Like most people, I have a list of things I’m afraid of. I’m afraid of syringes and IV needles, because of a traumatising experience I had the first time I was hospitalised for dengue (this was during the nineties; they required a lot more blood tests then than they do now). I’m also afraid of falling: this is distinct from a fear of heights, because I’m usually okay with heights as long as I’m relatively sure I won’t fall. I also have a deep-seated fear of being alone: not in the sense of being physically alone, but in the sense that I will have no one to turn to when I need them.
Another personal, deep-seated fear—one which I’m sure I share with a great many other people—is the fear of losing my mind. When I first found out that Alzheimer’s disease was genetically heritable the first thing I did was check my family’s history, to see if there was a chance I’d wind up with the same problem. The check revealed a tendency towards hypertension, diabetes, kidney and bladder stones, and cancer, but—thankfully—none towards Alzheimer’s. I know that having a history of cancer on both sides of the family should be cause for concern, but cancer can be cured, if caught early enough—it can be “beaten”, as so many of those who recuperate from cancer often say. I have not heard of anyone who has “beaten” Alzheimer’s: only stories of people who learn to cope as they lose their loved ones slowly, one small piece at a time. To me, that is terrifying to me beyond belief, whether I am the loved one losing someone else to the disease, or I am the one sick with Alzheimer’s and losing everything around me.
Losing one’s mind also happens to be a common trope in horror fiction—and, in my opinion, one that isn’t used nearly often enough in contemporary horror. I suppose this is due to the influence of film and television: visual cues and carefully-timed music are enough to scare an audience, and some writers think that that’s all they need (sans music) to scare readers, too. Perhaps that is all some readers need: after all, a reader’s preferred flavour of horror depends entirely on what they think is scary, and for some, it’s enough to read about a serial killer roaming around with an axe or a chainsaw to give them the shivers.
But it takes more than that to genuinely impress me. Scaring me isn’t difficult: I have a sufficiently active imagination that I can scare myself sometimes. But being able to say something deeper with a horror story, being able to use the genre’s license to investigate humanity’s darker facets: that’s something that will impress me.
Fortunately, there are no serial killers—chainsaw-wielding or otherwise—in Justin Evans’ A Good and Happy Child. It focuses on the protagonist and narrator, George Davies, who has a major problem that’s causing his marriage to fall apart: he can’t bring himself to touch his child. In a desperate attempt to save his marriage, he seeks help from a psychologist, who gives him a stack of notebooks so he can explore a certain past event that appears to be the underlying cause for all his current problems. In these notebooks, George tells a tale that could either be the result of a deeply troubled mind—or the cry of a soul trapped in a battle between good and evil.
The first thing about this novel that really made me sit up and take notice was the prose. It’s been described as “reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History”, and since I like The Secret History rather a lot, I figured anything with a similar quality of prose couldn’t be a bad thing. I was, however, rather skeptical: plenty of blurbs will compare a novel with another, more popular counterpart, only for the comparison to apply only in the shallowest way possible.
I’m pleased to note, however, that the comparison of Evans’ prose in A Good and Happy Child to Tarrt’s writing isn’t entirely misplaced. Take a look at this example, which comes from very early in the novel:
A woman in a black overcoat and fancy shoes clopped toward me. She carried a bulky shopping bag, and she brushed me as she passed so I was forced to catch my balance on the cast-iron rail. I opened by mouth to say something, but as she walked by, I realized I could not see her face, just a blur where a face should be, and my mouth hung open with the obnoxious Watch it stuck there. The street went quiet, the way it can in New York. I sank onto the stoop, with your notebooks in my hand, remembering rotten things.
The above excerpt has echoes of Tartt’s writing in The Secret History, but it shades much darker. Even in the most disturbing scenes of The Secret History Tartt’s prose has a luminosity to it that casts gentler shadows on the characters and their role in the plot’s darkest events. One could label the characters as wicked sybarites who do what they do just because they can, but it’s hard to think of them that way; Tartt’s prose limns them with a certain kind of fragility that engenders feelings of tenderness and pity. In short, it’s hard to hate them, even though what they do is absolutely deplorable.
Evans’ prose is a rather different beast, even if it has a similar cadence and tendency towards a more poetic turn of phrase. Most notably, it has none of the gentle light that illumines Tartt’s prose. Instead, Evans chooses to go for the shadows, and stay there, as this selection illustrates:
What is the reaction a person should have, seeing a strange face staring at them in the shower?
