Review: "Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone" by Stefan Kiesbye
BY JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Sunday, December 16, 2012
12/16/12 at 3:22 AM
I still remember the first time I read Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery," and the icy chill I felt as the events of this now-famous tale ever so subtly shifted from the pastoral to the shocking.
I experienced that same sensation in the opening pages of Stefan Kiesbye's novel, "Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone," when a young boy named Christian is determined to see an attraction titled "Rico's Journey Through Hell," part of a carnival that has set up its tents near the German town of Hemmersmoor.
The man running the attraction tells Christian he must bring the soul of his sister to gain admittance, and that he can obtain this object by repeating a certain nine words while the girl is sleeping.
Christian, however, goes to an extreme, suffocating his sister with a laundry bag. He gets the tour - which is obviously a sham, even though Rico insists that the big black barrel he lets Christian peer into "sits right about hell's entrance." Then, when Rico demands payment, the 7-year-old Christian hands him the laundry bag.
When it comes to taking souls, the boy says, "Words are not enough."
But the words novelist Kiesbye uses to tell this tale - and the dozens of other vignettes that make up "Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone" - are more than enough to create an unnerving sense of dread.
Kiesbye's book is a series of linked stories told from the perspective of four young residents of this town of Hemmersmoor - Christian, Martin, Anke and Linde. Little information is given as to exactly where Hemmersmoor is, other than Germany or a place where German is spoken.
Neither does Kiesbye fix the action within a certain time period, other than that it's some time after the conclusion of a war. That is appropriate in the early stories, which tell of incidents when the primary characters were children, for whom concepts of time and history are at best unimportant, if not meaningless.
But this ambiguity also lends a slightly surreal atmosphere to the stories, as characters talk of witches and spirits and curses and react with startling violence to incidents that challenge their superstitions - just the way they might in some fable or fairy tale.
The children themselves encounter people and events that could be otherworldly, and stumble upon secrets - the sort of secrets that could fuel any number of Gothic terror tales. Yet the carefully controlled, almost clinical way in which the narrators describe these things is no different from the way they describe the unambiguous acts of violence they commit, that are done to them and that they see visited upon others in the community.
The unsettling mix of the fantastic and the brutally real continues throughout the book. Linde enters the maze on the estate of the nearby manor house, where her father works as a gardener, and makes a discovery that seems fantastic, but the consequences of this are, for Linde, personally horrific. A beggar's curse seems to result in the deaths of many children and infants - or is that just the result of the less magical evils of adultery and incest?
And that gets to the heart of "Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone." Rather than an almost random series of dark and disturbing tales, Kiesbye's book is a searching and troubling examination of the persistence of human evil - how easy it can be to allow one's worst impulses to rule one's actions, and how difficult it is to rein in those impulses once freed.
It's not a book for everyone, certainly. Kiesbye's dry tone might be off-putting to some, but it's exactly the voice needed. And Kiesbye is able to use that calm voice and clear prose to achieve some masterfully chilling effects.
Kiesbye provides a hint of an explanation as to why the people of Hemmersmoor are the way they are. And maybe it does explain it all. Or maybe it's as Rico, the carnival barker with the oddly colored eyes, says it is: "Hell's entrance is in Hemmersmoor."
‘YOUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE, YOUR CHILDREN ALL GONE’
By Stefan Kiesbye
Original Print Headline: Dark secrets in a strange small town
James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478