loulamac’s #CBRV review #76: Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ by Mendal Johnson

Let's Go Play at the Adams by Mendal Johnson 1980 Bantam pbk

At Halloween, The Guardian published an article by the writer Joseph D’Lacey, where he shared his favourite horror novels. Number one on that list was this absolutely gripping and disturbing gem, the only book Mendal Johnson wrote before he died of cirrhosis of the liver. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, if not in any year, it’s so shocking and brilliant.

The book is based loosely on the 1965 torture-murder of Sylvia Likens, and as the cover of the paperback sensationally tells us, ‘tonight the kids are taking care of the babysitter’. Twenty year old Barbara is on her summer break from college, and has been employed to look after Billy and Cindy Adams while their parents are away in Europe. Barbara is perky and pretty in her summer dresses. Training to be a teacher, she anticipates a couple of weeks of playing with the kids, making sure they’re washed and fed, and going swimming in the afternoon. Her conceited complacency is interrupted rather rudely when she wakes up one morning to discover she has been bound and gagged, and is being held captive by the Adams children and their three friends John, Dianne and Paul. Ranging in age from ten to seventeen, these children have christened themselves the ‘Freedom Five’. It soon becomes clear to Barbara that the world has been turned upside-down, and that she is one adult who is no longer in charge.  These seemingly average children are conducting an experiment, and are surprised at the ease at which they have up-ended society’s convention. As Bobby says to Barbara on one of his guard duties, “Like when we were all figuring out if we could do it, it seemed like something we had to do. Like if you think you can do something, you have to”.

What follows is a grim and relentless exploration of how this swing in power plays out, as the book shifts from Barbara’s perspective to each of the children’s, and back again. The children are prepared to deal with the consequences of their actions, but because they are children they live utterly in the moment, and don’t hold back from escalating the situation. In the course of her captivity, Barbara is tested to the limit physically and mentally, as the children inflict bodily and psychological torment on her. Over the course of a few days her smug little personality disintegrates (the passages where she holds imaginary conversations with her college roommate are revealing and tragic) as she realises that she can’t bully, cajole or frighten the children into freeing her. Each of them has different motivations for embarking on the course of action that sees a young woman tied to a bed and tortured, and they have very different reasons for not wanting to let her go, despite the sadness and affection that some of them feel.

Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ is not for the faint hearted, the dense and intense prose pulls you in and doesn’t let you go. The mounting sense of dread is unremitting, and as I read the book I was shocked and unsurprised all at once. Perhaps this is where the true horror lies, that it isn’t a surprise that these children behave in the way they do. People, however young they are, have infinite capacity for cruelty, and ultimately, self-preservation.

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loulamac’s #CBRV review #74: The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

200px-TheFifthChild

My mum has always been mad about Doris Lessing, mad enough to put me off reading her like some kind of embarrassed teenager. I really enjoyed The Grass is Singing when I read it many years ago, but vague antipathy had prevented me from voyaging any further into the back catalogue of this prolific writer. Her recent death prompted me to pick up the first book of hers I found on my mum’s shelf, which happened to be The Fifth Child. I was startled and left feeling decidedly uncomfortable.

Harriet and David Lovatt are happy to have found each other. It’s London in the 1960s, and unlike most of their peers they’re not looking for casual sex or meaningless encounters. So when they meet at a work Christmas party they are relieved, and quickly map out their lives together. They buy a big house in a commuter town, a house far bigger than they need for just the two of them, and proceed to fill it with children. Harriet is pregnant four times in quick succession, and though she suffers with her pregnancies, relies on her mother to keep the house going, and causes her relatives to roll their eyes, life is good for the Lovatts.

And then Harriet falls pregnant for the fifth time. From the start, the pregnancy is different to the others. By the time Ben, the fifth child, is born, Harriet is ill and exhausted and knows something is gravely wrong. Ben is fearsomely strong, barely needs to sleep, doesn’t speak. While it is hardly spoken of, Ben’s strangeness, how different he is, has started to take its toll on the family. The other children are badly affected, Harriet’s mother leaves, David throws himself into his work, friends and relatives stop coming for Christmas. By the end of the book, Harriet is alone with little but the memories of the family that has been destroyed by the changeling child.

The book is at its best in the first two-thirds, as we get to know Harriet and her family, and as a result can appreciate the havoc that Ben wreaks upon this domestic idyll. The sense of dread that hangs over them from the start of Harriet’s fifth pregnancy only intensifies as Ben is born, and becomes a terrifying and dangerous presence in their lives. The final part of the novel, as Ben gets older and starts to find his place in the world is much weaker, and the theory that Harriet constructs to explain Ben would have been better left unsaid. Despite that, the horror and anxiety that stalks Harriet as she tries to do her best by her children, raising Ben while trying to protect the others from him, makes chilling reading.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #70: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

the turn of the screw

The British Film Institute in London has a ‘Gothic’ season on at the moment, and will be screening a fair few ghost stories over the next few weeks. The 1961 film ‘The Innocents’ is of course one of them, which prompted me to re-read the source novel. While I’ve become a coward in recent years, I do love things that go bump in the night, and so was hoping I’d be gripped by a book that’s so often touted as one of the great examples of psychological horror. I wasn’t.

A group of friends gathered in an old house are presented with a manuscript that one of the group was given by a governess many years before. It tells the tale of her first position, where she was employed as the ward of two orphaned children. Her employer, the children’s uncle, has little interest in them, and so she is dispatched to care for them in his secluded country house. This physical isolation mirrors her emotional solitude, as the only company she has are the two young children and the housekeeper. The governess has not been long at the house, when she begins to see a man and woman in the grounds. On describing them to the housekeeper, she realises that she is seeing the ghosts of the previous governess Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, another employee who was also her lover. These two had intense relationships with the children in life, and the governess decides she must do all she can to stop the spirits from interfering with the children in death. The real battle comes when the children reject her attempts to protect them, and seem to conspire against her.

There has been much debate in literary circles about whether the ghosts are real, or if the governess is insane. I took the book at face value, and chose to go with the notion that the evil spirits wish to take possession of their erstwhile charges. Unfortunately though, I found the prose impenetrable and convoluted, which hindered any building sense of menace and atmosphere. While some passages (particularly the one where the governess sees her predecessor sitting below her on the stairs) are creepy, this is no The Haunting of Hill House.