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.