“In the middle of the night” by Robert Cormier answers the call of fear
Twenty-two people died on a fateful Halloween in Wickburg, Massachusetts. And as far as the city is concerned, the killer is still at large. Robert Cormierit is In the middle of the night it looks like it has the makings of a slasher story based on that vague description, but the high body count in this 1995 novel is the result of human error, not a series of murders. The acclaimed young adult author, who is best known for The chocolate war and I am the cheesefollows this local tragedy from start to finish, hoping to make sense of the cause as well as the unrelenting grief of one survivor.
Cormier starts things in the past, twenty-five years before the main story. Inside Wickburg’s Globe Theater, the city’s underprivileged gather for a special Halloween show. The anonymous narrator of the prologue and his sister Lulu, both orphans after the death of their parents in a car accident, are also present. In no time, however, their amusement and that of others is interrupted by an unexplained event. Readers are suspended as the narrator ends with two ominous lines: “Ten minutes later, Lulu was dead. And the nightmare began.
The story shifts to the present and introduces the actual main character, a 16-year-old named Denny Colbert. It’s now early September and the dreaded phone calls are back on track like clockwork. For Denny’s family, these calls signal the possibility of having to uproot their lives again and try to start anew somewhere else. Somehow, no one knows Denny’s father’s past. At a young age, Denny learned never to answer the phone, especially at this time of year. But something is different now; his urge to pick up becomes harder and harder to resist.
Temptation wins and Denny answers the phone one afternoon when his parents are away. To her surprise, the voice on the other end of the line is as seductive as it is shy. She’s not like the others who only call to accuse or insult Denny’s father. No, this seductive telephonist hides his true rage and appeals to the boy’s natural curiosities about him, his father, and the “Globe Horror” that still lingers all these years later. Their conversations are built on lies, but Denny feels more of a connection to this stranger than to his own father.
John Paul Colbert put his foot down when Denny was seven, furious after his son answered the phone one day. The other party called his father a murderer, and he didn’t know why. At eleven, Denny finally realized the cause of his father’s unspoken misery and why they moved house so many times. Now 16, Denny just wants to “be like the other kids”. And what others take for granted every day, Denny envies. To him the telephone represents normality, but in the Colbert household it is a dreaded entity – a reminder of something bad. Denny wants to move on, and breaking his dad’s one and only rule is the way he goes about it.
Cormier eventually returns to the past and recounts how John Paul earned his lifelong stigma. Back in Wickburg, the teenage French-Canadian immigrant got a job as an usher at the Globe Theater, under a Mr. Zarbor. They worked closely together to ensure a successful Halloween show. Unfortunately, they overlooked one detail: the dangerous balcony serving as storage. Needless to say, negligence is what killed these twenty-two guests. All children, no one over thirteen. Authorities cleared 16-year-old John Paul of any wrongdoing, but parents and others prosecuted him once Mr Zarbor killed himself. They needed a scapegoat, and who better to blame than the new kid in town? The stranger who accidentally started a fire while investigating the strange creaks coming from the balcony.
She won’t talk about what happened to her during her death.
Cormier’s use of first- and third-person perspectives will create some confusion at first, but it will help the story in the long run. An omniscient style suits Denny and his father; none of the characters say what they really mean, so this point of view fills in the gaps. Meanwhile, the apparent villain is more open with his thoughts and feelings. The words are short, precise and direct. The audience has no choice but to observe their sadness and soak up the pain. Regardless of perspective, however, Cormier explores the vast interiority of his troubled characters.
Like his other books, In the middle of the night appears as personal to Cormier. The author, born and raised in a French-Canadian region of Massachusetts, inserts himself into the story, using both father and son as surrogates for feelings of not fitting in. John Paul initially tried to comply; he was adamant about using contractions in his English, which Mr Zarbor felt was necessary if he was to “sound like a proper American teenager”. Any chance of truly assimilating was out of the question after the Globe disaster; he would always be a stranger to almost anyone who knew of his involvement. As for Denny, the boy has no chance of leading a normal life as long as he lives in his father’s shadow and shares his shame.
The thriller element of In the middle of the night is not so much shod as low and infrequent. The bulk of the suspense is reserved for the end. Denny’s enigmatic caller, who is none other than Lulu, has come a long way in seeking revenge. How she finally tries to come to terms with her lingering pain and self-loathing since surviving the Globe crash, namely the murder of John Paul’s son with a fatal injection on Halloween, is a statement on people living in the past. From the reporter harassing Denny to the annual deluge of harassing calls, everyone is obsessed with what happened so long ago.
If he had been more forthcoming with him, Jean-Paul might have spared his son his own trauma. But like so many others, Denny mistook his father’s silence for something else. Jean-Paul’s refusal to tell the media his point of view is only his way of reconciling what happened. And as he will later admit to his son, Jean-Paul endures the calls, the letters and the insults because it makes these people feel better. Finally, Denny realizes – and accepts – that this is how his father chooses to move on. Lulu, on the other hand, is burdened by her ghosts to the bitter end. She is the victim of another tragedy, of her own fault.
Cormier has been criticized for not writing happy endings, but his stories reflect reality rather than fantasy. And nothing in life or in this book is ever easy to solve. At the very least, here, a father and son finally agree, though that might come as a cold comfort after how everything else is going. In the middle of the night takes some getting used to for those expecting a linear plot with a defined perspective; it features a lot of exposition before the book gets on a more direct path. Nevertheless, this all-consuming thriller doubles as an in-depth and honest study of characters haunted by their past.
There was a time when the children’s section of bookstores was overflowing with horror and suspense. These books were easily identifiable by their flashy fonts and garish covers. This notable subgenre of YA fiction flourished in the 80s, peaked in the 90s, and then finally came to an end in the early 2000s. YA horror of this genre is indeed a thing of the past, but the stories endure at buried in a book. This recurring column reflects the nostalgic novels that still haunt readers decades later.