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Incubus

by Nick Gifford

(Puffin, 224 pages, £5.99, published 3 February 2005.)

Review by John Toon

cover scan"He whispers of death," apparently, which is a damn sight less than most incubi are supposed to get up to. In fact, the villain of Nick Gifford's third young adult novel is Hodeken, a German house spirit that latches onto the Schmidt family, following our hero Danny Smith's grandmother over the newly-erected Berlin Wall to England in the 1960s. Hodeken always protects its own, even at the expense of other people's lives, and it has difficulty telling who does and doesn't pose a threat ... When Danny's mother was unfaithful, it spurred his father on to murder. Now Danny and his mother have moved into a New Age commune, where one of the teachers has his eye on Mrs Smith -- and Danny begins to hear voices in his head ...

There's a whole bundle of teenage issues wrapped up in this book. Foremost is the desire to prove oneself an individual, distinct from one's parents. More strongly, Danny doesn't want to turn out like his father because his father's a killer. When Danny tries to assert his will over the voice of Hodeken, the sprite springs his father from jail, forcing the issue into open confrontation. There's also an exploration of the upheaval caused when one parent takes a child with them into a new situation, and of the upheaval the child themselves can cause, expressed through Hodeken's antics. And then there's experimentation with things that shouldn't be experimented with, when a girl called Cassie lures Danny onto an online ouija chatroom to communicate with Hodeken -- not to mention Cassie herself.

I don't know why, but German is definitely the language of Bad Fairyland. I think my precedent for this is Grant Morrison's "The Invisibles", where the Metz Judderman (or a good likeness) hovers over Jack Frost's shoulder muttering "Seelisches Land, seelisches Land ... " Or perhaps it's a Grimm thing. In any event there's a certain extra special something about a malevolent sprite if that sprite is German. Danny's grandmother, cackling to herself at the window, only bolsters the resonance of this connection in my mind. The other good thing about making Hodeken German is that it gives Gifford a reason to devote several pages to the Schmidt family's backstory, showing us Germany at the time the Berlin Wall went up in wonderfully real detail. This section grounds the whole story much more firmly in the "real world" and, for me, makes this Gifford's best novel yet. (Of course, I haven't read Erased yet, and if the upward trend continues ... )

With a strong twist ending and more emphasis than before on psychological horror over physical horror, Incubus makes great reading for all horror fans. Buy it for a young adult, then pinch it from them.

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