance it makes my brain giddy. His descriptions of a spontaneous game of King of the Hill are as vivid and lingering as the moment you learn there really is something in the closet. Things under the bed can get you. There was a face at your window.

After a classmate disappears, the boys gather to investigate. They divvy up the town’s creepiest characters and agree to secretly follow their assigned and report back. Teachers aren’t your usual suspects, but the boys’ school is no ordinary school. The town is finally closing down Old Central with plans to bus the students come fall. Meanwhile, the massive structure casts a heavy shadow over the town due to its dark history and revolting physicality, “a hulking fortress tinged with the mahogany scent of coffins.”

As evil overtakes the town, the boys have their bikes and each other to rely on. Maybe they’re in over their heads, but it’s also clear that they’re the only ones who may be able to stop whatever is happening. Unlike adults in town, the kids don’t dismiss gut instinct.  The friends seem to be the only ones who recognize that bad things are happening. They don’t cower. They step into dark basements, reach into strange holes. They fumble and can’t peddle fast enough. It’s not a fair fight and Simmons offers no safety. As terrifying creatures are set loose on the town we’ve come to know, the story grows a coming-of-age appendage, highlighting how vulnerable innocence is. Once lost, it’s gone forever.

This book reads like a movie with a lot of variation and steady pacing. Some scenes are disturbing. It’s not a quickie. I finished feeling exhausted but intensely satisfied, kind of like how you feel coming back from a camping trip. I had to take a break from horror after because others just weren’t measuring up.

I read this shortly after watching the Netflix hit “Stranger Things”. While the show is a drama with supernatural elements, it hits many of the same us-against-them notes. It seems like an obvious influence on the show’s creators. Whether it is or not, Summer of Night is a meaty snack to tide fans over until the second season.

Did I mention how good Dan Simmons is with words and horror? Did you know and not tell me?

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