Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone

The Short Version: The village of Hemmersmoor feels like something vaguely out of time, held back by superstition.  Four children come of age shortly after World War II in a small society full of death and distrust, complete with witches, ghosts, curses, a house on the hill, and murder most foul.

The Review: First things first, the cover.  You can’t see it, unfortunately, in any proper cover image put out by Penguin, but there’s a light overlay on the picture of the girl that (when tilted to the light) reads “if you tell on me, you’re dead” and it is spooky as hell.  Something about that cover image was enough to intrigue me and I’m damn glad I managed to slip this book into my October schedule just under the wire.

The back cover copy references Shirley Jackson and Stephen King – both of those analogies are correct, although Jackson moreso than King.  We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a definite inspiration here.  But there’s also a grander tradition at work here, stretching back to stories like those of Charles Brockden Brown – a name I haven’t thought of since college, but whose tales of Carwin the Biloquist seem (to my memory) to inhabit the same universe as this collection.

The thing is, these tales are set in Germany.  But, for whatever jingoistic or imaginative reasons, I pictured them as being set in the States.  The Carwin stories, The Village, even stories like those by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Washington Irving – the chapters of this novel (each one a separate short story, really) would not be out of place in Western Massachusetts or the Hudson Valley in the 1800s.  Indeed, the family from up on the hill and their black limousine feel distinctly like intruders from outer space or something: the technology stands in stark relief, even though there are plenty of other cars in the book.  Change a few words here or there and this book could take place anytime between the late 1700s and today – which, perhaps, makes it all the creepier.

Creepy is, in fact, the word I would use to describe this novel.  It isn’t scary, not by any means – but it sets the hairs on the back of your neck on edge and there’s just something deeply creepy about the whole thing.  Creepy in the way that you feel standing in a cemetery in late October – where your rational mind tells you there’s nothing to be scared of or creeped out by… but you’re deeply out of sorts nonetheless.  Beginning with the cover, the first image of the book you experience, you’re unsettled.  And then Kiesbye drops in a moment at the tail end of the first story with such matter-of-factness that it almost passes you by: a woman and her children and her husband and their home are brutally set upon by a mob of townspeople at the village Thanksgiving feast.  She’s an outsider, having lived in the town for only a few years, and she’s accused of having used human flesh in the stew she made – because it turned people’s tongues black.  There’s no hue and cry – Kiesbye says it simply and calmly that the townspeople turn on her and her children and then head up to her home and kill the husband with an ax before burning the place down.

From there on out, each and every story ends with some moment of horror – siblings murder each other, pranks go horribly awry, domestic violence, incest, rape, etc.  One of the stories at the very end reveals that the town could only be situated in Germany (I won’t ruin it, as it was easily the most shocking moment of the entire novel).  There are rumors, whispers really, of revenants and witches and ghosts… but no clear sign of anything other than the evils that men do.  This town, existing in the 1940s and 50s and even into the 60s, with such backwards provincial beliefs is perhaps the scariest part of it all.

The downside of the book is that it does feel a little slight, when you finish it.  The bumps and chills are terrific while you’re reading it but it seems to fade away like mist on a moor shortly thereafter.  It blends together with the eerie worlds created by stronger novels, like Of Bees & Mist or anything written by the authors previously mentioned.  There’s a lack of true definition here that could’ve made for a stronger experience.  The lost heir in the hedge maze, the abandoned mill, the abandoned train tracks – all of it adds up to a whole lot of atmosphere and the terrible things that happen are certainly terrible BUT it never quite coalesces and so the atmosphere is all you’re left with.  Now, with a superstorm bearing down and Halloween less than 48 hours away, atmosphere can go a long way.  But it doesn’t go all the way, if you know what I’m saying.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.  I really genuinely wish I could rate this higher – and in the moment of reading it, I was planning to.  But having put it down only a short while ago and to already feel it fading away, leaving me less-than-satisfied… I can’t help but show my disappointment.  I believe it was a truly creepy and well played novel, good for trotting out to read a story or two from at this time of year, but I can’t see it captivating anyone for much longer than the time it takes to read it.

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