I knew what I was seeing was impossible. In retrospect I could say my brain went off the rails; I felt a sickening lurch as my senses heaved out of their tracks, and I trembled despite the fact that I was standing in a hot shower. I felt myself teeter. I turned and balanced myself on the cool tile. I closed my eyes and said to myself, “When you turn around, it will be gone.” I opened my eye. The face continued to stare.
My breath returned to my lungs. I let out a scream, and I fell.
The scene above happens fairly early in the novel, and it sets the tone for other, similar scenes. However, this scene, and the others in the book like it, are not in and of themselves “scary” in the way a scene in a horror movie or TV show or even novel might be. They might create a certain tingling in the spine, but they don’t exactly encourage the reader to put the book down and hide under the covers.
No, what’s really scary about this novel is the way it shows how adults think they “know better” than a child, and don’t really listen to what that child is trying to tell them. Throughout most of the book, I was terrified for the child-George, because despite knowing he survived to adulthood, the things that were done to him, ostensibly for his own benefit, were frightening even to an adult such as myself.
Before I go on, I must say that I have no experience with interacting with people who have such severe mental health issues that they actually hallucinate. I don’t know what I would do if I had to care for such a person, what sort of actions it would drive me to. Therefore, I can’t say that I completely sympathise or oppose what the various adults in this novel did to young George.
What I do know is that everything they did was frightening. From psychiatrists who are overzealous with medicating their patients; to “therapy assistants” who don’t really care one whit about their charges; to religious nutcases who think “a past life as a deacon” actually qualifies one to conduct an exorcism—I was constantly resisting the urge to yell at the book, because I kept thinking all these adults were idiots and didn’t really care about George himself; they only cared about their own opinions and ideas. They might have listened to him when he told them about their problems, but they weren’t really hearing what he was trying to say, and instead only heard what they wanted to hear. This wasn’t about “religion vs. science”, or “faith vs. fact”: it was about adults not listening to a child because he is just a child. And that made me simultaneously very angry, and very scared. After all, such people exist in the world—how many children are out there, who, like George, just want someone to really hear them, and are not given the treatment or help they need because so many adults are essentially deaf to anything that comes out of the mouth of a child?
In the meantime, George is forced to confront his troubles more or less on his own. He tries to make sense of what’s happening to him, but because he’s only eleven he latches onto the idea that makes the most sense to him, even if it doesn’t make the most sense to everyone else. I can’t say I blame him, either: after all, he’s just a child—a precocious child, to be sure, but still just a child. It should have been the responsibility of the adults around him to do their best by him, to really listen to him and help him understand what’s happening to him, but that’s not what they do. Instead, they are blinded by their own preferred understanding of the world, and in the end damage George more deeply than they can possibly know.
And yet I can’t help but wonder if George actually is wrong after all, and if the adults are the ones in the right. It’s easy for me to say that if the adults just listened to George, everything would be okay, but what if they were hearing what George was saying, and saw him for what he was? What if the psychiatrist was right, and he is a menace to society who needs to be shut away and medicated? What if the religious folk were right, and he is a child in the grip of a malevolent evil that’s using him for its own ends? Does this make me, as a reader, deaf to George’s true issues, or am I really seeing him for what he is? This grey space is an interesting one to me, though perhaps other readers might not like encountering such uncertainty. Certainty is comforting, to be sure, but it’s not very interesting—and I’m the sort of reader who will happily sacrifice a little bit of comfort for the interesting, as long as it’s done well, of course.
Overall, A Good and Happy Child is the sort of horror novel that isn’t necessarily about scaring the reader with eerie rustlings in the dark, or with scenes of body parts strewn all over a room; instead, it focuses on how the human mind remembers, how it identifies truth from fiction—and how it can fail at both. It shows how adults seem to forget to listen, really listen, to children, just because they are children, and such a scenario can spin out into something genuinely horrific. It shows that sometimes, there are things that neither science nor religion can fix, and that there are darker things out there—or in the human mind—than can ever be thought or dreamt of. But the real beauty—the real, terrifying beauty—of this novel is that Evans leaves it up to the reader to decide what is real and what isn’t, what’s right and what is wrong. It’s not a comfortable place to be, for some readers, but others will find a special kind of magic in what Evans does, and will enjoy this novel because it offers them that dilemma.