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Friday, September 2, 2022

Mary Downing Hahn’s ‘Wait Till Helen Comes’ Is a Benchmark in Children’s Ghost Stories [Buried in a Book]

The namesake of Wait Till Helen Comes is no friendly ghost. She may act protective, yet Helen is the furthest thing from a guardian angel. The fact is, the deceptive spirit of Mary Downing Hahn’s 1986 book habitually sets her sights on children, preys on their insecurities and twists the truth to her advantage. Indeed, Helen will not only come, but she will do whatever it takes to find that perfect playmate for all eternity.

Wait Till Helen Comes begins with a blended family of five moving to the small country town of Holwell, Maryland after the parents buy a renovated church. As Jean and Dave work that summer, their three children are left to entertain themselves until school starts. Michael disappears into the woods every day to conduct his scientific research while his older and biological sister, Molly, is left to look after their resentful 7-year-old stepsister, Heather. 

The family’s supernatural problem begins with the discovery of a cemetery behind the property; this was something the parents neglected to tell their kids before moving them to the middle of nowhere. Heather finds a grave that the churchyard’s caretaker didn’t even know about. The grave found under a tree is marked with the initials “H.E.H.,” which also happen to be Heather’s initials. Unlike other residents in the cemetery, though, this H.E.H. has no loved ones buried nearby.

Upon first sight of the cemetery, Molly is numbed by her intense fear of death. She can’t stand knowing this place is behind her new home, and even worse, she feels isolated because of her fear. Everyone else in her family is unfazed by what this collection of old headstones, markers and bones all represent, whereas Molly is forced to confront her feelings about death and the unknown. Her brother Michael is ten years old, but his mind is adultlike. Michael neither fantasizes, nor does he put much stock in his older sister’s increasingly wild theories and growing paranoia.

Day by day, our lives seemed to grow unhappier, as if she had the ability somehow to reach out from the grave and touch us all with her misery.

Meanwhile, Heather is not the easiest character to care about. From the start, the girl makes her step-siblings’ lives a living hell — Heather regularly sheds crocodile tears and accuses Molly and Michael of bullying so Dave will dote on her. Heather also shows no affection for Jean, who she sees more as competition than a parent. The adults repeatedly excuse Heather’s behavior because she was traumatized at age two; her biological mother died in a house fire and Heather nearly joined her. Jean, desperate to make this entire situation work, begs her older children to be more understanding because Heather is “such an unhappy little girl.” 

Unfortunately, Heather’s horrid attitude only worsens after the move. And she’s found herself a new way to torment her older siblings — she threatens them with imaginary friend Helen. “Wait till Helen comes,” Heather hisses every time she doesn’t get her way, or she wants Molly and Michael to suffer over the smallest infraction. What seems like a child’s method of asserting herself when she feels vulnerable turns into something else altogether. Molly and Michael return home to find their rooms, as well Jean’s art studio, completely trashed. There’s no way Heather could have done this, so Molly worries her stepsister’s threats aren’t so empty after all.

Molly’s suspicion leads to an investigation at the library, although Michael remains as incredulous as before, even after learning Heather’s Helen and H.E.H. — Helen Elizabeth Harper — are one and the same. The little girl died in 1886 in a local house fire with both her mother and stepfather, but only Helen’s remains were found and buried. This same research reveals Molly isn’t the only person to think Helen’s ghost lingers in the area; others have whispered about the spirit in the pond who lures kids to their death.

Children may be scared of the ghost in Wait Till Helen Comes, but it’s the book’s thematic elements that worry adults. It wasn’t long ago when parents argued Hahn’s work should be removed from school reading lists because of its subject matter. It wasn’t so much Helen dragging kids to their watery death that bothered them. The objectors took issue with Heather’s readiness to join Helen in the hereafter; they saw a child taking her own life because of personal problems. What came across as an author permitting child suicide, however, is really a heartfelt plea for people to be kind and sympathetic to each other. Hahn reminds us of how not everyone wears their pain so openly.

“Do you think my mother has forgiven me?”
“Oh, Heather, she forgave you long ago.”

Heather’s cruelty and spite are hard to forgive until Molly finds her stepsister at the pond one fateful night. It’s only now does she (and the readers) finally see where Heather is coming from. The girl who lied for attention, wished her step-family dead, and clung to her father out of fear he would leave her like “Mommy” is more hurt than she ever let on. The guilt Heather quietly lived with — she never told anyone she caused the fire that killed her mother — has eaten away at her for years. That remorse made Heather believe everyone would hate her if they knew the truth. And now Heather is convinced going away with Helen is the only way to end her unhappiness.

The book Wait Till Helen Comes is already quite somber and gothic, but the emotional gravity reaches a critical point as Molly helps Heather overcome both a manipulative ghost and her inner demons. Molly takes her mother’s original advice and uses compassion to get through to Heather. That same bit of understanding incidentally saves Helen, whose own connection to Heather was due to their similar circumstances and desires for forgiveness. These wayward souls found each other through parallel tragedies, so it only makes sense they each take a similar path in their recoveries.

Wait Till Helen Comes is a poetic and insightful study of reconstruction, be it a family rebuilding itself or a broken child realizing the unconditional love of a parent. What rightly sticks with readers is this book’s discerning human element and a sophisticated conversation about mortality. The outcome is profoundly cathartic for all ages. Ultimately, this is a ghost story where the most haunting thing about it isn’t even supernatural.

There was a time when the young-adult section of bookstores was overflowing with horror and suspense. These books were easily identified by their flashy fonts and garish cover art. This notable subgenre of YA fiction thrived in the ’80s, peaked in the ’90s, and then finally came to an end in the early ’00s. YA horror of this kind is indeed a thing of the past, but the stories live on at Buried in a Book. This recurring column reflects on the nostalgic novels still haunting readers decades later.

Wait Till Helen Comes

The post Mary Downing Hahn’s ‘Wait Till Helen Comes’ Is a Benchmark in Children’s Ghost Stories [Buried in a Book] appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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