When I was in Sixth Grade, I read a book in a lit circle with two boys named Tripper and Matt. It was a ghost story and I remember there being a church and a graveyard in it. There was a brother and a sister. I cannot remember the title of the book for the life of me. I’ve been on the hunt for that book, though, and I think this might have been it. I began it last night when I couldn’t sleep, and picked it up this morning and finished it. It was a nostalgic read, reminding me a lot of what’s good about Fear Street and Goosebumps, and it had those things I remember about the book I read in Sixth Grade, even if I’m not completely sure this was it.
I love ghost stories, and I would have read and enjoyed this book had I just stumbled upon it and not been looking for the book from my childhood. I enjoyed the quicker, lighter read than what I have been doing lately. Even though it is marketed toward students in middle school, I enjoyed it as an adult; I would be happy to recommend it to my students or my adult friends. It was a fun read with a lot of good things in it.
Plot Synopsis (Spoiler-Free)
Molly is moving out to the country with her brother Michael, her mother, her step-father Dave, and her horrible younger step-sister, Heather. Her parents have decided to buy an old church that was converted into a living space. When the family moves into their new home, the kids quickly discover a cemetery in their backyard, and weird things start happening.
Heather befriends a ghost named Helen, and she tells Molly and Michael Helen is coming for them. “Wait till Helen comes,” she keeps saying. Molly believes Helen is real and that Heather is in danger, but no one believes her, not even Michael. Who is Helen? Can Molly save Heather from her? Can Molly save herself?
This book did a lot right and very little, if anything wrong. Seriously, I grasped for straws when I wrote something in the Weaknesses section, and I could only come up with one.
1. Characterization – Characters are my favorite part of any novel, and when a writer creates great characters, I’ll call them out. Molly, Heather, and Michael are fully fleshed out with personalities, hobbies, motivations, and histories. Molly battles with her fears, but pushes through them for intense responsibility she feels. Michael battles with his beliefs, struggling to accept things that are not grounded in science, yet wants to support and understand his sister.
Heather is a character I despised for about three fourths of the book, but whom I came around to appreciate and understand in the remaining bit. She holds a grave secret I saw coming a mile away, but in seeing her deal with it, she became less of a witch and more of a human, little girl.
Unlike many Goosebumps books I have read where parents are trite background characters, even the parents in this book are fleshed out. I can understand why Molly’s mother cries to herself a couple times in the book, and why Dave is so defensive when it comes to his daughter. What’s more is the parents are not saints; they have flaws and make mistakes, mistakes their children and the reader through Molly see. Molly’s mother apologizes to Molly for some of those mistakes.
The whole family dynamic is actually pretty wonderful. This family is by no means perfect or typical, and I think it is important for younger readers to see different types of families. All members of this family have made mistakes, b8ut by the end of the book, they are all willing to work on being better family members for each other. I think that is something really great that a reader can take away from this book.
Finally, I need to discuss Helen. I love the way she is described.
Wearing a stained and ragged white dress, she seemed less transparent than she had in the graveyard. Her dark, lusterless hair cascaded down her back, contrasting harshly with her pale, skull-like face. Her feet were bare, and she cast no shadow.
Helen is a little girl who died at least 100 years before the novel’s events. She had lured many little girls to their deaths in the creek, and what for? Loneliness. She wanted a companion. The girls kept leaving her, however, and so she had to get another. Heather is her latest target.
Helen walks that fine line between being a character who I felt like I could understand after learning more about her, and even felt sorry for her, and being a character who is just evil, and just creeped me out. They way she twisted and manipulated Heather to get her into the creek was extremely creepy, and even after hearing her backstory and seeing that she only wanted her parents’ attention, it creeped me out when Heather was given Helen’s locket again at the end of the book. I was like, “Nope.”
2. Writing – I really love Mary Downing Hahn’s writing. It’s simple, but beautiful. Her prose reads like poetry at times. Alliteration, metaphors, similes, and imagery is sprinkled throughout the book. There were sections I would read and think, “Wow,” and then reread them to appreciate them. Her style is so subtle it could probably be missed, but I noticed and appreciated it. Check these descriptions out:
When I glanced at her to see what she was doing, she was still standing at the window gazing out at the graveyard as silently as a marble angel contemplating eternity (48).
In the droning of bees, in the rustling of leaves, in the swaying of wild flowers, I imagined I heard Helen’s voice whispering to Heather, calling her, promising her things (151).
What is interesting about the writing in this novel is this story is narrated by a twelve-year-old girl. If Hahn went over the top stylistically, the first person narration would be affected because the writing would not match the character. Hahn just does enough for it to pass. Aiding her is what she does with Molly. Molly writes and reads poetry; she even listens to Emily Dickinson for inspiration. It would make sense that Molly would narrate this way, adding flare to her writing.
3. Setting – The setting in the novel was really well crafted. There is even a map of the town at the front of the book showing the different locations Molly, Michael, and Heather visit. I love the juxtaposition of a church where one should feel safe and loved, an a cemetery where one feels scared and alone. It was an interesting choice for our protagonist’s home, but it was perfect for a ghost story.
I really enjoyed the country feel of the town, along with the small library and the citizens we meet: Mr. Simmons, the sheriff’s deputy that comes to Molly’s home, and the town’s librarian.
I really love that the book was set in a time before cell phones. It was written in 1989, so course it was, but it was a great time to revisit, and the time period worked well for the story. There were some creepy moments Molly and Michael experienced in which they had to wait for their parents to return home, where nowadays, they could call them on their cellphones. I also like that Molly and Michael went to a library to learn more about Helen, because there was no internet! How ancient. I actually miss those days a little bit.
1. Helen’s Story – I feel like I’ve seen this ghost story play out again and again in novels and TV shows (lonely dead girl tries to lure other kids to their deaths so she won’t be lonely anymore, only to be reunited with her dead parents at the end), so I was able to predict Helen’s backstory before I read it. That would be my major critique here, but this book could have inspired those. Even though I would have preferred something more groundbreaking, it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the book.
A small thing that bugged me was Helen and Heather being so similar, right down to the same dark secret and the same initials. It was intriguing to me at first, but then I found out that other girls had been lured by Helen, and those girls did not share these similarities. It made these similarities random and unnecessary. But yeah, I’m grasping. This was a good book.
This atmospheric, creepy, but not too scary read is perfect for fans of R. L. Stine. I would recommend it to readers who love horror, for sure, but I believe it has a lot in it that can be appreciated by readers who typically do not read horror; the family dynamic with the struggles of a blended family is especially interesting and can be meaningful to anyone. Because the book is not overtly scary, readers who dislike scares shouldn’t feel put off by this book.
I read that some parents have had issues with this book because of the subject of death and suicide, but a ghost story is going to be hard to tell without death, so that kind of comes with the territory, and I have no idea where these parents got suicide from. Heather is lured into the creek by Helen. I think that’s murder, not suicide. Someone correct me if I’m wrong.
This was a great, almost perfect book for me. I give five out of five nasty, rusty lockets. Seriously, that locket is scarier than Helen. Someone get Heather a Tetanus shot.