Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing (literary horror)

The best horror fiction deals with the things that really scare us. Zombies, vampires, werewolves, and the like have their place. But what of the fear that comes from deep inside: questions like, what if your own child was a monster? Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing explores this kind of horror in her novel The Fifth Child, which I first learned of in The Book of Lists: Horror in a "horror novels that don't call themselves horror novels" sort of list.

David and Harriet Lovatt seem to have been made for each other. Their meeting was the proverbial "across a crowded room," and even their ideas on children match exactly: they want many. Even though their first four children (Luke, Helen, Jane, and Paul) arrive somewhat more quickly than anticipated, everything develops easily despite protestations from relatives that their family is growing too fast.

Everything changes, however, with the arrival of the fifth child. The pregnancy is more difficult, the birth more an ordeal, and the new baby, called Ben, is very different from their other children — in ways they all find deeply unsettling and often shocking.

In addition to offering a highly gripping and suspenseful read, with The Fifth Child author Doris Lessing investigates the nature of family and the societal definition of what it means to be "human." Ben is referred to as an alien, a monster, a freak, an atavism from a race that is perhaps better suited to living underground, and various other "inhuman" monikers.

Lessing presents Ben's myriad quirks and misbehaviors with a tone that replicates that of a horror novel. This is quite appropriate given that the other family members view him with extreme trepidation that develops into fear for their lives with a family pet turns up dead.

This all results in those outside the immediate family becoming increasingly distant. Lessing skillfully illustrates this isolation through Christmas attendance, with successively fewer visitors each passing year. Eventually, Luke and Helen (away at boarding school) choose to spend the holiday with their grandparents, effectively keeping them away from home all year long.

Ben appears to be unknowable, and this is exactly the kind of thing that inspires terror in most people. At first, the family try to deal with Ben in the only way they know how. This may seem cruel at first, but the relief is palpable when their decision is reached. But Harriet then makes a pivotal decision that essentially destroys her family.

The Fifth Child does end on a note of hope, however slight. (The Nobel committee recognized this when they awarded her in 2007, writing, "From collapse and chaos emerge the elementary qualities that allow Lessing to retain hope in humanity.")

The novel was well enough received by readers to inspire a sequel, Ben, in the World. But The Fifth Child on its own is a marvel: a thought-provoking, unforgettable story that makes the reader ask what he or she would do in the circumstances — and then deal with the answer that comes.

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