Bohjalian’s Latest Features Witchcraft, the Paranormal

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By Daphne Abeel

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian. Crown Publishers. 2011. 378 pp. $25. ISBN 978-0-307-39499-6

Whether it is the author’s conscious intent or not, Chris Bohjalian’s newest novel, set in a remote New Hampshire village, shares an eerie tie with a short story, published 63 years ago in the New Yorker. In 1948, Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” created a firestorm with its tale of a village in northern New England that practiced the rite of sacrifice of one of its citizens in order to ensure a good corn crop for the coming year.

Bohjalian also portrays a small town peopled especially by a group of women who are variously suggested to be shamans, witches or herbalists, who have as their purpose the selection of a prepubescent child, a twin, whose blood and death will ensure the eternal youth and well being of the town.

The story focuses on Chip Linton, a pilot, who with his wife, Emily, and twin daughters, Hallie and Garnet, moves from Pennsylvania to Bethel, NH, to escape the fallout from an aviation accident in which he was forced to crash land his passenger plane in Lake Champlain. While he and some passengers escape, 39 are killed, most notably his co-pilot and a family who have a daughter, Ashley, about the same age as his twins.

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The accident, caused by birds flying into the plane’s engines, is in no way Chip’s fault, but deeply distressed and suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he decides to make a new life in a new locale. The family buys a house in Bethel that, strangely, has a mysterious door in the basement firmly closed with 39 bolts. The mysterious 39 bolts are only the first of many signs of foreboding and gloom that pervade the house. It is known that one of the twin sons of the Dunsmores, the former owners, has died presumably by suicide, and the Lintons soon discover peculiar objects in the house, a knife, an axe, bones. Their real estate agent dies shortly after selling them the house and a small bird trapped inside the house also crashes against a windowpane to its death.

The family and particularly the twin daughters are soon taken up by a gaggle of women in the town who specialize in growing plants and herbs, many of them poisonous. The Lintons’ new dwelling includes a greenhouse, which the girls take over as a playhouse for their dolls.

The women, who include Reseda Hill (also a twin, whose sister died), Anise, Sage and Clary, cluster around the girls, eventually insisting that they take new names, Rosemary and Calindra, in order to bind them more closely to their cultish practices, which include making tinctures from various plants.

Bohjalian constantly hints that the women are up to no good although their purposes, for most of the novel remain unclear. For example, describing Reseda in her greenhouse, he describes her tending of arnica. “On Monday, she would harvest the arnica for a tincture. Most people only used arnica externally as an anti-inflammatory. They rubbed it on sprains and strains. They feared its toxicity when taken internally. A large enough dose was lethal.”

Meanwhile Emily, a lawyer, is attempting to adjust to her new job and the twins are attempting to make new friends, but spending many hours with the over-friendly herbalists. Chip has, with great effort, pried and hacked the door in the basement open. Immediately, he begins to experience hallucinations that bring back passengers who died in the crash, specifically the young girl, Ashley, and her father who insists that his daughter is lonely and needs playmates.

Bohjalian is nothing if not a researcher of his fictional milieu and the story is filled with detailed descriptions both of the mechanics of the plane crash and the names and effects of the many herbs and plants the women grow, from belladonna to hypnobium. This approach lends the novel a certain specificity and realism, yet at times the factual material overwhelms both the intricate plot and more importantly the characters who can often seem mere pawns of what the information imposes on them.

The story moves somewhat relentlessly in the sphere of gothic horror and the paranormal. Readers fascinated with the grotesque, the notion of witchcraft, the psychological reality of hallucinations and the nuances of the cultivation of plants and herbs, will find this a deftlyplotted and gripping tale. Fans of character development and a more realistic fictional framework may find this novel less appealing.

Bohjalian has won a wide audience with previous books such as Midwives, The Double Bind, Secrets of Eden and Skeletons at the Feast, all of which have made the New York Times bestseller list. He lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter.

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