Short Take: You know the time you read that book that you really hated, but you read it anyway because it was great? It’s like that.
I was inspired to pick this up after reading Gary Braunbeck’s foreward in To Each Their Darkness. I should’ve known. Given Braunbeck’s subject matter, and the ringing endorsement that he gave Cursed Be The Child, I should’ve guessed that this would be hard to read. And yes, it was, it was harder than I thought it would be, and I’m still struggling with my feelings as I write this.
Cursed Be The Child opens with a horrific description of the rape and murder of Lisette, a five year old girl killed in 1918. After the death of her mother, she has been sent to live with her uncle, and now both of them are dying of Spanish influenza. Lisette’s death is hastened by the vicious treatment she suffers at the hands of her uncle, and her final thoughts are that if she could just make him love her, he wouldn’t hurt her anymore.
In the present day, seven year old Melissa has moved into the house where Lisette died, along with her parents, Vicki and Warren. In true horror-novel tradition, Melissa becomes possessed by Lisette’s spirit, and terrible things begin to happen.
The supporting cast of characters includes Vicki’s sister, Carol Grace, Carol Grace’s husband, the famed televangelist Evan Kyle Dean, Selena, who was raised as a Gypsy and is now a child therapist, and her boyfriend, renowned photographer David Greenfield. Each of them is affected by the madness of Lisette/Melissa in one way or another, and all of them will play a part in battling the vicious spirit.
This is a book that could have (and probably should have) been cheesy and awful. It’s got the right number of horror novel boxes ticked off: Creepy possessed kid? Check. Mystical beautiful Gypsy? Check. Alcoholic father? Check. Cold spots in the house? Check. Televangelist who needs luxury cars and houses to serve God? Check. And so on.
But somehow, it’s better than its cliches. I’ll be honest – that first scene was brutal. I nearly quit reading after that one. There are other sexual scenes involving children in this book, and it was EXTREMELY difficult to stomach. I hated those chapters. I questioned why I was continuing to read a book that had such horrible, awful content. I couldn’t possibly enjoy something so terrible.
But then the flipside: the rest of the book is damn amazing. Sure, there are a lot of horror cliches and objectionable content. But there’s also a ridiculous amount of introspection and genuinely deep thought. This is a horror novel about a possessed little girl, but it’s also a close, intimate drama about a family that is crumbling under the weight of infidelity, addiction, and unrealized expectations. It’s a meditation on belief – what happens when the God you worship turns his back on you, or you turn your back on your gods?
The characters are wonderfully complex. The dialogue is almost too good for a horror novel. When Warren and Vicki fight about his drinking and her affair, well, everyone who’s been married for any length of time knows that you don’t always fight fair. It all rings uncomfortably true, and everyone who’s ever said something cruel in anger will recognize themselves.
There’s a crushing sense of doom, of inevitability in everything that happens. When Melissa/Lisette asks her little friend to reach for something inside of a drawer, we know what’s going to happen. It’s that fist-and-stomach-clenching feeling of “no no no, aw, c’mon, don’t do that…” To me, that defines horror, whether in a book, movie, or even a documentary. Horror is when you know the ending is going to be bad, and you have to see it anyway.
The ending was the weakest part of the book. After everything Mort Castle put me through, I felt like I deserved a nice neat bow-tied finish. It almost felt like a set-up for a sequel, which is something that leaves me cold** but I don’t think that was the author’s intention.
Also, I don’t want to give away too much, but apparently a whole lot happened offscreen that allowed two characters who had never met to suddenly show up as a team, hundreds of miles from where we had last seen either of them, in exactly the right place. There’s no explanation given for how this happened. It’s one of my biggest pet-peeves, the “fairy godmother” type of writing, when something that’s needed magically appears.
Overall though, I liked Cursed Be The Child quite a lot, minus the ick factor of the child sex stuff, and the fact that I’m now probably on an FBI watchlist somewhere for reading it.
The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS
Currently reading/Next review: The Fever, by Megan Abbot
**If you plan to tell more story, make it clear up-front that it’s part of a series, otherwise, just write the book. The whole “well, I’ll tell a story, but leave the ending open, so if enough people offer me money for more, then I can milk it” thing annoys me to no end. If you’re an author, don’t do that!