Last Saturday, the Wall Street Journal’s often excellent weekend Review section featured author Stefan Kiesbye presenting his five best books about the dark side of small towns. I’ve always enjoyed those WSJ five best columns (I did one myself once, in fact, about psychological crime novels) and have found some really good books that way.
But my main point is that the column reminded me of Kiesbye. I wanted to write about him a few months ago and never got the chance because of all the election fuss. I read his novel last year, Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone. Very well-written, well-imagined and creepy stuff about a group of children in a small, isolated village in Germany after the war. It’s a hard book to describe and I wouldn’t want to give too much away, especially since I had the pleasure of stumbling over it in a bookshop and reading it without knowing a thing about it, and it was all the more powerful for that. It even kept me awake a couple of nights.
Basically, it’s a series of linked short stories about the kids in this town and their relationships with the local adults and with each other. Each story begins normally enough and then descends into violence, horror and even the supernatural. It’s all so plausible that it makes you shiver, and the underlying theme of generational sin and culture rises up like smoke until it permeates and blackens every page.
In its eerie atmosphere, it reminded me of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, a novel I’ve loved since I was a boy. That book has dated a little as others have imitated it, but it still sends a chill up my spine, even more powerfully than Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which is more often recognized as a classic in the ghost genre. Kiesbye’s novel has that same creepy wrongness about it — an atmosphere that’s very difficult to capture. The novel is also reminiscent of the recent film The White Ribbon, but while that film was haunting and troubling too, it ultimately subscribed to the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy of German history, wherein everything that came before Nazism can be viewed as a cause of Nazism. Your House is on Fire is smarter and more subtle than that, and therefore more difficult to dismiss after you’ve finished it.
Anyway, if you’re up for — not scares exactly — but just an eerie sense of something terribly wrong, something uncanny, something wicked this way coming, I very much recommend Kiesbye’s book. It’s a scary read with art and smarts — very hard to come by nowadays.