Deep and Dark and Dangerous: A Ghost Story, by Mary Downing Hahn, pulled me in from my first glimpse of the cover, which shows a girl under water, her hair floating around her white face. And it did not disappoint. Deliciously creepy, this book reminded me of the Lois Duncan stories that I loved as an early teen (my favorite, and one I still re-read periodically, is Down A Dark Hall).
13-year-old Ali finds an photograph in one of her mother's old Nancy Drew books. The picture shows Ali's mother, Claire, and her mother's sister, Dulcie, outside of an old family cottage in Maine. A third girl has apparently been torn out of the photograph, leaving only an arm, a shoulder, and some strands of long hair. Her initial, according to the torn back of the photo, is T. When Ali asks her mother about the photo, however, Claire denies any knowledge of a girl whose name starts with T, or any memory of the photo. Claire retreats into her own emotional fragility, and gives Ali no information about the mysterious photo.
Dulcie, however, soon appears on the scene, and invites Ali to spend the summer with her up at the old cottage, babysitting Ali's four-year-old daughter Emma. Ali jumps at the chance to get away from her over-protective mother, and stay with her beloved aunt and cousin. Besides, she's never been to the cottage, her mother having stopped visiting it as a child. Despite Claire's apparently irrational misgivings, Ali, Dulcie, and Emma head to Maine for the summer.
Things start out idyllic, but soon Ali and Emma meet a mysterious little girl, Sissy, out on the shore of the lake. Sissy both fascinates and torments Emma, and creates conflict between Ali and Emma, and, indirectly, between Ali and Dulcie. Sissy hints at a tragedy that occurred in the lake thirty years earlier, the reason that Ali's mother and aunt have never been back to the cottage. A long-ago crime is brought to light. And that's when things start to get deep and dark and dangerous.
This is a highly atmospheric story. Even when describing sunny days at the lake, Hahn never lets the storm clouds get far away. Certain creepy images recur through the story, most notably a bundle of bones below the surface of the lake, appearing in paintings by both Emma and Dulcie. Emma and Ali both have nightmares, and Ali is drenched by more than one storm, literally and metaphorically.
Much of the book is about the relationships between Ali, Emma, and Dulcie, and the wrench that Sissy's presence throws into their peaceful existence. Dulcie, in particular, gradually morphs from cool, beloved aunt to a strained, unjustly snappish creature who reminds Ali of Claire. Hahn's expert hands keep things from ever getting too dark to bear, however. She alternates dangerous escapades with afternoons playing Candyland, and introduces a kindly neighbor to gives Ali some perspective. Hahn's writing is straightforward, creating strong impressions through nouns and verbs, without needing much description. Here's an example:
"I was thinking so hard, I almost walked right past Emma. To my surprise, she was standing beside a stranger, a girl who appeared to be nine or ten years old, but small for her age. Her hair was white blond, her eyes were the same gray as the lake, and her skin was a deep tan. Despite the chilly weather, she wore a faded blue bathing suit.
"This is Sissy," Emma said. "I just met her, but she wants to be friends."
Sissy looked at me slantwise, as if she were sizing me up. Would I be good to know? Was I nice? Was I bossy? I gave her the same look. There was something about her I disliked on sight -- a sharpness in her eyes, a mean set to her mouth. She was the type who'd lie and get you in trouble." (Chapter 7)"
Re-reading this makes me think: "Ali, you have no idea, in Chapter 7, of the trouble Sissy is going to cause for you." But readers, especially middle schoolers, will enjoy every step of the way. Although most of the characters are female, I think that the story is creepy enough to engage boys as well as girls. Deep and Dark and Dangerous is a quick and compelling read, sure to be a hit with fans of ghost stories.
This book review was originally published on my blog, Jen Robinson's Book Page, on June 7, 2007.