The Ghost Within

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By Andrew Wilson,
whose most recent novel is "The Lying Tongue"
Thursday, June 7, 2007

A GOOD AND HAPPY CHILD

By Justin Evans

Shaye Areheart. 322 pp. $24

With "A Good and Happy Child," Justin Evans has written a novel that will scare even the most hardened horror fans out of their skins. He also has delivered a book that is, for the most part, beautifully written and perfectly structured. The result is a literary thriller of the first order.

Initially, one suspects that the story will cover familiar ground. George Davies, a 30-something professional living in New York, experiences an irrational terror of his newborn son. Yet this novel is much more than "The Omen" for the latte generation, and Evans cleverly subverts expectations at every turn. Through George's account of his therapy sessions -- and a series of increasingly disturbing notebook entries that detail past events -- the reader discovers that it is not so much the child who is possessed as the narrator himself.

When George was 11, he was taking a shower when he looked up from soaping his tummy to see a strange face staring back at him.

"I knew what I was seeing was impossible," Evans writes. "In retrospect I could say my brain went off the rails; I felt a sickening lurch as my senses heaved out of their tracks, and I trembled despite the fact that I was standing in a hot shower. I felt myself teeter."

After the initial shock, George forms an odd friendship with this shadowy presence that offers him an alternative hyper-reality, but over the course of the next few months things take a nasty turn.

Henry James, in his preface to "The Turn of the Screw," wrote of his desire to create ghosts that had the power to change the present, "causing the situation to reek with the air of Evil." And so it is with Evans's demon, an unpleasant mix of Peter Pan, Huckleberry Finn and Damien.

Yet part of Evans's skill in telling this particularly sinister tale is the extent to which, at least in its first half, most of the events could be interpreted as symptoms of psychopathology. George's possession may be nothing more than a projection of his own unhappiness. After all, the intelligent and sensitive boy has had to endure the unexplained death of his father, the sudden appearance of his mother's new partner and a spell of bullying at school. However, as the story progresses, there's no doubt as to the nature of evil that grips George in its clammy hands.

Evans is so good at nail-biting narrative that it's tempting to race through the book to discover the fate of George and his infant son. However, to do so would be to miss the stylistic delights of the novel, images that leave a peculiarly nasty aftertaste. The possessed are " vivisected by evil"; the noise of a violent physical beating is compared with the repeated thwack of a mallet against a veal cutlet; the demon calling George's name "circled the bed like a fringe of grubby fingers, prodding and poking for an opening."

When George's mother, during a discussion about her son's deteriorating mental health, utters the word "maybe" -- in reference to the fact that she doesn't believe his problem will resolve itself without medical intervention -- the "word hung in the air for a few moments; it was like watching a particularly beautiful bubble rise on a gust of wind."

Indeed, part of the book's power lies in the way in which it plays with the idea of ambiguity -- the murky area between reality and perception, science and religion, normality and madness.

If one can, take the advice of one of the book's characters, who tells 11-year-old George, " Festina lente" (hurry slowly). Henry James, master stylist, couldn't have put it better himself.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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