Tuesday, October 06, 2015

West Virginia Gothic: Took by Mary Downing Hahn

The old woman stands on the hilltop, just on the edge of the woods, well hidden from the farmhouse below. Two men and a woman are getting out of the a car that has a sign for Jack Lingo Realty painted on the side.

Though young Lingo doesn't know it, Auntie is helping him sell that house to the couple in the only way she knows--muttering and humming and moving her hands this way and that, weaving spells.

"New for old," she chants to herself. "Strong for weak, healthy for sickly, pretty for ugly."

Twelve-year-old Daniel and seven-year-old Erica are unwilling participants in their parents' move from Fairfield, Connecticut, to a rundown West Virginia farmhouse in search of a simpler life. Wild woods are swallowing up the once plowed fields, and the house is chilly, drafty, and isolated. Unlike their bright, cheerful new schools in Fairfield, the eight-grade school in town is ancient and bare even of portraits of Washington and Lincoln, their teachers are grim and stern, and their classmates, dressed in ragged jeans and faded tee-shirts, resent their accents and "citified" clothes, and tease them with warnings about the child-stealing "haint" Old Auntie who roams their woods.

Erica is frightened by the stories and becomes more withdrawn, worrying about a "whispering" no one else hears, with her attention fixed on her look-alike doll "Little Erica." Daniel tries to make the best of it, but the other boys shun him, calling him "snotty and stuck-up," and he misses the easy friendships and teammates he has had to leave behind. Then one day on the bus, a ragged boy named Brody warns them of something both unbelievable and yet terrifying.

"We live on a farm just over the bridge," I said.

"You live on the old Estes place?" Brody asked.

"Is something wrong with where we live?" Erica asked, staring at the boy.

"It's where the girl disappeared," he said.

I nudged Erica. "Don't listen! He's trying to scare us."

"Hah!" Brody said. "Somebody got her and drug her away and nobody ever saw her again.

There's things out in these woods people from Con-neck-ti-cut ain't never heard of."

Little by little, Daniel hears more of the tales of Old Auntie, a "haint" known for stealing a young girl and keeping her for fifty years. According to the story, seven-year-old Selene Estes was "took" fifty years ago, leaving Auntie's old servant girl, still seven-years old after fifty years, wraithlike and seemingly soulless, to waste away and fall dead a few days later. Daniel recognizes bits of this story as old English folklore, but even their jolly neighbors, the O'Neills, remember the missing Selene and seem to believe the stories.

But after a quarrel between them, Erica runs away from Daniel into the deep woods at twilight, and he is blamed. Despite a thorough search by neighbor men and police, Erica cannot be located. Who is found is a malnourished, ragged girl with red hair like Erica's who weeps wildly and fights to go back to "Auntie's cabin." And when the O'Neill's identify her as the missing Selene, still a child after fifty years, Daniel begins to believe the tales of "Auntie" and her horrifying companion, a giant bony ridgeback hog she calls "Bloody Bones," said to live in a crumbling cabin which returns to its original condition only by night.

To save Erica, Mrs. O'Neill says they must seek out Old Auntie's purported cousin, the ancient Miss Perkins. The witchlike old woman tells Daniel that he must follow her instructions to visit Auntie's cabin after midnight and escape with a reluctant Erica, under the witch's spell, before Auntie can call her "dear boy," Bloody Bones, to stop them.

"Come here, boy. How much do you want your sister back?"

The old woman smelled of dried grass and herbs. I breathed it in, feeling it spread through me like magic. "I'd do anything to get her away from Auntie." I said.

Her eyes probed mine. "Will you go to Auntie' cabin tonight, all by yourself? Just you. Are you brave enough?"

Author Mary Downing Hahn is the perfect master of the folkloric horror story (or the horrific folktale) and in her latest, Took: A Ghost Story (Houghton Mifflin Clarion, 2015), she goes back to the well of British-American folktales to re-construct this tale of the evil witch and her series of young servants, virtual zombies in current terminology, never-aging, never dying, until released from servitude by a spell broken at dawn.

Despite their strong sense of place, Hahn's plotlines move back and forth in time, from their modern settings to times and people long gone, and this noted author well knows how to rattle those timeless chains from deep in history and deep in the subconscious of us the readers. Sophisticated readers of the genre will happily recognize elements from traditional literature here, but as she always does, Hahn is able to weave her own spell to make her story as immediate as today. This gothic novel of haints and spells and monsters is a gripping atmospheric read that is truly scary and yet ends by honoring the courage of young people who, like Harry Potter and heroes of his ilk, stand up to the powers of evil and darkness that lurk just outside of place and time.

Other noted books by Hahn suited for scary season reading include Wait Till Helen Comes: A Ghost Story, The Old Willis Place, and Deep and Dark and Dangerous.

For another just-published atmospheric novel of legendary folk wizards and witches, there's Ronald Smith's Alabama swamp story Hoodoo (see my review here).

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