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Onyx reviews: A Winter Haunting by Dan Simmons

Dale Stewart has been wandering between the world of the living and the world of the dead ever since the day—over a year ago—when he attempted a Hemingway-esque end to his life. The shotgun shell bearing the firing pin's indentation travels with him as he returns to Illinois, his childhood home. He has abandoned his wife and family, become obsessed with a former lover and jeopardized his career. He hopes a sabbatical in the place where he spent his formative years will provide the inspiration he needs to write a novel.

Forty-one years ago, Dale and his friends defeated a terrible evil, an adventure recounted in Simmons' 1991 novel Summer of Night. Dale recalls little of the true events of that long-ago time. His remembers instead a lush summer filled with nostalgia and youthful exuberance.

Not everyone survived that ordeal—Duane McBride died horribly at the hands of the demonic forces tearing their little town apart. It is to Duane's family home that Dale has returned. McBride farm, which Duane called The Jolly Corner, the title of a Henry James ghost story, is completely isolated. Several miles from town, it has no telephone lines and Dale's cell phone doesn't work there. He sets up his computer, stocks the house with groceries and sets about writing. Soon someone—or something—tries to communicate with him through his computer, leaving strange messages in old English or High German, sinister literary snippets.

Dale wonders if there is a presence at McBride farm. Mysterious lights appear in the closed-off second floor. Spectral dogs roam the farm getting larger with each appearance. He also has to contend with a group of contentious skinheads who take violent issue with essays he once posted on the Internet.

Where Summer of Night was set against the backdrop of humid, hot days and nights, summer rains and tornados, A Winter Haunting is its mirror image, frigid, snowy and barren. Summer recounted a group effort, several friends collaborating to defeat the evil in Old Central School. Winter is a solitary adventure; Dale's struggle is almost completely internal.

A Winter Haunting is a tauter, more introspective book than its predecessor. The author says, "Each book changes the 'reality' of the other, depending on which novel one reads first. The idea was to create a Mobius strip of perceptions." The novel Dale intends to write should be Summer of Night, but he cannot get past the idyllic curtain of his false memories.

Simmons uses Duane McBride, the dead eleven-year-old, as the window into Dale's mind. Duane is unsure of his own nature, describing himself as a "cyst of memory." His memories are limited to things Dale would know, details from the summer of '60. He knows nothing Dale did not witness for himself. In this way, Simmons leaves it open for the reader to decide if Duane is a spectral manifestation or a figment of Dale's tormented, depressed, untrustworthy mind.

To survive his winter in Elm Haven, Dale will need to come to grips with his past. Familiarity with events and characters from Summer of Night will substantially enhance a reader's enjoyment of this book, especially when Simmons recounts the fates of some of the characters. Two appear as secondary characters in Winter but this psychological horror thriller is primarily about Dale and his struggle to regain a firm grip on reality, past and present.

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