A review of Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye

Reviewed by Sara Hodon

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone
by Stefan Kiesbye
Penguin Books
Paperback: 208 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0143121466, September 25, 2012

Few books can be described as truly chilling, but author Stefan Kiesbye’s latest, Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone certainly qualifies. Kiesbye has created a novel that might be best described as a hybrid of two classic short stories—Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn.” This eerie tale of life in a small, remote German village has all of the elements of a gripping suspense novel, with a surprising twist—many of the most heinous acts committed throughout the novel are done by children.

Hemmersmoor is a village divided. There are those who live in the magnificent manor house situated at the top of a large sandy hill (and it’s no coincidence that the house’s residents are able to literally look down on their neighbors from this vantage point), and then there is everyone else. The residents coexist, but there is an ominous feeling that clouds everyday life in the village—the atmosphere is heavy with distrust and suspicion. It is in this environment that four childhood friends—Martin, Christian, Anke, and Linde—come of age.

Hemmersmoor’s children commit unspeakable acts with an odd sense of detachment; afterward, there is little thought of guilt, blame, or repercussion. In fact, some of the children seem surprised that there is a price to pay for some of their more gruesome acts. It’s almost as if they’re acting outside of themselves. In one chapter, Christian murders a member of his own family, and is ostracized by his parents. Later he complains that his mother despises him, but his complaints sound more like the whiny tone of an overlooked child, not a cold-blooded murderer. Did he realize the seriousness of his acts? It’s difficult to say, as each of these characters are unsympathetic. Yes, they’re children, but these particular characters have an additional something sinister lurking beneath the surface. The village itself might have something to do with this. Rife with legends, superstitions, and overwhelming distrust of outsiders, Hemmersmoor’s residents look after their own, so it is possible that the four friends are simply trying to live the best lives they can with the limited worldly knowledge they’ve been given.

Kiesbye’s writing is stark and matter of fact, which makes the children’s actions even more despicable—you don’t see them coming. The adults in the novel are very much secondary characters, which poses many questions. What values have the parents taught their children? Are the children doing these things just for attention? Kiesbye does an admirable job of creating a tense, fearful environment—the children are wary of the adults, and the adults are wary of everyone.

By the end of the novel the four friends are trying their best to put the past behind them, which for some means returning to Hemmersmoor to put some old ghosts to rest. Will the generations-old superstitions and fears follow them into adulthood? Only time will tell.

Kiesbye succeeds in crafting a good old-fashioned creepy novel that shatters the myth that you can go home again. Sometimes, as in the case of the sleepy village of Hemmersmoor, you’re lucky to get out of your home alive.

About the reviewer: Sara Hodon’s work has appeared in History, Young Money, WritersWeekly.com, and The Valley: Lebanon Valley College’s Magazine, among others. She is also the “Date and Relate” columnist for Online Dating Magazine (www.onlinedatingmagazine.com). Read more about her trials and triumphs in the writing life on her blog, http://adventuresinthewritinglife.blogspot.com

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