“A Winter Haunting”

I think I like Dan Simmons. I don’t know. I’m pretty sure I do, but I can’t point to any of his books that I’ve been crazy about. I’ve wanted to finish them all, despite their flaws, so I suppose that says something. He’s an effective writer, anyway–by which I mean he can hold your attention, and, more cynically, he can sell books–and that’s more than can be said for some.

A Winter Haunting is very much par for the course, as far as Simmons’ work goes. I’ve read four of his books now–the others being Song of Kali, The Hollow Manand The Terror–and while all are considerably different from one another in subject matter, theme and tone, they have more than a few things in common.

First is the impressive amount of background research Simmons clearly does for each novel. They are each incredibly specific in terms of scientific, geographic, literary and historical details. The Terror is easily the best example of this. Weighing in at 946 pages, this tome contains more nuanced information about ice, icebergs, snow, freezing water, more ice, and polar bears than I ever expected or desired to learn.

A Winter Haunting, while mercifully far thinner than The Terror, also contains a fair bit of strangely detailed information, on topics as diverse as guns, SUVs, modern Western literature, Old English epics, and ancient Egyptian religion. The grab-bag feeling of reading a Simmons novel is, in some ways, part of the appeal. In the four I’ve read, Simmons happily mixes the scientific and the supernatural, the painfully obvious and the painstakingly researched, and peppers it all with a sprinkling of graphic, but well-handled violence and slightly Stephen King-esque messed-up sexuality.

Unfortunately, Simmons’ books also suffer from the same thing that makes them interesting. The preponderance of technical detail–some of it deceptively superficial–distracts from the narrative, rendering what could be a frightening or at least unsettling experience into something more like reading a Goosebumps novel in a brightly-lit, crowded hospital waiting room, and taking the occasional break to read the free sexual health and e. coli awareness pamphlets next to the old copies of Good Housekeeping and Vogue.

That simile got a little out of hand, but if you imagine the minor creep factor of The Haunted Mask , and pair that with the smell of latex exam gloves- NO STOP IT STILL ISN’T WORKING.

Really, A Winter Haunting is yet another illustration of the difficulties with genre. A blurb on the back cover of my paperback copy proclaims, “A crackling good read… Surely the first psychological/horror masterpiece of the 21st century.” The book is certainly psychological, but in what way is it horror? It employs a bit of horrific imagery, and there is a supernatural component, but not once throughout the entire read did I feel horrified. There was nothing to invoke fear. This was partly due to the frequent shifts in narrative voice: the text is alternately narrated by a detached nonspecific third-person voice, and by the first-person voice of the main character’s dead childhood friend (a fact revealed in the first sentence of the first page, ergo, not a spoiler). The dead friend’s slightly sarcastic tone, tendency to narrate long-past and completely non-frightening events, and total omniscience remove the reader so completely from the main character’s experiences that any chance at fear is lost.

The book does have a lot of interesting folkloric and academic references. At one point, the main character, Dale–an English professor at a university in Montana–is in a library researching the strange black dogs that have been hounding him (PUNS ARE DELICIOUS). After a typically-Simmonsian (?) summary of legendary accounts dealing with black dogs from around the world, we get this gem: “Dale realized that he could make a doctoral dissertation out of this crap, given the proper primary sources and a few years” (187). Indeed, Mr. Simmons, someone could probably write an awful lot about black dog legends. Touche.

I also appreciate Simmons’ slightly critical stance toward academia. The ghost narrator, commenting on Dale’s crappy novel-writing, suggests that his friend is just not “born to the craft”. He continues, delightfully, “Added to that is the simple fact that in training to be an academic, Dale was crippled by the need to write in academese. It is not a language formed by any human tongue, and few, if any, academics survive the degradation of it to move on to actual prose” (194).

An unfair generalization, but the narrator is dead, after all. His biases can perhaps be forgiven.

A Winter Haunting is enjoyable. I liked reading it, and was eager to finish it and get to this review.  It is effective in that it makes you want to keep reading. But like a lot of mass-market paperbacks (or all of them, depending on how cynical you’re feeling), it’s literary junk food. The flavor is bold–perhaps also spicy–but it’s not particularly filling. And it simply fails as horror, and should really not be branded as such. 79/100.

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