I may not have got the full creepy quotient with my previous RIP read, Joyland, but Your House is On Fire Your Children All Gone has more than made up for it.
With echoes of Shirley Jackson and the Brothers Grimm, Stefan Kiesbye has created a series of interconnected stories that culminate in a terrifyingly detached meditation on the nature of evil.
A group of adults – Martin, Christian, Alex and Linde – have returned to the village of Hemmersmoor in rural Germany to bury one of their childhood friends, Anke. Growing up in Hemmersmoor has left it’s mark on them all, being as it was a village out of time, shrouded in superstition and rumour and shadowed by true evil. There are hints that the village may be cursed and as their childhood stories are recounted, we are reminded that true horror comes more from the things that humans can inflict upon each other than from any other-worldy entity.
Each chapter is narrates by one of the friends and each of their stories seems to be vying with the last to be as cruel as possible. An entire family is murdered over a pie-making contest. A woman is found to have buried nine babies in her flower pots. A young boy kills his sister to trade her soul for a glimpse of hell at a carnival stall. Minor cruelties and jealous tricks have disastrous consequences resulting in death and destruction. Each chapter leads into the next, building up a picture of a village gone wrong, a trail of breadcrumbs leading to the dark heart of the story.
Comparison’s have been made to Children of the Corn, but in Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, it is not just the children who are cruel. Everyone is cruel. The children commit horrible acts with an odd sense of detachment and seem surprised if there are consequences resulting from their actions. Yet their parents are no better, fostering distrust and hatred based on rumour and heresay and being abusive towards the children who are then abusive in return. No one seems to leave the village and if they do nothing good comes of it, so with no outside influences, jealousies and resentments foster and fester through the generations.
There is a suggestion that the village itself may have something to do with the behaviour of its inhabitants;
Time is of no importance. I was young and didn’t know a thing about time. There had never been a different one in Hemmersmoor. In our village time didn’t progress courageously. In our village she limped a bit and got lost more than once
It the village cursed? Have the years of incest and in-breeding meant that the village is eating itself from within? Or has the abandoned camp on the outskirts of the town cast it’s unspeakable shadow over everyone’s lives?
What lay beyond the factory, outside our village, we all have dutifully forgotten….We had nothing to do with it.
The sense of detachment in the children is carried over in to the writing style. The prose is stark and to the point. There is no indication of where the next horror will come from and as such, I read the book with a constant sense of dread. Murders are described in the same manner as meals, the death of a baby conveyed in one simple sentence. There is little embellishment and a lot is left to our imagination.
Her cries, her begging, her shrill voice didn’t help Helga one bit and stopped no one and when the village was done with her and her five children, the bodies shapeless, resembling five small and one large bag filled with rage, sticks and stones, my father led the way to Helga’s house.
Kiesbye has channeled the anxieties and heartbreaks of early adolescence to create a fearful, chilling atmosphere through all these stories, but what is missing is a plot. The book is all atmosphere, unrelenting atmosphere, but to what end? It’s hard to tell and it’s also hard to read a book where there is no one to empathise with, no one redeeming character to give the reader room to breathe.
On the other hand, This may also be the novel’s real strength. It is a Grimm’s Fairy Tale for adults and in Hemmersmoor, Kiesbye has created a strange and nightmarish place which has in turn shaped its inhabitants into strange and often nightmarish people. By the end, the four remaining friends seem to be trying to put the past behind them, but whether or not Hemmersmoor will loosen its grip is another story altogether.
I’m grateful for the fact that Your House is On Fire, Your Children All Gone was short, as it was relentless but Kiesbye has crafted a subversive fairy tale, where home is not a refuge, but somewhere to escape from. Preferably alive.
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