by Doris Lessing (1988)
Devilish children, whether possessed or born evil has been the subject of many a horror book and film (for a couple good ones see The Bad Seed, A Good and Happy Child, and of course, The Exorcist).
Doris Lessing‘s The Fifth Child does something slightly different with the genre. The horror is subtler, the child isn’t even recognized as being anything but spirited and unloved by doctors, and the unease taps more into the guilt and paranoia that comes with parenting rather than fear of a murderous tot a la Damien in The Omen.
It’s far more realistic than many like minded stories and in that way all the more terrifying. Even Lessing found writing it very “upsetting”.
It reminded me of an article I read many years ago about parents with overly aggressive sons whom they feared yet had to take care of. There was nothing they could do about it, and the futility and complete control the situation had over their lives, it stayed with me and scared me.
After all, in our real lives, isn’t it losing our happiness: happy marriages, happy family dynamics, happy sense of peace that is most frightening?
In the novel, that’s exactly whats threatened by Ben, the titular fifth child when he arrives in a bustling, loving family.
With his dead eyes, hobbit like appearance, incredible strength and tendency to kill animals he slowly destroys a happy family.
Lessing’s writing is sharp, like a great wit that never quite has anything nice to say about anybody. I breezed through the book in one day. While it frankly probably would have been a dissappointnent to a young me looking for more outward appearing horrors, it is a page turner for adults, especially parents that hold their small pleasures dear and know what they have to lose.