Small town America comes under attack from an evil ancient… bell? And only a group of pre-teens can stand against it, armed with their fathers’ guns and a milk truck. Summer of Night is Dan Simmons’ entry into the trend of nostalgic horror novels started by Stephen King’s It and proves once again that ideas, when they are re-used, tend to erode rapidly.
The town’s old school building, Old Central, is closing permanently and before the premises are vacated for the summer a kid mysteriously disappears in the building’s basement. Soon the main drag of Elm Haven is haunted by various apparitions, including a truck hauling animal corpses, a WW1 soldier and some miniature worms possibly imported from Arrakis, conveniently unnoticed by anyone except the kids. The kids, who include an altar boy, a wannabe-writer, a wisecracking poor kid and a Dale and a Kevin soon figure out that the focal point is their former school and its staff, who have come under the evil bell’s influence.
Summer of Night starts off slow and one couldn’t be blamed for mistaking Elm Haven for Charles L. Grant’s Oxrun Station. It’s all mood and Halloween scares, none of which really come together even when some explanations are cobbled together later in the novel (it’s all because of the bell). Reaching the half-way point Simmons kills one of the more memorable kids and picks up the pace, as well as the guns and the ammo. The 12-year-old kids use shotguns, revolvers and pretty much anything they can get their tiny hands on with the aptitude of action heroes with mental stamina to match. It’s at this point that any suspension of disbelief is thrown screaming out the window.
Summer of Night is not a completely terrible novel, but it is very troubled. The characters come off as cardboard and some more than others, such as Kevin, who barely registers. The adults are as nonexistent as the parents in Peanuts cartoons. The horrors are kitchy and the ending, when it finally arrives, feels rushed and way too straightforward. As a writer Simmons can be really good, as witnessed by Song of Kali or the Hyperion novels, but here it seems he had some elements and scenes but had no idea how to glue them together into a coherent novel. The tempo change in the middle of the novel feels very much like he suddenly became frustrated with it all, gave up and just blasted himself through the rest of the novel.