Reviews of select books by Mary Downing Hahn

Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls
by Mary Downing Hahn
Middle School, High School Clarion 330 pp.
(4/12) 978-0-547-76062-9
A quintessential writer of supernatural stories, Hahn here gives readers a glimpse at real ghosts from her past, a 1955 murder of two teenage girls near her home. She takes that situation, retains the original setting, provides immediacy through a present-tense narration, and produces a top-notch coming-of-age mystery. Nora, just finishing her junior year of high school, has three friends (Ellie, Cheryl, and Bobbi Jo) and two dreams (to be popular and have some boy love her and thus give her value). When an unknown gunman kills Cheryl and Bobbi Jo on the last morning of school, the townspeople assume that bad-boy Buddy, Cheryl’s ex-boyfriend, is guilty. As Nora works through her grief, she remembers seeing Buddy immediately after the murder and comes to believe he’s innocent. Setting creates the story here as much as plot or characters do. Like girls of today, those of the 1950s gossiped, read magazines (but True Confessions rather than People), and listened to music (Little Richard instead of Justin Bieber). But, in a gutsy authorial move, Hahn shows greater differences. For example, there are Nora’s limited options past high school; the casual smoking; and language, from harelip to moron jokes, that was standard for that time rather than this one. By grounding the circumstances so specifically and convincingly, Hahn emphasizes the universality of growing up and facing death.

The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall
by Mary Downing Hahn
Intermediate Clarion 153 pp.
(9/10) 978-0-547-38560-0
Florence is happy to leave the orphanage for the home of a newly found great-uncle, but she isn’t long inside Crutchfield Hall when she senses that Something Is Not Right. Hahn, the author of ghost stories as well as rousing historical fiction, here combines the genres for a truly scary period tale. The setting is a country estate in late Victorian England, the weather distinctly Brontëan, and the ghost is classic Hahn: a mean little girl made only meaner by her accidental death. When said ghost, Sophia, says through her grave-stained teeth to Florence, “I need a friend, and so do you. We could be like sisters, sharing secrets,” readers will want to run—but Florence is the kind of vulnerable, relatable heroine who will make them stick around to be sure things turn out all right for her. They do, if only just, in an ending that is satisfying but touched with uncertainty: is Sophia truly at peace? Brrr!

All the Lovely Bad Ones
by Mary Downing Hahn
Intermediate, Middle School Clarion 182 pp.
(4/08) 978-0-618-85467-7
Travis and his sister Corey love to make mischief, so a summer’s stay at their grandmother’s reputedly haunted Vermont inn holds much promise. A flashlight, makeup, a filmy white scarf, and some well-timed screams allow the kids to freak out the other visitors, but soon enough the game isn’t funny: “You and your sister may have begun this as a game,” says one of the guests, “but the ghosts are awake now. Putting them back to sleep will not be easy.” Hahn expertly combines the comedy of spectral hijinks and bumbling ghost-busters with a dark backstory of abused children and the malevolent guardian who torments them even in death. Here’s an author who really understands how to put a scary story together, unafraid even to use an appearance by Old Nick himself for an extremely satisfying finale.

Wait Till Helen Comes
by Mary Downing Hahn
Intermediate Clarion/Houghton
(1986) 0-89919-453-2
The author has written a gripping and scary ghost story that develops hauntingly from a rather slow beginning. When Molly’s mother and new stepfather announce that the family will be moving to an old church in rural Maryland, Molly and her brother Michael are unhappy. Not only do they want to stay in Baltimore, but the idea of being stuck in the country with their younger stepsister Heather is appalling. Heather is a sullen and secretive child who seems bent on destroying the new family to keep her father to herself. Once the move is accomplished, things begin to get worse. Molly suspects that Heather is consorting with a ghost child, who is encouraging her to become even more hostile to Molly, Michael, and their mother. A graveyard, abandoned house, and weed-filled pond complete the setting for this believable tale. Heather’s character is well drawn, as are Michael’s and those of the minor characters. Molly, however, seems childish for twelve, although her fears do make her the perfect foil for the ghost. This slight flaw will not seriously affect the enjoyment of occult-loving readers, for whom Helen will be a welcome ghost.

The Time of the Witch
by Mary Downing Hahn
Intermediate Clarion 171 pp.
(1982) 0-89919-115-0
In an unusually convincing blend of the supernatural and the real, twelve-year-old Laura tries to prevent her parents’ impending divorce by seeking the help of an old woman who may be a witch. Laura and her younger brother Jason are spending the summer with their aunt in a remote section of West Virginia, when they are startled by the menacing old woman, Maude Blackthorne, who comes upon them in the woods and offers to help Laura with her problems. Although warned against Maude, the girl, in an eerie scene, visits the woman at midnight and allows her to cast a spell to bring Laura’s parents together again. The next day Jason becomes desperately ill; their parents arrive and, for the boy’s sake, consider remarriage. Learning of Maude’s longstanding hatred of the family, Laura is terrified of what she has done and manages to have the spell broken, realizing that some things are worse than divorce. Sulky and opinionated, Laura is not a particularly attractive character. But her problems are real and understandable, and Maude, with her witchcraft and her crow on her shoulder, is surprisingly frightening.

The Sara Summer
by Mary Downing Hahn
Intermediate Houghton/Clarion 131 pp.
(1979) 0-8164-3238-4
Spindly-legged Emily Sherwood found Sara Slater, a newcomer, the only bright spot of the summer she was twelve, after her old friend Maggy deserted her for the company of two would-be fashion plates. Sara had a fascinating talent for intimidating repartee and endured adult reprimands with seeming impunity, but Emily was uneasy at the merciless way Sara tormented her younger sister called Hairball. After a disastrous party and a near-tragedy on the train tracks, Emily learned to stick up for herself and thereby helped Sara shed a bit of her tough exterior. Although the concluding chapters turn on a melodramatic device and the children’s parents are sketchily drawn, the vivid characterizations of the two girls make the author’s first novel a worthwhile venture.

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