Title: Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone
Author: Stefan Kiesbye
Published: 25 September 2012
Publisher: Penguin Books
Genre: horror, historical
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Stefan Kiesbye’s short horror novel is composed of a series of intertwined stories told from the perspectives of four children who grow up in the tiny German village of Hemmersmoor – the Devil’s Moor. The place lives up to its name in a quietly evil sort of way, with its secrets, superstitions, child abuse and murder. The people of Hemmersmoor do horrible things to each other, and the disturbing thing is that most of these sins seem almost normal and do not stop village life from carrying on as usual.
In the opening chapter, the five main characters – Christian, Martin, Alex, Linde and Anke – are no longer children but the old people of the village. Four of them are gathering for Anke’s funeral, and they are the only ones there to acknowledge her passing. The village has changed drastically – it’s become a quaint little tourist attraction, scrubbed clean and smoothed over. Our four protagonists avoid speaking about each other’s horrible secrets, but the hatred coiling between them is obvious.
From the first chapter we leap back about 60 years to see these characters as children in a village that we soon learn is frighteningly insular and bigoted. The language of the narrative suggests that these stories aren’t being told by children, but by adults looking back on their childhoods. It is not something I’d want to remember, precisely because their tales make for good horror – a family of newcomers is beaten to death by the residents; a boy agrees to capture his sister’s soul in exchange for a glimpse of hell; a girl’s father gives her a face full of scars when she causes him to lose his job.
The horror here is characterised by scary children, terrible secrets and the menace of a small parochial village. Lives are casually ruined or ended and petty grievances lead to violent acts of vengeance. Each tale has its own plot, but the novel as a whole does not, and simply observes the main characters as they grow older. You see them with all their growing pains, but even this is often twisted. For example, the old mill is said to be haunted by the ghosts of the miller and his daughters, who were raped and killed by Swedish soldiers. This gets turned into a sex game, where teenage boys play the soldiers and ‘rape’ the girls playing the miller’s daughters. In an earlier story, a boy cringes while his father gives him tips on sex and girls, knowing that his father has impregnated his sister.
There’s a touch of the supernatural to some of these stories, but that’s not what makes them unsettling. If anything it just emphasises the fact that the supernatural has nothing on the malice of living people. You won’t find it easy to empathise with any of the main characters. If you’re sympathetic toward someone in one story, he or she will disgust you in another.
As the novel progresses, the supernatural element fades, and we’re left with miserable people doing cruel things to each other in their miserable little village. It becomes less creepy and more mundane, but no less tragic or unfair.
Despite the often abhorrent content however, the novel was a pleasure to read. Its elegant, quietly detailed writing flows as easily as fresh blood, and I flew through it. I would have preferred the subtle supernatural element to last throughout the book, because it was much creepier at the start than towards the end. I also found the characters much more disturbing as children than as adults. But that’s my only real complaint. Of the books I’ve read in my recent search for good horror, I enjoyed reading this one the most.