BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Justin Evans
Eleven year-old George Davies might be an insane schizophrenic, or he might be able to commune (involuntarily) with actual Satanic demons. That’s pretty much the crux of this book. It’s not an original premise by any step, and the general plot plays out pretty much exactly as you’d expect it to. It sounds like a recipe for a bland, recycled story, but it turns out to be anything but. A Good and Happy Child gripped me like the classic demonic scary movies of the 70s—“The Amityville Horror,” for example—did when I was young.
When it comes to movies, I’m a horror fan through and through. I like them silly and campy, and I especially like the good-versus-evil, misinterpretation-of-Christianity variety. However, when it comes to books, that same campiness tends to turn to schlock, and religious stuff in books too often reads as pretentious. So I don’t read much horror, but when I do, I gravitate towards the more atmospheric and brooding (Poe, Lovecraft, The Turn of The Screw). Justin Evans utilizes a little bit from both sides of the fence, striking a nice balance between tropes and mood, and because of that his book succeeds.
The story is told through notebooks grown-up George is writing at his therapist request. He’s a new father, but can’t bring himself to even look at the child. His once loving wife has filed for divorce, and his life is crumbling around him. Through the journals, George recounts the “Friend” he first saw in the shower not long after his father’s death, and who used to deliver messages to him during half-wakeful bouts of insomnia.
George’s father was a professor of theology and a mystic. He died of a fever upon returning from South America. As George recounts it, he was soon brought in by his father’s former colleagues, told of his dad’s spiritual journey through Hell, brought along on exorcisms, and taught about the reality of biblical forces. The messages George receives from his “Friend” begin telling him do things. People around George get hurt, one after another. As the very real threat of being committed to an asylum weighs over George (both the child and the grown-up), it is never entirely clear whether George is to be believed or not.
An unreliable narrator can be a very difficult thing to pull off. I thought George’s questionable sanity was portrayed quite deftly here. The reader is pretty much asked to take a stance (demons or crazy) and read the book how he/she sees fit. Think Donnie Darko but replace the time travel stuff with Belial.
Narrative restraint aside, Evans’s prose is quite readable. He never turns an amazing phrase, but the language keeps at a level just above what I’d associcate with “genre” fiction and just dips into a “literary” delivery. Being rooted in horror, the characters are all a little cookie cutter, but they are 3-dimensional enough and allowed enough idiosyncrasy to be satisfying to read.
This is a carefully balanced book with some, but not too much, action; some, but not too much, camp; some, but not too much, psychological tension. Fans of horror should give it a shot, and anyone looking for a quick and creepy thriller will probably find enough to like here to make it worth the read.
Similar Reads: The House of Leaves (Danielewski), Fight Club (Palahniuk). Also, the movies “The Amityville Horror” and “Donnie Darko.”