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Off the Shelves: Harrowing haunts will entertain readers of ‘Your House’

POSTED: October 21, 2012 7:00 a.m.

As my favorite holiday, Halloween, is swiftly approaching, I know I’m not the only one getting in the mood for spooky stories and fright-fest films.

While recent movies such as “ParaNorman” and “Frankenweenie” appeal to the childish trick-or-treater in me, I’ve also had a craving for some more mature macabre literature.

Stefan Kiesbye’s “Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone” is just the Halloween treat to fit that taste, right from the moment you lay eyes on its “Children of the Corn” -reminiscent cover of a pale-eyed girl staring out at you.

Delightfully dark and cringingly creepy, “Your House is on Fire” is an intertwining of narratives from four childhood friends growing up in a small German town, where superstition and unnatural occurrences thrive.

After reuniting in their elder years to attend the funeral of one of the four, the characters recount episodes of their coming of age, of inexplicable happenings among the villagers they grew up alongside, and of the dark secrets that cursed each of their families.

From a carnival-style Journey Through Hell attraction, to a ghost-seeing schizophrenic, to the local child-abducting spirit called the Black Miller, the tales combine both a Brothers Grimm-style atmosphere with the horrors of just being human: surviving the cruelty, jealousy, selfishness and hatred that rivals, neighbors and even loved ones so often subject each other to.

Kiesbye does an excellent job of distinguishing the individual tones of the four main characters: Martin, Christian, Linde and Anke. There is a clear division between the two children who are more involved in their anecdotes — and they usually do horrible, irredeemable acts — and the two who are more like bystanders, either witnessing events or even being victims at the hands of others.

It is sometimes difficult to sympathize with any of them; they all eventually succumb to their weaknesses and fears, which cause them to inevitably hurt, or even bring about the deaths of others around them.

Yet one cannot completely detest them either; they are simply human, motivated by their darker, more intense emotions, facing the same malevolent mirror that we all have faced at one time or another.

I felt like the secondary characters were not as well defined as they could have been. All of the mothers in the town are nearly identical: constantly paranoid about their husbands being stolen away by other women, distrustful of all their neighbors and not particularly “motherly” toward their children.

All of the fathers are cold, distant and abusive toward their children (physically or sexually), and the “rich” family who lives in the Big House overlooking the town are the typical snobs with skeletons in their closet; people who all the poorer townsfolk despise but aim to please in hopes of gaining their favor.

While this is reflective of how the separate social classes would act in that place and time, it unfortunately made most of the secondary characters blur together and not as memorable as the four main protagonists.

Despite this, Kiesbye’s storytelling is superb, and his writing is beautiful while being spine-tingling. Every scene he describes is clear, creating vivid, haunting imagery that keeps a consistent mood throughout the book.

Without being campy or over-the-top, “Your House is on Fire” will satisfy anyone’s hankering for Halloween eeriness.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? Email her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com/life


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