by Mary Downing Hahn
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015
Middle Grade (9-12 and up)
With her latest novel, the Grand Mistress of the ghost story spins a yarn better than Old Nancy and her wise black cat, Satan! An American gothic that takes place in the back country (reminiscent of Manly Wade Wellman’s eerie mountain world) where the woods hide witches and …things… that ought not be.
This foreboding trip through the dark countryside explores that which holds a family together and what we believe defines us. The real and imminent threat to the safety and integrity of an American family, one so easily torn asunder, will keep a knot in your stomach until the very end.
Erica Andrews and her big brother Daniel move to Woodville, West Virginia when their father gets laid off in Connecticut. It’s a slow descent into poverty. First they lose the country club membership, then their house. Now the roof leaks on the preppie family’s stark new home. Erica takes refuge in her doll, one that was custom made to resemble her. She withdraws. In fact, the whole family nearly collapses under the stress of their diminished lifestyle.
Hahn has a masterful way of building up tension and developing a feeling of being powerless. The kids first hear of the legend of Old Auntie and her “dear boy” Bloody Bones from school mates who tease them as the new kids. Then the myth is corroborated by a respected figure of authority, a neighbor’s parent, who is also scared of the dark woods near the Andrews’ new home.
The town’s folk legend describes how a girl who used to live in the house the Andrews just moved into had disappeared fifty years ago, and how on that night a girl who was lost yet another fifty years before that just re-appeared. Each one was taken by the old conjure woman on the hill. Kept as a servant until they were all used-up. The cycle of stolen children has been going on for over 200 years.
She screeched with laughter and stuck her face so close to mine that I could smell her breath, rotten with decay. “Why, boy, I believe you ain’t never seen the likes of me afore.”
One night Erica disappears. Everyone in town seems to know what happened, and they are afraid and unwilling to help look for her. Then a girl Erica’s age walks out of Auntie’s woods. Selene, it looks like. The girl who had disappeared fifty years earlier.
Daniel and Erica’s parents descend into madness.
The narrative doesn’t go too far into detail; just enough to let our imaginations fill in the spider-webbed gaps. Just enough to let us know the evil in this story is all-too real. Erica’s been “took,” and the adults are powerless to stop it.
One girl said she was took. Maybe it was the demons in the woods, a boy suggested. Maybe Old Auntie the conjure woman up on Brewster’s Hill got her, Brody said. Or, worst of all, a girl said, Old Auntie’s razorback hog, the one called Bloody Bones, ate her up.
Oh, Bloody Bones is real. Half-man, half razorback, with bear’s claws and a panther’s teeth and a rotten old matted tail. And an appetite for seven year old girls.
Daniel feels guilty because he believes Erica went back into the woods alone that night to retrieve her doll when he made her leave it behind. But Auntie had been planning for a long time. Auntie has very real powers, and is keeping Erica as her new house-servant. Erica is under a spell– she loves her Auntie and would never leave her. Not when Auntie is the only one who can protect her from Bloody Bones. It seems hopeless for Daniel and his despondent parents.
What can Auntie do with such a stupid, lazy girl but scold her and beat her and shut her up in the hidey-hole under the cabin floor. When she can’t stand it no longer, Auntie brings in Bloody Bones and tells the girl he eats bad children like her.
But there is a neighbor, Mrs. O’Neil, whose daughter was best friends with Selene so many years ago. Selene, the girl who was returned. The girl heartbroken at having lost the life she led for so long in the witch’s ramshackle house. The girl with no memory of her former life. Mrs. O’Neil knows of another lady, a recluse named Miss Perkins who, it has been whispered, also does some conjuring.
After 30 years of writing scary stories for kids, Mary Downing Hahn’s still got it. Far more scary than many earlier works like The Old Willis Place or her classic The Doll in the Garden, Took may be Hahn’s most frightening tale yet.
It begins with a whisper in the dark, always the girl’s name, always long and airy. The old woman blows it through keyholes and cracks. She guides it upstairs and down until it finds the girl’s ear and nestles there…