Chiller keeps away the summer blahs

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 10, 2007

“A Good and Happy Child,” by Justin Evans. Shaye Areheart Books. 336 pp. $24.I don’t indulge in them too often, but once in a while, I like a good shiver-inducing page-turner.
As a middle-schooler, I remember my initiation into the genre, a novel by Thomas Tryon called “The Other.” It was the chilling story of a pair of twins ó one sweet, one evil.
In “A Good and Happy Child” by Justin Evans, the idea of twins ó or the evil doppelganger ó is also explored.
Besides the tantalizing title (from a poem by W.H. Auden), I was sucked in by the cover, which features a luridly colored woodcut of demons spiriting away a child.
I couldn’t help myself. I had to check it out.
Readers will meet 30-year-old George Davies, who lives in New York City with his wife and their newborn son.
A distinct impediment to his happiness is that he can’t seem to bring himself to hold his baby. Losing patience, his wife pressures him to to see a therapist to get to the bottom of his seeming aversion.
As part of his therapy, George begins to dredge up long-buried memories of the events of his childhood as the unhappy son of two eccentric college professors in a Virginia town. The novel moves back and forth from adult George to adolescent George.
At 11, George’s father has just died of a mysterious illness in Honduras, leaving behind bizarre, rambling letters and many questions about his death. His mother seems to be getting on with her life with undue haste, dating another man only several months after her husband’s death.
Trying to make sense of everything, George begins seeing a ragtag boy who talks to him. To George, who is struggling socially at school, the presence is a Friend. This friend becomes increasingly malevolent and tells him things that may or may not be true ó that his father’s death was not the result of natural causes, for example.
Bad things start happening that can rationally be attributed only to George ó like the car accident of his father’s best friend, Tom Harris.
Complicating matters, George’s dead father was a student of demonology and had written a book about it, which George finds and feverishly consumes. George also discovers that his father heard voices of his own.
His mother, a feminist scholar, is worried her son is going off the rails, so she sends him to a psychiatrist to treat what she believes are hallucinations.
Some of his mother’s colleagues ó including George’s godfather and her husband’s best friend ó are convinced that George’s strange behavior is the result of demonic possession and that an exorcism, not therapy, is what will save him.
After reading George’s recollections, his therapist suggests that perhaps George’s childhood “friend” was a “shadow self,” which embodied ó and perhaps acted on ó his repressed desires.
George, however, isn’t convinced that modern psychiatry’s enlightened explanation of his current state is helpful.
This conflict is at the heart of the novel. Is George’s friend a hallucination, the result of untreated mental illness? Or is George possessed by a demon? Evans wisely refuses to stack the deck either way.
Evans ó who says on his Web site that his family really did believe in ghosts ó is a fine writer who describes convincingly the small college town of Preston (based on his own hometown of Lexington, Va.) and its eccentric denizens.
Preston’s Bohemian population is “a clique of restaurateurs, lawyers, real-estate types, and theater folk, all in their 30s and 40s, all slim and vain, who smoked reefer, cultivated a taste for local moonshine and bluegrass, and slummed with the town hippies (a mix of local craftsmen and musicians, blacksmiths and banjo players).”
Evans’ description of the quotidian joys of young married life is equally fine:
“…we could revert to who we had been, a married couple with rapport, who held hands, who gorged on eggy brunches, and who sneaked into dressing rooms at the Gap and kissed. Out here, Maggie could speak in her usual weekend-errands patter: Oh, you know what we need? X. And X was always a surprise. Something I would never have thought of. Heirloom tomatoes. A living will. An O-ring for the hose in the sink.”
Without compromising a storyline that pulls you into it like an angry maelstrom, Evans’ sophisticated and well-crafted narrative raises fascinating and important questions about the nature of evil.
Evans’ Web site,, provides links for those who want to learn about the genesis and the writing of the book. It’s worth a look.
Contact Katie Scarvey at 704-797-4270 or kscarvey@salisbury