Perhaps Farris’s best yet shows him, like Dean Koontz in his recent work, striving for greater substance.
With all of Farris’s magical, down-home western Tennessee details (the story takes place in a richly evoked 1952), readers may initially expect straightforward, mainstream southern fiction like To Kill a Mockingbird. Until they get to passages like this, with similes singing: “And the days of his childhood had run long and playful, the quick nights slept away while his heart held the heat and lure of the sun. Now his days were shorter, shadowed, intolerable; his heart, like the sun, was dying in his breast.” This sultry, July-evening anguish belongs to Leland Howard of Evening Shade. Now in the last week of his race for governor, he rapes a widowed young black woman and accidentally causes her death (his hounds tear her to pieces, offstage). The victim is Mally Shaw, a nurse who saved the life of 14-year-old mute Alex Gambier, who likes to test his mettle by lying on the tracks at Cole’s Crossing as the Dixie Traveler roars over him. Mally nursed Leland’s father, the banker Priest Howard, who died in distrust of his son and left Mally evidence that Leland committed fraud. After her death, Mally’s spirit returns one evening at Cole’s Crossing and, together with Alex (who witnessed her rape), plans Leland’s just rewards. The mute boy can talk aloud only with Mally, and their evenings at the Crossing, where a spirit train picks up the dead, become the eponymous phantom nights. Also on hand is Mally’s cultivated father, Dr. Ramses Valjean, who joins with Alex’s brother Bobby, Evening Shade’s acting sheriff, to track down clues condemning Howard.
Strong, lip-smacking suspense with an occult overwash that more or less avoids genre categorization.