Dan Simmons,
A Winter Haunting
(William Morrow, 2002)

About halfway through A Winter Haunting, Dan Simmon's protagonist, author Dale Stewart, quotes from Flaubert: "Books aren't made the way babies are: they are made like the pyramids. There's some long-pondered plan, and then great blocks of stone are placed one on top of the other, and it's back-breaking, sweaty, time-consuming work. And all to no purpose! It just stands there on the desert! But it towers over it prodigiously. Jackals piss at the base of it, and the bourgeois clamber to the top of it, etc. Continue this comparison." Dale then comments that even as a boy when he first had been struck by this quote he understood that the pissing jackals were critics.

It is appropriate to wear an Anubis mask for this review of A Winter Haunting since the jackal-headed god plays a key role in the horrific elements Simmons has woven into this tale of a writer haunted by a traumatic childhood summer.

Dale Stewart was 11 in the summer of 1960 when his friend Duane McBride was killed in a grisly farm accident. And when Dale decides to return to Elm Haven to spend the winter writing a novel about that fateful summer he's pleased to discover that the McBride farmhouse is up for rent. Dale needs to recapture his past in order to breathe life into his first "serious" novel. But the past seems to have a will of its own, and it seems far less intent on enhancing Dale's writing than on drawing him into a maelstrom of fear and madness.

Can it possibly be Duane posting cryptic messages in Old English on Dale's computer? Does the messages' obsession with the hounds of death, the wargs that haunt Beowulf, tie into Duane's obsession with the Egyptian god of death? And where does the greater threat to Dale's safety lie, with a quietly disturbing dead 11-year-old or with the local skinhead thugs who've taken violent exception to Dale's anti-militia newspaper articles?

One aspect of A Winter Haunting that I particularly enjoyed was the way Simmons turns a classic horror tradition on its head. Here the protagonist, despite growing evidence, refuses to believe in ghosts. Dale knows he's not completely stable mentally -- his recent attempted suicide, his inability to sleep and his prescribed medication all attest to this fact. And Simmons uses the smoke screen of Dale's skepticism of the supernatural to great advantage in manipulating the reader's impressions of both the real and the phantasmal characters Dale encounters during his return to his childhood hometown.

And yet there were aspects of A Winter Haunting that prevented me from being completely enveloped by the tale. Simmons' use of a writer as his protagonist, and more specifically the frequent passages in which Dale Stewart bemoans the fact that his genre writing (he writes mountain man adventures) gets so little respect, kept pulling me out of the story and into a Simmons diatribe. As well, I'm one of those readers who finds bad copy-editing tremendously distracting. And their our plenty of typos of the sort that a spellcheck program will not catch scattered through A Winter Haunting. When I pay this much for a hardcover book I expect better proofreading.

So I'll conclude my pissing jackal abuse of A Winter Haunting by saying that it was an enjoyable book but one that doesn't have quite the impact of the pyramids.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 28 June 2003

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