Book Review - Night Society by Ambrose Ibsen
Genuinely spooky tale undermined by some seriously unlikeable main characters.
Question: Can you enjoy a book when you don’t really like any of the characters in it?
I’ve posed the question several times in the past in various reviews, and I find that it is very pertinent with Night Society. In some cases, the answer to that question is a resounding yes (I really didn’t care for any of the characters in The Girl on the Train, but was heavily impacted by the book), but in other cases the lack of a likeable lead really detracts from the story. Sadly, Night Society mostly falls in the latter category.
Now that I’m running my own horror based review site, I’m tending to read more scary stories, with decidedly mixed results. Which is the nature of the beast, regardless of genre. And since I read for entertainment, I don’t necessarily seek out only five star works. Sometimes bad can be good, and variety is always a healthy thing. And besides, sometimes a five star book is just too heavy, when I’m just looking for some light and easy escapist entertainment.
The skin on the back of Russell’s neck was standing in little bumps; had a blind man pressed his fingers to it, he might have read out the braille for “terrified”.
Fortunately, while I disliked the characters in Night Society, which ultimately impacted my overall appreciation of the book, I still was generally entertained with the ghost story aspect. It actually managed to make me feel a bit of dread and unease, which so few horror novels ever actually do for me. Of course, I was also drinking whiskey and smoking a cigar while reading late at night on the back patio. So conditions were ripe for a horror book to actually generate a bit of horror. And a bit of tipsiness, but that’s beside the point…
As with all my reviews, I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum. If it’s not mentioned in the official plot synopsis, I will do my level best to avoid mentioning it here. After all, you can’t be scared if you know all the surprises, right?
And since we’re on the topic of the official synopsis, is it an accurate portrayal of the actual story being told? Actually, that’s a resounding yes. No publisher misdirection or partially true comparisons here…what it says you get IS exactly what you get. I find that, with some books, the publisher adds a little extra zing to a synopsis that generally doesn’t quite come to fruition. Or maybe there’s some misdirection so you think you are getting one thing…and end up with something else. Since I’m not reading a mystery book, I can appreciate the straightforward approach to telling me what I’m getting myself into.
In actuality, the whole book is pretty straightforward. Told from the third-person perspective of three different men, Night Society wastes no time in getting the ball rolling. The first main character we meet is Mike, a rolling stone slacker who works the night shift at a 24hr laundromat, who dreams up the idea of the titular night society while wandering around town at night on his night off. Of the three protagonists, Mike is the most palatable, as he is a mostly decent guy…albeit a decent guy with somewhat dark interests, no drive, no goals, and no life progression. Sadly, he’s the best we get…
Jim is our second main character, a self-loathing smartass who works the night shift as a nurse in a run-down nursing home. But while Mike not be so bad, Jim is, for lack of a better word, a piece of shit. Unapologetically rude to his coworkers, putting the bare minimum of effort at work, and utterly disinterested in essentially anything at all, he’s an angry slacker with absolutely zero redeeming qualities.
Somewhere in his years, Jim had become afflicted with an intractable case of fuck-it-all-itis.
Rounding out our terrible triumvirate is Russell, an anti-social hermit who works the closing shift at a late night video store. While Mike fills out the “middle man” category, and Jim is the raging asshole, Russell is the quiet nerdy guy who hasn’t matured past his high-school years. With his long unkempt hair, mangy beard, dingy van, and fast food diet, Russell is no spring chicken, preferring to reminisce about the good old days of high school rather than make an effort in the here and now.
And that’s it for main characters. Supporting characters are essentially nil, so the entire book is basically spent with these three wonderful people. And look, I’m not trying to be harsh. Who hasn’t slacked off at work from time to time? Who hasn’t been aimless at some point in their lives? I like MMA, beer, and tabletop role-playing games just fine, just like these guys. I’ve worked at a late night video store, and driven around my town late at night with no real direction in mind. And hey, we can’t deny it, slackers are everywhere. So it’s not foreign to have one be a main character. But to have three aimless characters with no real redeeming qualities, no forward progression (hell, not even a desire for forward progression), and no real spark, negatively impacts the book. Unlikeable characters are a thing (Cersei Lannister anyone?), and can help drive narrative, but when none of your protagonists are worth your time, it’s hard to find investment in the story being told. After all, if I don’t care about what happens to the characters, then why should I keep reading about what happens to the characters?
Fortunately, what Night Society lacks in likeable leads it makes up for with the actual spooky parts of the story. The abandoned house on Andover Street, where the first meeting of the Night Society takes place, is very nearly a character itself. Ambrose Ibsen does a pretty solid job of describing the house and making it seem foreboding. And as for the horror elements themselves, they are rendered rather well, offering up some actual dread and terror. Like most horror stories, the spookiness starts out small and gradually builds, making things worse and worse for our main characters. While nothing in Night Society is inherently new or fresh, Ambrose Ibsen somehow manages to make those familiar things unsettling, which can only bode well for his future works. And while the origin of the evil in the house isn’t as robust as it could be, the way in which it manifests itself is pretty effective. Ultimately, it was the spooky parts of the story that kept me invested, long after I ceased to care about what happened to our three protagonists.
Then, a conversation with a former high school teacher in town yielded rumors of another death – that of a junkie who’d taken up residence in the abandoned house only to be found there months later by wandering Mormons.
There’s really not much else I can say about Night Society. The writing is serviceable, there are bits of humor littered throughout, and it’s not watered down for a younger audience. It’s also not particularly gruesome, and there’s no sexy bits, so really the scares and rated R language are the worst of it. As a horror story, it’s effective enough, so long as you don’t care about what happens to the people in it. It’s also a pretty quick read, so if you want a horror quickie, this one could fit the bill. Despite the issues I had with Night Society, I’m certainly interested in what Ambrose Ibsen writes next, and how he grows his craft.
3 out of 5 lazy and good-for-nothing stars!