I was in the children’s section of B&N the other day looking for a book my son had asked for and decided since I was spending money I really didn’t need to be spending, I’d pick this book up as well. I’d had my eye on it, and now is the time of year for a good creepy ghost story. The blurbs on the cover indicated that it was more scary than most books of this type.
After having read the book while visiting my in-laws over the weekend, I can say some people might find it scary, but I never really did. But then I’m probably not the intended audience. The book is geared for middle grade readers.
Wait Till Helen Comes is a ghost story, and it’s well done. I’m not saying this was a bad book or that I didn’t enjoy it, but that I’m no longer in the demographic it was intended for. I suspect when I was 12 it would have given me nightmares. I find that ghost stories don’t scare me nearly as easily as they did when I was a child, something I’ve written about before.
The story is told from the point of view of 12 year old Molly. Her mother has recently married Dave, who was widowed when his wife died in a fire. His daughter Heather survived, and she makes life miserable for Molly and her younger brother Micheal. Molly’s mother and Dave have moved the family from Balitmore to an old church in the country that has been converted into a house. Molly’s mother is a painter while Dave works in ceramics, so they’re basically starting their own artists’ colony.
Of course there’s a ghost in the cemetery attached to the church property. The ghost of a small girl named Helen, who was just about Heather’s age when she died in a fire in a nearby home nearly 100 years ago. Heather already manipulates the family dynamic, lying about how Molly and Michael treat her. In fact, until the end of the book, Heather has no redeeming qualities, being a totally vile little beast.
Dave, of course, always believes her. Molly’s mother knows something is up, but usually takes Dave’s side of things. The presence of Helen only makes things worse.
The family dynamics got old pretty quick. Dave was pretty one dimensional, usually accusing Molly and/or Michael of picking on Heather or else trying to be their friend with no middle ground. Of course this book was written for a middle grade audience, so the characterization is probably appropriate for that age range.
As are the scares. There are a couple of scenes I found creepy. They didn’t really scare me, but then I’ve read ghost stories for adults by some of the acknowledged masters of the genre. You know, guys like Burrage, the Bensons, Wakefield, and M. R. James. Not exactly writers for children. Wait Till Helen Comes is for children, albeit older, more mature children. Still there are limits on what is acceptable as far as scares and story endings are concerned in a children’s book. Like I said, I’m not the intended demographic. Ms. Hahn as written a number of ghost stories for the middle grades, and I might read more. I used to devour this type of thing back when I was in the targeted age range.
One other thing about this book, and it’s a plus in my mind. Originally published in 1986, there are some references that are now period rather than contemporary like the author intended, such as Molly’s use of her Walkman (look it up kiddies, or rather, Google it I should say) and her fondness for Watership Down (Is that book even still in print? I should Google it.) It was nice to be reminded of how the world once was.
Wait Till Helen Comes is a quick read, at least for an adult. It’s something you can finish in an evening. If you turn the lights down and get away from distractions, it’s a nice, seasonal volume. You may not be as scared as a twelve year old would be when you read the book, but it still has its moments.
For something in a similar vein (but definitely not for children) with a different outcome and much scarier, try “Little Boy Blue” by Charles Birkin. It’s available in two of Birkin’s collections, A Haunting Beauty (Midnight House, 2000) or The Smell of Evil (4 editions from 1964-1975, each from a different publsher). Prices will vary widely on ABE.