I Remember You, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
A good ghost story is hard to find.
What qualifies as great in this genre? I find it’s easier to say what stories haven’t reached the level of good, much less great horror of the ghostly kind. Some simply aren’t frightening, such as the unaccountably lauded The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill (2001), and everything written, thus far, by Sarah Rayne. Others substitute psychological ghosts for the genuinely supernatural, such as the recent The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, by Valerie Martin (2014), and while I accept our memories are peopled with the phantoms of incidents and relationships in our past that certainly haunt us, a novel focused solely on regrets and sins, rather than an actual revenant—a spook—don’t qualify as ghost stories. Too many contemporary ghost story writers don’t even bother to attempt the challenge of building the slow, subtle escalation of fear found in a half-heard whisper, a quickly glimpsed figure, an unaccountable chill; instead, they fall back on the easily gruesome, replete with chainsaws, nail guns, fangs, and claws.
A few of the better ghost stories include The Uninvited, by Dorothy Macardle (1942); Ammie, Come Home, by Barbara Michaels (1968); The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson (1959); The Shining, by Stephen King (1977). Each creates a creepy atmosphere, attributable primarily—if not solely—by the supernatural, atmospheres so suffused with tension the reader doesn’t dare stop reading, not matter how late the hour, lest she be forced to turn out the lights without having the mysterious explained, if not resolved.
Happily, the Icelandic author, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, decided to take on the genre, and while her attempt isn’t entirely successful, I Remember You rises well above the current competition to deliver genuinely chilling ghostly goings-on.
The first ninety pages unfold slowly, introducing an ever-growing, disparate cast of primary and secondary characters, and a large part of the fun of I Remember You is realizing how deftly Sigurdardottir deftly controls how and when we learn what each has to contribute to the two separate vandalism cases and the two separate disappearances. So adept is the author I had to read the book a second time, dissecting how the author constructed such an enjoyable puzzle.
In the far northwest of Iceland, in the town of Ísafjörður, a criminal psychologist named Freydr attempts to dissect an incident of destructive vandalism that has occurred at a local elementary school. Being around the children who attend this school revive Freydr’s emotional struggle to cope with the disappearance, three years earlier, of his young son, Beni, a struggle that escalates when Freydr discovers, almost by accident, that a similar incident occurred in the same school sixty years earlier . . . and that this presaged the disappearance of another young boy.
At the same time, three friends—Katrin and Gardar, who are married, and Lif, their recently widowed friend—leave Ísafjörður by boat and deliberately maroon themselves for a week in a remote, seasonal village, determined to renovate an old, abandoned house. They suffer the lack of electricity, cell coverage, heat, running water, and—beginning on the first night—a host of strange noises within their house. Floorboards squeak; mysterious, wet footsteps are found in the house despite locked doors and windows; shells arranged on the floor spell out an ominous word. Soon their days are equally haunted, when a haggard-looking boy appears and follows them, eluding all attempts to communicate.
Freydr counsels the bewildered widower of an elderly woman who has killed herself in a church and is astonished, then increasingly unsettled, to learn the woman was fixated on the disappearance of his son. Another elderly woman, confined to an assisted living facility, claims a boy is on the grounds of the facility, a boy she clearly fears, a boy she went to school with sixty years earlier and who, like Freydr’s son, disappeared without a trace. Freydr ponders all this in his office late one evening, and here Sigurdardottir introduces one of the oldest ghost chestnuts around . . . and makes it work.
A few reveals fall flat, but for the most part each scene contains a delicious surprise. Freydr remains interesting throughout, in part because, even as we learn more of his failings and frailties, he remains sympathetically complex and believable in his responses to the mysteries that surround him. The three hapless would-be renovators? They whine and snipe, moan and groan, shudder and shriek as they deliberately put themselves in increasing danger; in short, they’re unsympathetic. The revelation of a not-entirely-unexpected subplot amongst them did nothing to change my opinion, and while I enjoyed some of the early ghostly doings in the abandoned village, toward the end even this pleasure was diluted by these Protagonists Clearly Too Dumb To Live.
What did I love?
- The complex relationships within the story and how the author ensures each character contributes to the unraveling of the mysteries. The point of view in each chapter alternates the main characters whose lives ultimately connect in ways that prove highly enjoyable, if not entirely credible.
- Sigardurdottir’s skill at weaving a tale of human failings together with the strange vagaries of fate and the supernatural.
- The long, slow fuse, which means one can savor its characters over several days . . . or, better, several nights as disparate details shaped a satisfyingly creep story.
- Sigurdardottir’s disposal of the last two foolish renovators (the fate of the first is nicely done). She seems suddenly to feel compelled to cheapen the ghostly with zombie-ish schtick. Not only did this strike me as needless, given the atmosphere and setting she had carefully constructed, but this choice pushed the story—temporarily—into the amateurish for a few critical pages.
I recommend reading I Remember You late at night. More than once, when I switched off the lights after reading several chapters, I lay awake, alert and nervous, listening anew to noises within my house. Creaks and moans conjuring shuddering possibilities, even though I knew one was an wood chest that, after thirty years, is still adjusting to the transition from tree to furniture, and that the other was my even older refrigerator, which grumbles about its old coils. That doesn’t happen very often, and I loved every chilling moment. If you are looking for a ghost story with thriller pacing and genuine scares, I Remember You is a winner.