It was one of the most grueling scenes of my novel to write. A mother confronts the supernatural family horror that has possessed her child, driving it out with cries of “No! She’s my daughter! Not yours!” as the little girl’s sister looks on. It sounds heroic, doesn’t it? In most stories, it would be.
But the sister, through whose eyes we see the scene, see things a bit differently. She knows that her mother and the terrifying force that was once her late grandfather want her sister for the self-same reasons—control, power, and the possibility of immortality.
Imperiled children have long been a mainstay of horror fiction. From Henry James to Paul Tremblay, a threat to children is a dire threat to the natural order, the social order, the family order, a threat to throw all that holds us stable (or that we claim to believe holds us stable) into chaos. The continual recurrence of efforts to fight such threats, whether they succeed or fail, is at the heart of theories that paint horror as an inherently conservative genre dedicated to preserving those perceived forms of order. Such theories, along with their variations and exceptions, have drawn plenty of ink over the years and hardly need me to hash them out again.
Most horror readers also know that there’s another variety of child thief lurking further back in European cultural history, though. People called them the Good Folk, to disguise what we really thought about them. People tried to keep their children from attracting their attention. There was no fighting these child-thieves. You could only cower, and hide, and propitiate, and call them good when your real opinion was … was it that they were evil? Generally not, for they were seen as forces of nature and they could give as well as take. They were merely forces of nature.
All of this would only be a curiosity if it applied to supernatural threats alone. But this same division maps uncomfortably to the real-world debates over who owns children, and for what purpose, and who has the right to take them from their parents, and who has the right to give—or get—them back. The world of belief in the Good Folk, who got euphemistic nicknames, was also the world of Roma and Jewish people whose nicknames were not at all kind. When stories circulated about such people stealing children, hundreds—including their own children—would die at the hands of people who imagined themselves to be fighting monsters.
Later a bunch of the people who circulated these stories—the stories where you cringed and the stories where you set entire communities on fire—made their way to new continents to practice new refinements on all their stories. Here they practiced chattel slavery and there they built residential schools. They were explicit, scientific, and rational to the exact same ends for which they had once been superstitious, credulous, and irrational. Later they created Magdalene laundries and boot camps for juvenile delinquents.
They worked out on a mass scale a new variant on child-stealing, fancy as a triple axel but far easier as it turned out to land—the high-flying trick of accusing other people of stealing or threatening your children at the exact same moment you stole theirs. If executed correctly, people could become monsters when they tried to get their own children back. After all, once you’d convinced the children to accept the family order, the social order, the natural order of things as you describe it, weren’t they really your children? At their most powerful they could even steal children from themselves, converting, reeducating, renaming, erasing identities, forging new links that the children themselves would perceive as requiring love and gratitude. And they could do it, in some cases, with the original parents’ blessing, with a hopeful promise that the child would be better, safer, vouchsafed opportunity or virtue or whatever the most shining gold might be that would turn to dry leaves in the morning.
You didn’t have to want the children to take them—wanting to hurt their parents or demolish their culture was enough, and still is, especially if you can define the parents as criminal or deviant. But a facade of benevolence was, and still is, helpful. If you could convince yourself that the children were better off this way, that was great. If you could convince yourself, deep inside, that you loved the children you stole, even better. You could love them and earn money from them, love them and beat them, love them and brainwash them, love them and kill them, love them and teach them to kill. So long as they were where they belonged, according to people who had been propitiated, all was well.
At this point, many of us among the white and the wealthy have forgotten what it’s like not to be propitiated, not to have the right to decide where everyone belongs. We can only relate to the fear of having our own children stolen by conjuring up new monsters.
I’m convinced that the Good Folk love the children they steal as much as they love their own, which is with all their hearts and not at all. These are their children now, stolen fair and square. But they love being called the Good Folk even more.
About the Author
Carrie Laben grew up in western New York on a small dairy farm. After stints in Ithaca and Brooklyn, New York, she earned her MFA at the University of Montana in scenic Missoula. She now lives in Queens.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, Texas. He’s the author of Zero Saints. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias