“Hell’s entrance is in Hemmersmoor,” says a carnie near the front of this wicked novel. By book’s end, readers will not only believe it, but also begin to wonder if similar dark portals exist in their hometowns, too—such is the quiet, unnerving effect of Kiesbye’s Brothers Grimm–like prose. A group of childhood friends return to their small German village for a funeral, setting off a collection of stories culled from their suppressed memories: tales of brutal witch hunts, ghosts, incest, infanticide, and curses, each yarn spun by Kiesbye with a jarringly offhand innocence. Big, disturbing moments are tossed within blocks of text as if they are business as usual, and it’s just this unceremonious style that fills each page with menace. The tender, terrifying, capricious nature of children is the repeated theme; add to it the occasional stunning image (two lovers melting through an iced-over pond to be frozen into statues) makes this an episodic, poetic, nightmarish offspring of Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place (1956) and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962). —Daniel Kraus
Infidelity, bullying, savage beatings, sororicide, curses, murder and the devil himself all come into play in this quietly savage meditation on evil.
In an age when “torture porn” still makes regular returns to the multiplex every Halloween, it’s worth being reminded that novelists, especially gifted ones, can make the trespasses we inflict on others just as ghastly as any chain-saw massacre. German-born novelist Kiesbye (Next Door Lived a Girl, 2005) gives it his all in a series of interconnected stories that smack of shades of Shirley Jackson and Stephen King. With a title lightly copied from an old Tom Waits growler (“Your house is on fire, children are alone,” from the song “Jockey Full of Bourbon”), the novel opens on a present-day funeral in the frigid community of Hemmersmoor, a seemingly pastoral village in northern Germany. Christian, who fled the village for years, has returned with childhood friends Alex, Martin and Linde to bury their companion, Anke. But it’s soon obvious that all is not what it seems when Linde spits on her friend’s grave and murmurs, “I just hope she can see me from hell.” From this moment, the lives of these little monsters unfold, each chapter read by a different narrator. Christian unveils a horrible confession of a murder committed to gain admission to a carnival tent. Martin tells of a botched festival that ends in the communal murder of a foreigner and her children. Alex dares a classmate to try his luck in the frigid waters of a frozen pond. The narration, as with all the stories, is both clinically dispassionate and chilling. “We threw his shoes and his clothes after him that night, along with the fifty marks. We made a solemn pact to keep quiet forever,” Kiesbye writes. Not always clear, but nearly always startling.
A devious intimation of homegrown terrors likely to keep readers awake long after closing time has come and gone.