I have long known (from personal and professional experience) that somewhere around fourth grade, readers get a serious taste for spooky stories. Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories Trilogy, the first of which was published in 1981, is perennially popular with all readers and just received a cover update by the inimitable Brett Helquist, although I do miss Stephen Gammell's original, creepy covers. Schwartz's stories aside, it seems that mostly girls become very interested in ghost stories while boys tend to prefer R.L. Stine's tame horror stories. Recent work as a substitute librarian in elementary and middle schools has reminded me of Mary Downing Hahn. While not quite as prolific as R.L. Stine, Hahn has written a handful of ghost stories (as well as mysteries and historical fiction) that have serious staying power on the shelves and are still being devoured almost 30 years after being published. Interestingly enough, ghost stories seem to be a genre that not many kid's book writers want to tackle. Wait Til Helen Comes is probably Hahn's most widely read ghost story, although she also writes historical fiction, and it's easy to see why. Wait Til Helen Comes has all the elements of a great ghost story - a sour, mean little girl, a move to a new home, an old mysterious death and a hidden grave. To these elements, Hahn layers in family stories, both present and past, and secrets that are revealed almost too late. Hahn's writing is fast paced and her characters are sometimes described in a shorthand that makes them feel a bit like stereotypes, but not every reader wants a book with a complex storyline and a large cast of detailed characters. Hahn's writing style (and subject matter) as especially suited for reluctant and struggling readers well into middle school.
Wait Til Helen Comes begins with siblings Molly and Michael learning that, not only have their summer plans been ruined, their family is moving out of Baltimore and into a renovated church out in the country, a couple of miles from the nearest small town. Molly and Michael's mother is a painter and their stepfather Dave is a potter and they hope to make great use of their new studio space. They also hope that Molly and Michael will assume babysitting duties for Heather, Dave's seven-year-old daughter. While Michael, a budding naturalist, warms to the idea of miles of countryside to explore, Molly is apprehensive, especially since Heather does everything she can to make her life miserable. Molly makes her best effort to be nice to Heather, who lost her mother in a house fire that she survived, but Heather lies to their parents and ruins every toy, game and puzzle Molly tries to engage her in. On top of it all, Molly has to share a room with Heather in their new home. Exploring their new environs, the kids discover an ancient cemetery near their house and notice that many families seem to be buried together. They meet Mr. Simmons, the caretaker, and as they are talking about the history of the graves, Heather wanders off and finds a mysteriously hidden grave at the base of an old tree. The letters H.E.H and the dates "March 7, 1879 - August 8, 1886" are inscribed below. There are no apparent family members' graves nearby either. Mr. Simmons knows nothing about the child buried there, but Heather soon does. Sneaking out of the house at night, she tidies and tends to the grave and is soon wearing an old locket with the letters H.E.H (also Heather's exact initials) on it and threatening Molly and Michael with the promise that they will be very sorry when Helen comes.
While Helen proves to be a destructive ghost, trashing Molly's, Michael's and their mother's possessions but not Heather's or Dave's, it is Heather who is the truly malevolent one. Hahn creates a backstory for Helen that parallels Heather's in many ways, including setting the fire that (mostly) unintentionally killed their mothers (and Helen's stepfather, who she was jealous of). She adds to that a level of pathos as the ghost of Helen lures lonely girls into the depths of the pond behind her house, the pond where she drowned escaping the fire, to keep her company, with Heather her next intended playmate. But, Hahn also includes a strong sense of redemption in the character of Molly who, despite Heather's increasingly horrible behavior, never stops caring about her and never stops worrying that Helen is real and really trying to hurt or even kill Heather. There is a powerful scene at the climax of the novel that finds Molly rescuing Heather from drowning a moment that seems like it will be the end of both girls but in fact results in closure and relief for both Helen and Heather.
Wait Til Helen Comes is is a fantastic ghost story that I would recommend to any young readers looking for some chills and excitement, and also to any parents of readers interested in this topic but worried about their kids reading anything too scary and disturbing. Wait Til Helen Comes is a ghost story, not a horror story. There are none of the things you would expect from movies today, no real violence beyond the trashing that Michael and Molly's rooms get, no blood, and no murder. Just a great ghost story with unhappy children - both human and ghost.
Source: Paperback Swap
Other ghost stories by Mary Downing Hahn: