Hello, and welcome to a week straight of throwbacks to the spookiest stories from your childhood. Today we're tackling Mary Downing Hahn's Wait Till Helen Comes, a chilling tale of tweens struggling to help their troubled step-sister with basically zero parental supervision. Also, ghosts.
Wait Till Helen Comes, originally published in 1986, is narrated by 12-year-old Molly. She and her younger brother Michael are trying to accustom themselves to their mom's new husband and his seven-year-old daughter Heather. Heather is prickly and distant and just can't seem to warm up to her new family. We're not talking standard, don't-take-my-daddy-away anxiety, either—as a toddler, Heather was nearly killed in a fire that took her mother's life. Oh, and her dad doesn't believe in therapy.
Nor does it help when their newlywed artist parents decide to leave Baltimore for a converted country church. It's isolated, and instead of doing promised summer enrichment programs, Molly and Michael are stuck watching their stepsister while mom and dad work. (Except Heather absolutely refuses to be watched.) Things get much, much worse when lonely little Heather befriends a ghost named Helen and begins warning Molly and Michael about all the terrible things that'll happen when Helen comes—but only Molly believes her.
My coworker Anna and I chatted about how we are grown-ass women and yet this book freaked us right the fuck out.
Kelly: I understand you were genuinely frightened while reading Wait Till Helen Comes!
Anna: YES. This is the first and most important thing you need to know about my reaction to this book: I tapped out while reading it. Genuinely fucking... could not. Had to stop. I was home alone on a Friday night reading (I am VERY cool, thank you for noticing) and found it so genuinely chilling that I put it down and turned on The Daily Show, as well as most of the lights in my apartment.
Kelly: That is interesting! I was also very affected by this book, except it was nerves rather than fear. Because I was so utterly stressed by, and aghast at, the dynamics of this family. Here is a thing that Molly says about Heather in the first chapter: "How long can we feel sorry for her and be nice to her? I know it must have been horrible to see her mother die in a fire and be too little to help, but she was only three years old. She should've gotten over it by now, Michael." YIKES.
What specifically scared you?
Anna: Nice empathy, Molly!
Well, I guess first of all, for people like me who missed this as young adults, we should say that the book is about, basically, a family who moves to a creepy house out in the middle of nowhere because this is the sort of thing that families in YA books do all the time—just abruptly pick up and move to an area where there is no industry except for ghosts.
Kelly: Especially in YA from the '80s. Lots of people fleeing the dirty city.
Anna: Right. There's probably a deeply racist undertone there. But in any case, Wait Till Helen Comes quickly becomes a litany of terrible things that start to unfold in this creepy house after this family moves there. Molly, our main character, Michael, her brother, and Heather, their creepy little step-sister whom they dislike, find a graveyard out in the backyard, because, again, that's what happens in YA books. The whole thing is told in this very blank, cool, matter-of-fact tone that slowly escalates into the quality of a horrible nightmare.
Kelly: Very true. I think maybe it was so unnerving to us both because it feels like the author and the narrator are just giving it to you straight.
Anna: Right, just very sequential, non-emotive. One minute Molly and Heather are arguing in their shared bedroom (because what, you can't find a creepy haunted house with room enough for all the kids to have their own rooms?) and the next minute Molly is trailing Heather outside, only to watch in horror as her "friend" Helen materializes before her eyes. She's standing in the graveyard in a white nightgown, pale but with black eyes like pits in her face and a voice "like the winter wind blowing through a field of weeds, dry and cruel."
Kelly: And it's terrifying!
Anna: YES. I WANTED TO CRAWL IN A HOLE.
Kelly: But Hahn doesn't go over the top. She just gives you that face with skull pit hell eyes.
Anna: Right, she's just a demon from hell, NBD.
Kelly: This is what I liked about the way she sets up the relationship between Heather, Molly and Michael. It would have been very easy to make Molly seem too petulant or Heather seem too much like an Omen-style devil child. Instead, it's this very realistic depiction of how alien a younger sibling can seem. It can be hard for a 12-year-old to interact with a six-year-old even when everything is a rose garden. Add the fact that Heather is pretty troubled (because, again, she saw her mom die in a fire), and I was just anxious for their whole family.
