A survey of a few recent horror movies (The Conjuring, Insidious 2, etc.) suggests that hauntings OF the children, BY the children and FOR the children are in. And why not? There’s really nothing creepier than a threat coming either from a ghostly child or toward a living child from some post-mortem parental entity. Three books investigate this disturbing psychological terrain, with shifting degrees of subtlety and terror. All three authors are wise enough to know that they are on shaky spiritual ground putting helpless children at risk, whichever side of the grave the little ones happen to inhabit. The pleasure of reading these books is how such risks are managed . . . and how they inevitably become unmanageable.
John Boyne already has a track record placing his fictional children into grotesquely horrible circumstances. He scored his biggest success in 2004 with the novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (made into a successful film), about two children living literally on the opposite sides of the fence at Auschwitz. This House Is Haunted retreats to the safer haven of Victorian gaslight, where Boyne’s blithe attitude toward historical accuracy can have freer rein. Boyne seems to have as little reverence for literary models as he does for Holocaust scholarship. Stroke by stroke, scare by scare, this latest novel deliberately sets out to beat Henry James at the diabolical game he played in the best ghost story of all time, The Turn of the Screw. Boyne’s mimicry and mischievous corruption of both the form and the content of James’s tale are surely the book’s most uncanny elements. All the Jamesian paraphernalia is there: the clueless governess at the remote country estate who narrates the story; her predecessors who meet violent ends; the nervous bystanders who infuriate both the heroine and the reader with their stupendous reserve. Then there are the governess’ two charges: the sister, mature beyond her years, who is in close touch with the malevolent spirit of the house, and the brother who cannot understand what the hell is going on, so angelic a soul is he. Boyne has not “done his homework” on James so much as chewed on it like a dog. Literate horror fans will take wicked delight in the unpretty sight that ensues—especially the fact that the ghost of Boyne’s house is none other than . . . no, I won’t say it. It’s too horrible to report in this review (take that, Henry James!).
Susan Hill is a more elegant fashioner of Victorian-style ghost stories than Boyne (this is merely an observation, not necessarily a judgment in her favor). Her allure—whether in these two latest novellas or in her famous 1987 novel, The Woman in Black, adapted for the London stage in 1989 and playing there ever since—springs from the serene decorum of her prose, which remains mellifluous even at the most catastrophic turn of events. This set of novellas provides another “safe haven” for those fans who prefer to take their horror with a smooth pint of bitter. As both The Small Hand and Dolly unfold, one well-wrought paragraph after another provides a placid cupboard for hanging up the very fears the stories are meant to summon. Susan Hill has the gift at once to spook and to lull to sleep. Fine bedtime reading, just before turning out the light.
Now, dear reader, turn it back on. I mean, right now. You’re going to need it. The perilous pleasures and imperiled children that await you in John Lindqvist’s magnificent collection of stories, Let the Old Dreams Die, require constant illumination. The darkness of this writer’s imagination is profound, the terrors manifold and the writing merciless in its reckoning of every human being’s worst fears, groundless hopes and bizarre capacity to love against all mortal odds. It would be tempting to call Lindqvist a philosopher, so relentless are the questions his characters ask about the meaning and the meaninglessness of our existence. He’s more than that, though, for the philosophical component of each story is beautifully harnassed to a narrative force which impels events forward at terrific speed, always homing onto to the intersection where goodness is assaulted by death, where both goodness and love must make a choice whether to prevail or succumb. There are worse things than death in Lindqvist’s world: emptiness of heart, to name one. In this collection, the Vampire and the Zombie—and the children who heroically attend them—return from his two most famous novels (Let the Right One In and Handling the Undead). What a gift from Lindqvist to his millions of fans! Here are his most famous deathless creatures, back again from the dead, this time authorized by love to let the right death in, either for themselves or for those whom they have tormented. Having trouble handling the dead? This Halloween, you’ll have no better ally than John Ajvide Lindqvist.