Sequel at half the length to Simmons’s 1990 baggy-pants small-town Illinois childhood nostalgia fest, Summer of Night, told partly through the hovering spirit of Duane, an 11-year-old genius chewed to pieces by a corn combine 40 years ago.
Now disembodied, Duane sees the world through the eyes of childhood buddy Dale Stewart, who survived their elementary school’s haunted big Borgia Bell and some nasty, wildly betoothed, burrowing, nine-foot black eels. Lit professor Dale, who writes formulaic Jim Bridge: Mountain Man novels, leaves his Montana ranch—and a failed love affair with a grad student—on sabbatical and returns to the deserted McBride farm to write his first “serious” novel, which sounds much like Summer of Night without the horror. During a year of clinical depression, he’d written Internet editorials about Montana neo-Nazi skinheads, and now the Illinois skinheads are onto him. The McBride farm has disturbing qualities: the odor of some large dead thing, a sealed-off upstairs, a living room full of strange metal “learning boxes.” Simmons has an enjoyable time ringing in strong echoes of the earlier book, but mostly Simmons (like Dale Stewart) works toward a seriously well-written nonhorror novel, until we grow suspicious that we are into a deceptive tale much like the flicks The Sixth Sense and The Others, with a Jamesian ghost story overlay, wherein the everyday has an otherworldly reverse side. This makes A Winter Haunting hard to review without giving away its more subtle suspense elements. What’s more, Professor Stewart, now reading Swann’s Way and Seamus Heaney’s recent translation of Beowulf, finds his ThinkPad sending him warnings from Duane in Anglo-Saxon. Dale (not Dan Simmons, of course) complains about the “jackal piss” his reviewers squirt on him. Then big black dogs (his depression?) hound the farm and reality wavers—then really wavers.
A rich read most jackals will take kindly to.