In Other Words Into That Good Night by Le­vis Kelt­ner

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“Hell is other peo­ple.” — Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit

In this fa­mous, of­ten-mis­in­ter­preted line, Sartre did not mean that spend­ing time with other peo­ple is ter­ri­ble. What he meant — and later stated for clar­i­fi­ca­tion on a 1965 record­ing of the play — was that, just as it is for No Exit’s three trapped char­ac­ters, “when we think about our­selves, when we try to know our­selves … we use the knowl­edge of us which other peo­ple al­ready have. We judge our­selves with the means other peo­ple have and have given us for judg­ing our­selves.”

Sartre ef­fec­tively sum­ma­rized the par­a­lyz­ing mid­dle-school so­cial caste sys­tem in which eighth-grade out­sider Doug Horolez func­tions when we first meet him in Le­vis Kelt­ner’s

Into That Good Night. Like most kids his age who op­er­ate on the fringes, Doug is keenly aware of the hi­er­ar­chies and power dis­par­i­ties in his life. Though he re­sents the un­fair­ness of the jock-nerd bi­nary, he is not old enough to un­der­stand it as tem­po­rary — so he has bought into it com­pletely. He es­pe­cially doesn’t like base­ball su­per­star John Walker and has a hard time feel­ing sorry for him when John gets di­ag­nosed with ter­mi­nal can­cer. And for all the in­ter­nal whin­ing about his ter­ri­ble self-im­age, Doug isn’t to­tally friend­less. There is a red­headed book­worm of a girl called E. who, as he un­der­stands it, al­lows him to sit near her af­ter school at the li­brary (and then even­tu­ally at her house). E. is supremely in­tel­lec­tual, al­ways try­ing to get Doug to read im­por­tant books, and she con­sid­ers the idea of ro­mance an­noy­ing. But Doug thinks of E. as his best friend — and he is in love with her. The novel be­gins in the weeks af­ter E.’s younger sis­ter, Erika, is mur­dered in the woods.

The en­gross­ing story that en­sues con­cerns a dis­parate group of ado­les­cents who grav­i­tate to each other — and to the spot in the woods where the mur­der took place — un­der the in­tox­i­cat­ing glow of be­long­ing. John Walker, also known as Dead Man, wants to solve the crime and avenge Erika’s death, and he se­lects an un­likely team of peo­ple who knew her to as­sist him. He is so popular, so good at sports, and now so tragic, that they can’t re­sist — not even Doug, even though he is im­me­di­ately creeped out by John’s new call­ing, as well as his New Age-preacher-like de­meanor.

The group bonds dur­ing their first few days in the woods as they at­tempt to in­ves­ti­gate and piece to­gether what must have hap­pened. Friend­ships and ro­mances blos­som. Soon, they re­al­ize they are be­ing watched by some­one who wants to scare them off. Fear of be­ing killed by the same per­pe­tra­tor who went af­ter Erika fur­ther seals their loy­alty to one an­other, and es­pe­cially to John’s vi­sion. Doug, for his part, never buys into any of it. He goes be­cause he wants to be around E. — and soon he wants to be around Tif­fany, Erika’s sex­u­ally ad­vanced best friend. Later, he goes to the woods be­cause he wants to pro­tect the oth­ers from John, who he comes to be­lieve has lost his mind. The kids be­lieve there is evil in the woods, but its na­ture is a mys­tery.

It would not be far off to com­pare the ba­sic sum­mary of Into That Good Night to a Stephen King novel. It bears cer­tain the­matic sim­i­lar­i­ties to It, the 1986 hor­ror novel about seven chil­dren who band to­gether to fight the evil lurk­ing in the sew­ers un­der their town. Kelt­ner’s char­ac­ters are older than King’s by just a few cru­cial years, which makes the var­i­ous sex­ual ex­plo­rations among them read as rel­a­tively age-ap­pro­pri­ate — or at least be­liev­able (un­like an in­fa­mous scene in It, in which a group of elevenyear-olds en­gage in pen­e­tra­tive in­ter­course). In this and other ways, Good Night feels at least a lit­tle like a di­a­logue with It, or per­haps with some larger ideas about kids’ imag­i­na­tions and the power of hor­mones, charm, and fear. The ghosts in this novel are not lit­eral, and if there are mon­sters, it is sim­ply be­cause we meet a lot of peo­ple dur­ing the process of grow­ing up, and some of them have the ca­pac­ity to turn into vi­o­lent so­ciopaths.

The first two sec­tions of Good Night are so good that you might find your­self stay­ing up late to read — per­haps un­der the cov­ers with a flash­light. The book is gen­uinely scary as well as lit­er­ary. Kelt­ner ob­vi­ously re­mem­bers well the con­stant heartache of be­ing four­teen. But the fi­nal sec­tion moves slowly. The ac­tions se­quences are oddly la­bo­ri­ous. At a cer­tain point, Doug’s in­ter­nal mono­logue grows weari­some and repet­i­tive — and Kelt­ner takes a sud­den turn into au­tho­rial sum­mary, which feels rushed as well as un­nec­es­sary. Over­all, Into That

Good Night will suck in hor­ror fans as well as those read­ers more likely to grav­i­tate to tales of ev­ery­day, devil-next-door evil. — Jen­nifer Levin

The en­gross­ing story con­cerns a dis­parate group of ado­les­cents who grav­i­tate to each other — and to the spot in the woods where a mur­der took place — un­der the in­tox­i­cat­ing glow of be­long­ing.

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