BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Details the childhood stories of a group of friends in a tiny German village that makes the idea of a holiday in The Village of the Damned look like a great idea.
PROS: Parts of this book are beautifully written and some scenes are haunting in a very stark, stripped down way.
CONS: Unrelentingly grim, could not connect with any of the characters at all.
BOTTOM LINE: I really wanted to like this, but while it wasn’t badly written, it was akin to watching a train wreck as it proceeds to its inevitable horrid conclusion.
When a group of childhood friends gather together in the German village of their youth to attend a funeral, one of their group waits until after the service, when everyone is gone, lifts her skirt, squats, and pees on the fresh grave of her childhood friend. This pretty much sets the tone for one of the strangest books I’ve read this year.
Hemmersmoor is a little picturesque village “colorful and immaculate, as if we were put here for the sake of the hobby photographers.” Christian, who is narrating at the beginning, makes it clear that this is not the Hemmersmoor of his youth. As a child, “Even the sunlight seemed different, darker, never without suspicion.” Time itself is described as a non-fluid thing, halting and stuttering, never quite getting its footing”, and the town seems to always be in the shadow of the enormous von Kamphoff manor with its mazes and endless gardens. Outsiders are most certainly not welcome, and this is a running theme throughout the novel.
The childhood stories are told in vignettes by a group of boys and girls that seem to be in a competition to see who can be more psychopathic than the others. One story involves a food festival where the winner in the stew category gets much more than she bargains for. Evidently, after eating the stew winner’s offering, their tongues turn black, leading them to believe they’ve consumed human flesh. Woe to that poor woman and her five children. Not much is left of them after the townsfolk finish with them. Another involves a carnival attraction claiming to show its guests the pits of hell, but the operator needs a human soul as the admission price. A relatively young boy decides this is a fair price to pay, but unfortunately, he’ll take it from his sister, and he does so without compunction or hesitation. This particular scene made me squirm, and not in a good way. I’m a pretty jaded horror reader, but this author managed to shock me without using gore or aggressive prose rather effectively.
Personally, when I read horror, I want to be scared, even shocked at times, but I also want at least one character that I can sympathize with, and this book lacked that across the board. Some of these children are exposed to horrid abuse and, in turn, visit equal horrors on each other. I wanted to feel sympathy for the children, and I did from the standpoint that no child should be abused, but the unrelenting meanness of their actions with each other and others made them impossible to like. All of these scenarios are told in a very matter-of-fact, stark way, with little embellishment, and I do admire how the author manages to convey so much just by letting the reader use their imaginations. Perhaps it’s the nearly complete lack of compassion that makes this book so horrifying, and to that end, the author was very successful.
Inevitable comparisons will be made to The Village of the Damned. These kids seem to completely lack a conscience, and don’t hesitate to enact revenge against real or perceived slights. Broken dreams, betrayal, casual murder, incest; you name it, Hemmersmoor has it. There is mention of a curse at various points in this novel and if that’s the reason for the awful behavior of these townsfolk and their children, it was neither here nor there to me. Frankly, after all of the murder and mayhem, I was surprised that the author let any of these characters live to adulthood. In the shadow of a (maybe?) cursed town and a divided Germany, these children are the embodiment of our basest instincts and if relentlessly tattered and depressing fairy tales are your thing, then this book might be to your taste. I very much wanted to like this book and kept hoping for even a tiny glimmer of light at the end of this very dark tunnel, but it never coalesced. However, it left me with no doubt as to the author’s storytelling ability; I did feel a compulsion to read through to the end, after all, but this just wasn’t the story for me. I do want to point out that the book itself is gorgeous, and if you do get your hands on a physical copy, be sure to tilt the book a bit to read the sentence that overlays the picture. For me, it pretty much sums up this book.