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Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone: an elegant, violent dream by Stefan Kiesbye

From the book jacket: “A village on the Devil’s Moor: a place untouched by time and shrouded in superstition. There is the grand manor house whose occupants despise the villagers, the small pub whose regulars talk of revenants, the old mill no one dares to mention. This is where four young friends come of age—in an atmosphere thick with fear and suspicion. Their innocent games soon bring them face-to-face with the village’s darkest secrets . . .

In a mélange of dark, interwoven tales told by a cast of village children, Stefan Kiesbye’s Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone is a novel infused everywhere with dread and wrought in a style that is devastatingly taut, provocatively subtle, and always intense. These mesmeric episodes creep into shocking bewilderment, as their narrating characters recount murder, incest and other atrocities. Theirs is a violent, post-World War II world—Germany, no less—in which the country family model leads inexorably toward violence. Yes, this mélange has, for all its ugliness, simmered beautifully; and though the resultant dish may scorch, its perfect balance of repulsiveness and bewitchment make it impossible to turn down, even as its layers of violence mount on the palate and approach the unendurable.

Some readers may not be so interested in the Faulknerian pastiche presentation, and those searching for a horror novel whose fiendish plot grips and never releases will do better elsewhere. Instead, Kiesbye’s novel is for those who like to be grabbed by the collar, pulled underneath the surface, slowly dunked again and again into nightmare after nightmare. The dying village setting and its often uncanny episodes draw us in with hope and devour us with the haunting logic of a collapsing world. We draw a breath before collapsing again.

While the dispassionate telling offered by each chapter’s characters works perfectly for total effect—and it does; Kiesbye knows how to deliver blows with the right kind of timing, both to make the recipient squirm in anticipation and in the aftershock—I sometimes found myself wondering how these narrators could relate such gruesome things with such reflective control over their emotional responses. Take this passage, from page 86, for example:

“I ran off again, and this time I made it out of the maze. My breath was rattling, my heart pounding in my ears. Every second longer that I had spent in the maze aggravated me, and I felt like crying for help. Yet as soon as I stepped onto the lawn, the manor house only a few hundred yards to my left, I felt only the deepest disappointment. The danger was over; the day had lost its luster.”

And then I decided that the narrators are not so much themselves, as we read through the end, but a kind of disembodied collective, induced by trance to retell as they understand them these youthful terrors. The characters are transmogrified into witnessing specters of their own brutal lives, and we readers risk joining them. In this respect, Kiesbye delivers a book that ends all too quickly, and perhaps for our own good.

(First published 2016; Past Due Book Reviews)

Tom Ingram is a writer and editor living in Columbus, Ga.

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