Anna: Yes, it's very fraught emotionally, in addition to all the ghosts.
Kelly: Speaking of: I was raised pretty free range, but were kids in YA from the '80s ALWAYS this utterly without parental supervision?
Anna: RIGHT? A big chunk of the action here takes place in an abandoned, half-ruined house. And the most Molly's mom says is, "I'm not sure you should play over there." I admire her commitment to going after her painting career and letting her kids learn through their mistakes. But, you know, her step-daughter befriends a goddamn ghost and near the end of the book—spoiler alert—both Molly and Heather go plummeting through the floor of the old house, where they find themselves IN A CELLAR FILLED WITH HUMAN BONES.
Kelly: Kids need space, but you should probably catch a ghost friendship WAY before your six-year-old tries to follow the ghost into the lake because she thinks nobody loves or understands her and she doesn't have any friends.
And what is the deal with Helen's dad? He's just like NOPE NO PROBLEMS HERE and refuses to entertain the notion of some therapy. I know this was written in the '80s but good gravy.
Anna: Right. Classic Absent '80s Dad, I guess. Just sort of a dad-shaped hole. And mom is mostly seen arranging flowers and not listening as her kids express grave concerns about Heather's safety.
Kelly: That's what really got me—Molly and Michael keep insisting, HEY, THERE'S A PROBLEM HERE. And nobody listens! I think the book is at least partly about the fact that when you reach a certain age, you're able to see that there are problems but you aren't given the agency to deal with them. They're a little bratty about their step-sister, but also their parents just aren't listening when they try to express their very fair concerns. Which explains why kids are still reading this book—you can relate to that feeling even if you aren't dealing with a troubled stepsister with mad fire-related issues and a malicious ghost for a best bud.
Anna: Right, and I think my Obnoxious Overreaching Feminist Interpretation of this book is that Molly in particular isn't being listened to, even when she's expressing very clear and specific concerns, such as, "I'm afraid Heather has befriended a ghost and said ghost is going to maybe harm her." And her mom and step-dad respond with things like "You're just afraid of death, calm down." But in the end, again, in the great tradition of YA books, our heroine Molly takes her own concerns seriously and continues to trail Heather around, watching in horror as ghost-Helen draws her deeper and deeper into her ghost-web.
The book is kind of melancholy, in a way, because it's not like anybody really starts taking Molly's concerns seriously at any point. She just ultimately, as we said, decides to deal with it by herself, and even shields the rest of her family from some of the freakier details of what transpires, i.e. ghost-Helen and Helen's ghost mom reconciling in the basement full of bones.
Kelly: The flip side is that she manages to build a deeper relationship with Heather. I got the feeling that they really do emerge from it as sisters, who can build a relationship outside of their parents being married. And I guess that's what kids like about YA, to some extent—the idea that they actually can handle big shit by themselves. But it also seemed like the whole experience really distanced Molly from her mom.
Anna: Yep. Mom can't solve everything, like paranormal experiences, and, what's more, she realized that in many ways, her mom is just anxious to bury any of Molly's concerns.
Kelly: I do think realizing your parents are sometimes clueless is an important part of growing up. Not pleasant, though.
Anna: Not just clueless, but so desperate for things to be OK they'll ignore damn near anything.
Kelly: I just want to close by noting Molly's VERY REAL HOMEWORK ANGST: "Then I began writing a poem about real life. Something depressing dealing with loneliness and unhappiness and the misery of being misunderstood and unloved." Which is my favorite line in the book.
Anna: I had a binder of poems in middle school, which I wrote on a typewriter and then shuffled into said binder. There were hundreds of them, and I believe each and every one was about "the misery of being misunderstood and unloved." I feel you on that, Molly. I'm just jealous she could turn it in as homework.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.