Sunday, November 13, 2011

Two boys, a house, and one very good novel

Children can be cruel toward one another, no? Their words sting, their fights physically hurtful. Susan Hill's 1970 novel, I'm the King of the Castle, explores what happens to two boys thrown together by parental circumstances. Having the same age, these boys are expected by all to be the best of friends, but in Hill's novels, these 11-year-olds turn out to be bitter, savage rivals.

Charles Kingshaw, the son of a husbandless housekeeper, moves into the grand ancestral house of Edmund Hooper, the son of an aristocratic Englishman. From the start, Edmund makes it clear to his father and Charles that he has no intention of being friends with Charles. Edmund is one territorial child, somehow perceiving that Charles will encroach in his domain.

But it's not enough that Edmund verbally abuses Charles. He locks Charles in his grandfather's room which houses a creepy collection of dead moths. He engages Charles in a fistfight. Charles makes it a point to get out of Edmund's way every day, but Edmund is intent on being the bully, the stalker, the antagonist. One can see that the situation is hopeless unless the parents intervene. Charles's mother and Edmund's father, however, remain clueless to the goings-on in their house. The parents have struck an awkward flirting phase with one another.

I'm the King of the Castle provokes a host of reactions from its readers. Some mention that the novel has a gothic, creepy feel to it. With the novel's setting and Hill's sombre turns of phrase, this reaction is justified. There's a pervading gloom in every page of the novel, as if Hill is preparing the reader for the eventual catastrophic climax.

Others mention that the novel is a crossover one, a work of fiction that can be read by both adults and young adults. This is rightly so, especially with Hill's accessible gift of narrative. I'm sure that both audiences will be able to relate to the themes of parental blindness, bullying, and dreams of fleeing.

I'm a big fan of Susan Hill, especially her ghost stories. The Woman in Black is my favorite ghost story. The Man in the Picture and The Small Hand are great creepy reads during rainy nights. Hill provides I'm the King of the Castle with a different kind of terror. It's a terror that's all too real and familiar, and it's from individuals whom you never imagine can give it -- children.

Read this book if:
  1. You've been scarred for life from bullying.
  2. You love Susan Hill's atmospheric novels.
  3. You're a parent of precocious children.


Jeane said...

I only have read one Susan Hill- Strange Meeting, and it's one of my favorite books. I'm adding this one to my list now. It sounds a bit creepy- but good!

Peter S. said...

Hi, Jeane! It's not technically a creepy read. You should read Hill's ghost stories to be creeped out! Hehehehe. Still, this book is a wonderful novel.

caite said...

i have read her Simon Serrailler books, which I love, but none of the others.

Peter S. said...

Hi, caite! Why not try out her ghost stories. She's famous for them as well.