The Night School (by Michael Paine)

The Night SchoolThe Night School by Michael Paine
Publication: Berkeley (2006), Paperback, 336 pages
Date: 2006
ISBN:  0425209164 / 9780425209165
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I’m afraid that this is not a positive review.

There are plenty of books out there that make me feel certain ways about being a writer.  American Gods by Neil Gaiman, for example.  Or Small Gods by Terry Pratchett.  Or The Strange Adventures of Ranger Girl by Tim Pratt.  These books all make me feel as though I’ll never be able to reach to levels of talent and ability that these folks have.

But then there are books like The Night School, by Michael Paine.

Summarizing the plot of The Night School is simple.  There’s an old abandoned high school in the center of the ghetto, and a large academic corporation (Education Enterprises Corporation, or EdEntCo) buys it with the intention of establishing a high end private academy for the richest and the brightest in the country.  What, I hear you say, could possibly go wrong with that?  Well, as the locals unsurprisingly knew, the old school was haunted, and the ghost that haunts it wants its revenge, and will go to any lengths to get it.  What follows is a mashup of drug use, starkly described sex (in staccato sentences, no less), robots possessed by ghosts, and more dead high school students than you’d find in any 80’s slasher pic.

Determining who the main characters are is more of a challenge.  For awhile, we think it might be D. Michael Canning, Principle.  Then it might be Matt Larrimer, teacher.  Or maybe Alexis Morgan, student.  It’s hard to say, especially when the novel’s point of view often shifts with dizzying speed — at one point I counted three POV shifts in a single sentence.  While some authors, such as Stephen King and John Irving, can pull off the omniscient point of view quite well, it’s hard to do, and most of the time it just ends up confusing.  In some places in this book, I had to re-read passages four or five times just to get a firm grasp on who, exactly, was supposed to be the POV character in a particular scene.

Grammar and punctuation errors litter the prose, making the reading all the more difficult.  Consider, for example, what to do when you have a line of dialog that spreads over two or more paragraphs, like this:

“It’s like this,” Bob said.  “I just hate you.

“Further more, I find your whining particularly oppressive.”

At the end of the first line of dialog, you do not include the closing quote mark; this indicates that the character is not finished speaking.  Unfortunately, the editors who put this book together failed to remember this basic rule, resulting in at least two important conversations that ended up confusing me completely because I couldn’t figure out who was supposed to be speaking when.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing of value in this novel.  Paine is good at evoking a mood in a physical location and bringing the setting to life, giving the old high school a certain malevolence that lingers in each passage.  I’m also impressed with Paine’s attention to historical detail, which lends a small amount of authenticity to the overall story of the ghost and its origins.

However, a mostly incoherent plot and unsympathetic characters make this book more of a chore than a joy to read.  Stock characters, including a painfully embarrassing stereotyped “Magical Negro“, wander on and off the scene, occasionally interacting with each other, changing motivations and personalities as events warrant.  Major events happen and are not referred to again.  The climax is weak, and the viewpoint characters present in the final scenes are only peripherally present to the events, distancing the reader drastically from the event.  Far too often, events are simply narrated to the reader, instead of bringing the readers in and engaging them.

As a writer, I feel like every story has something that can teach me.  From this book, I can learn something about evoking malevolent scenery and imparting mood to location.  But more importantly, I can take away the knowledge that my talent at building characters and plots is superior; and if this book can be published, then by gum, so can mine.

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