Reviewed by Morgan Elektra
Written by Justin Evans
Published by Shay Areheart Books
Horror literature is a phrase that, for many, refers only to the classics. Shelley, Jackson, Stoker, Matheson. Those and others are taught in classes and discussed in book circles, while the majority of modern horror novels are relegated to the category of ‘horror fiction’… which is usually said by anyone other than horror fans with a tone of dismissive disdain. While I neither dismiss nor disdain modern horror novels (as long as they’re good, of course), I will admit it’s hard to think of many recent novels written with quite such literary flare. I think even the most magnanimous reader’s list would be rather short.
Justin Evans debut novel A Good and Happy Child can be safely added to that list. It’s the story of George Davies, a good man with a decent job who loves his wife, and is excited about the birth of their first child. But once the baby is born, he can’t bring himself to touch the boy. He sits up at night watching him sleep, but can’t hold him, snuggle him, change a diaper. At first, his wife chalks it up to new daddy jitters but as the weeks turn into months and he still won’t touch the baby and his mood becomes more and more uneven, she insists he see a psychiatrist.
Through a journal his doctor suggests he keep in an effort to understand his anxiety about his son, the story of George’s own childhood begins to unfold. An unpopular child living in a small town with frumpy academics for parents, George’s real troubles begin when his father dies after going on a strange mission to a South American country. When George starts to see a strange boy who tells him secrets, everyone thinks it’s his way of grieving. But then there’s an accident he claims his “friend” is responsible for, people start getting hurt and he seems to know things he shouldn’t know.
George begins to learn more about his sometimes distant father… about his participation in backwoods exorcisms, about the strange “visions” he sometimes had, and his beliefs regarding religion, about good and evil. As a child of eleven, this exposure to such adult concepts only seems to make the situation worse. His “friend” begins to do more and more violent things as George struggles with whether to listen to him or fight him. Is the boy a demon plaguing the child of a man who tried to exorcise him, or just the fevered hallucination of a child mourning his father?
Evans tells the entire story from George’s point of view, and George admits he’s not sure what part of what he’s remembering is real and what’s not. He is a man remembering what it was like to be a boy who wasn’t sure what he was seeing and experiencing at the time, and the passage of years helps the situation not at all. It’s completely up to the reader to decide what the truth is, whether this is the story of possession or psychosis. And it’s a deeply unsettling story, no matter what your point of view.
A Good and Happy Child is complex and ambiguous and nuanced. The writing is intricate and extremely well crafted. Evans builds tension slowly and subtly throughout the story, so the fact that you’re disturbed gradually creeps up on you until it culminates in one of several shocking events. But these only let off a little bit of steam, you just get that one deep breath of relief, and pretty soon you’re building back up that incline.
It makes what could have been a long, heavy academic read instead a pleasant, well paced experience. If I had to make a comparison, it would be to William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. Though they are told in vastly different ways, it’s more than just similar subject matter they share… it’s a sense of dread and unease caused by the juxtaposition of the totally unexplained amidst the thoroughly banal. If I had a criticism, it would be that the story occasionally becomes bogged down in its own details. But it pulls itself out with enough grace that these times are mostly forgivable.
A Good and Happy Child is definitely not for everyone. It’s not a quick, breezy read, good for a day at the beach. But if you’re looking for a smart, thought provoking, deeply unsettling story to while away a winter night, or discuss with your horror minded friends over a nice bottle of wine, I think you’ll really enjoy it. Or if you’ve got some of those friends who say things about ‘horror fiction’ with disdain, you can whip out a few of its well-turned phrases, multi-syllabic words, and layered storylines to silence their snide remarks. And that’s pretty fun too!
4 out of 5