Review of Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye

Title: Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone
Author: Stefan Kiesbye
25 September 2012
Penguin Books
horror, historical
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.


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Up for Review: Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone

I don’t celebrate Halloween, although it’s become an increasingly popular party day in South Africa over the past couple of years. We don’t bother with any of the related traditions like pumpkin-carving or trick-or-treating, and it’s not exactly a family holiday, since (in my experience anyway) kids aren’t typically involved. Mostly, it’s just a good excuse for a few people to throw costume parties and host events like the South African Horrorfest.

Here in Ethiopia, I doubt many people know about the holiday, except for some of the expats and the Ethiopians who have lived in the states (a surprisingly large community). However, I have found myself invited to an American birthday/Halloween party, so I need to think of a costume. Preferably something that I can put together using the clothes in my wardrobe, stuff around the house, and maybe a prop that’d be easy to find in the shops, which aren’t very well stocked. Any ideas?

Now would also be a good time to read Your House is On Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye, a Halloween release from Penguin Books. I love the title and the creepy cover. Also, kids are scary.

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye (Penguin Books)

Marketing copy from NetGalley:

This Halloween, Penguin Books is excited to publish Stefan Kiesbye’s spooky new novel YOUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE, YOUR CHILDREN ALL GONE about a haunted German village and the children who are the guardians of its secrets.


Shirley Jackson meets The Twilight Zone in this literary novel of supernatural horror about a village called Hemmersmoor, a place untouched by time and shrouded in superstition.  YOUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE, YOUR CHILDREN ALL GONE is told from the point of view of its children (Christian, Martin, Linde, and Anke) who grow up in a claustrophobic world of ancient superstitions, pagan rituals and wartime secrets.  The town’s main buildings are its grand manor house whose occupants despise the villagers, the small pub whose regulars speak of ghosts, and the old mill no one dares to mention.  This is where the four young friends come of age, in an atmosphere thick with fear and suspicion.  All too soon, their innocent games bring them face-to-face with the village’s darkest secrets – which will never let them go.


This eerily dispassionate, astonishingly assured novel is evocative of Stephen King’s classic short story “Children of the Corn” and infused with the spirit of the Brothers Grimm.

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone was published on 25 September by Penguin Books.

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About the author:
Stefan Kiesbye has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan. Born on the German coast of the Baltic Sea, he studied in Buffalo, New York, and now lives in Portales, New Mexico where he teaches creative writing at Eastern New Mexico University and is the arts editor of Absinthe: New European Writing.  His stories and poems have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and his first book Next Door Lived a Girl won the Low Fidelity Press Novella Award and was praised by Peter Ho Davies as “utterly gripping,” by Charles Baxter as “both laconic and feverish,” and by Robert Olmstead as “maddeningly powerful.” – NetGalley