I snapped up a copy I came across in a used bookstore a few years ago, curious to revisit it from a grownup perspective. The characters were flatter and sort of more cartoonish than I'd remembered, less real and complicated. But the friction between Molly and Michael and their bratty step-sister still sprang to life. I still wanted to leap to the defense of the main characters in the face of blatant parental unfairness and misunderstanding, even though I remembered why it turns out that the step-sister was so awful. I was still struck by how sinister the book made a sunny summer day and how pervasive and urgent the sense of danger was. And that final revelation...even knowing it's coming, it's even more harrowing now, reading it as a mom, than it was then, reading it as a kid. Holy crap.
So this month, in the process of amassing a pile of spooky YA fiction with which to while away the armpit of the year, I looked up Mary Downing Hahn and discovered that she had written several more ghost stories of some renown. (I read The Doll in the Garden as a kid as well, but I remember that one being not so much scary as brutally sad, and making me cry was something I really could not handle in a book at 12.)
I was prepared to be disappointed in Deep, Dark, and Dangerous and The Old Willis Place, especially when the first turned out to be a pretty clear retread of Wait Till Helen Comes in some ways (dangerous body of water - artist parent gets their work smashed up - a teeth-grindingly obnoxious younger character as the antagonist who turns out to be more sympathetic than you might think - blatant parental unfairness and misunderstanding - a younger child in peril). But - somehow - reading that one I still found myself sitting rigid with my shoulders up around my ears. And I totally cried through the conclusion of The Old Willis Place, despite having known exactly where it was going right out of the gate and finding the "rules" a little lacking in internal consistency.
I'm still trying to sort out what it is that makes her books so goddamn scary. She's clearly got her finger on the pulse of something, but what exactly?
I ran across a book review from someone else who loved Wait Till Helen Comes as a kid, and they explained it like so:
Now, in our traditional thinking about ghosts, ghosts are powerful because we imagine death as this moment of really intense psychotherapy, where all your hang-ups just kind of glide away, leaving you able to absorb wisdom and knowledge beyond the boundaries of your previous corporeal existence.
The idea that ghosts don't actually learn anything from being liminal beings from beyond space and time - that they're just the same shitty, petty losers that we all are in life, stuck with the same baggage for eternity - is the most horrific premise I have encountered in a lifetime of horror fandom, and this alone makes Wait Till Helen Comes one of the scariest books that I have ever read.
Which is really well put, but I don't think that's quite it, or at least not for me. I think Wait Till Helen Comes gets its punch more from the genuine, relatable horror of the step-sister's guilty secret, which is the source of her connection with the ghost and (brilliantly) therefore anchors not only all the supernatural action in the book but all the tension and conflict between the characters.
There's an intense, personal, real-world awfulness at the bottom of the story whose scariness is somehow made more real by the ghostly element. The effect reminds me of Pan's Labyrinth, where the heroine's spooky fantasy adventures somehow lend the real-world villain a terrifying mythopoeic shadow he wouldn't have had in a straight-up war story.
There's a fascinating interview with the author where she reveals that two of her friends were murdered when she was in high school and the crime was never solved. No wonder fear of death and ghosts in her books has such a genuine bite. It has long been my feeling that the scariest stories are the ones with a personal hook to them.
Also, interestingly, all of Hahn's books isolate kids from their parents in some way, whether they're set at odds through unfairness, misunderstandings, and anger, parted by death, or some awful combination. There's a practical reason for this - she says as much in another interview; this way the kids have to save the day on their own, right? - but still, even (or maybe especially) as an adult I find it strikes a deeper nerve.
Maybe part of this is about growing up, moving out of your parents' protection, and having to shoulder the responsibility of facing down whatever monsters the real world might throw at you. I think it might be the same psychic context that makes the Other Mother and Other Father in Neil Gaiman's Coraline such deeply uncanny creatures.
I don't know, though - as a not-very-critical 12-year-old reader of spooky novels I would have scoffed at all this as missing the point. Maybe I wouldn't have been equipped to get it, or maybe I've lost sight of the real point since, or maybe at 12 the point is just different. Neil Gaiman mentions that kids tend to read Coraline as a fun adventure and it's the grownups who end up with nightmares. In any case, the scariest nightmares don't fit in tidy little boxes, they're rich and strange and fascinating and defy analysis and maybe they don't have to have a message or a use beyond SCARY.
Still, whether you want to explain SCARY or not, Mary Downing Hahn has it by the tail.