Dan Simmons returns to the territory of his classic novel Summer of Night in its sequel, A Winter Haunting. Taking place almost forty years after the events of its predecessor, Haunting sees Dale Stewart -- a recently divorced and suicidal college professor/author -- return to the small town of Elm Haven and the memories from childhood it holds for him. He rents the home of a childhood friend for nine months, hoping to finish his latest novel and get a grip on his post-marriage life.
From the start, I noticed this novel is a pretty brisk and succinct read -- usually, Simmons's novels are sprawling epics with a lot of back-story and world-building. A Winter Haunting clocks in at just over 300 pages, making it one of the briefest books in the Simmons canon. The action starts in the first chapter and does not let up until the last page.
The idea of a man who has seemingly lost it all -- his wife, his kids, his stability, his will to live -- immediately brought to mind a novel that came out around the same time as this one, and that novel is Stephen King's Bag of Bones. In both, the story revolves around one man (with some peripheral characters, of course). Both of their marriages end brutally. Both are writers. Both hole up in a secluded house of importance, and both of those houses are haunted. Coming out in 2002, this book released four years after King's novel... and don't get me wrong! I don't think Simmons ripped off King in any way -- sure, the two novels are pretty similar at their cores, but King's tale is one of lost romance and moving on; Simmons's is of lost childhood and innocence. Perhaps Simmons was inspired by Bag of Bones, but whatever ideas it gave him blossomed into something radically different. I just thought I would point out the two books' similarities because I thought it was interesting. Maybe I'll read them back-to-back someday -- that could make for a very interesting blog post.
Something I absolutely loved about this book is Simmons's ability to catch me off guard. I won't say too much because I'd hate to ruin the fun, so i'll just say this: nothing is what it seems. This place which Dale Stewart has returned to is not a nice place, and hasn't been a nice place for a very long time. It was bad in 1960 during his eleventh summer, but now -- here in 1999 -- it has only gotten worse. People aren't what they seem, and nothing is safe. There are horrors around every corner -- dark or otherwise.
If I had to make a complaint, it would be Simmons's use of the "voice from beyond the grave" technique. The voice is that of a certain important character from Summer of Night. The voice narrates a good deal of the book, but not all of it. At times, I enjoyed his or her narration, but at other times it just felt intrusive and weird. By the story's end, Simmons's still hadn't given a satisfactory explanation of the voice to begin with, so I deducted half a star from my rating. It's not too big a deal, but it is sort of annoying.
Of the two, I think I prefer Summer of Night if only because that book had more of an epic, all-worlds-are-involved feel. By comparison, this book is rather claustrophobic and chilly, but that is also fitting -- Dale Stewart has left the magic of childhood and grown into a depressed man with no real future prospects. It is prudent that Summer of Night be read before this one, but if you already have that horror classic under your belt.... then, by all means, look into this.