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A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans

(**part XXXVII of my series investigating fictional works about the devil**)

Do demons exist? Is a person automatically deluded for believing demons exist? Is demonic possession ever a viable diagnosis or can psychiatry adequately explain the oftentimes bizarre phenomena associated with those alleged to be possessed in its gargantuan compendium of itemized psychological disorders as voluminous as there are verses in the Bible?

Justin Evans' first novel, A Good and Happy Child pivots around this historically polemical debate, pitting in one corner, the empiricists with their Thorazine and mental institutions, versus the religious with their stoles and exorcising incantations in the other. Yet, despite the infinitely wide philosophical worldview divide, A Good and Happy Child remains relatively neutral choosing a side to cheer for, in its clever and crisp first person narrative, despite a devilishly delightful book cover which could convey otherwise, its obvious opinion on the matter.
George Davies is the good and happy child of Justin Evans' remarkably riveting debut, only George may not be "good" and he's definitely not a "happy child". O the impish irony of Evans' book title! Should've seen the irony coming when Evans inserts an Auden quote as his preface:
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good

We meet George presenting his psychotherapist his life in turmoil: a sad, unimaginable scenario in which George can't hold, let alone touch, his newborn child. He's never touched his baby boy once. And he can't satisfactorily articulate why. His wife, understandably, is outraged over his awful aversion to their baby; what she justifiably perceives as his outright rejection of his own defenseless flesh and blood. Does she really know this man? How can a father not hold his own child? What the hell's wrong with him?!

Maybe Hell, literally, (or at least Hell's occupants), are his problem.

His wife insists George seek treatment or their marriage is over. He's begrudgingly obliged.

At the outset of therapy, since he's uncommunicative (not uncommon) his therapist asks him to write about what happened to him when he was eleven (because at least that much has risen to the surface - something bad happened to him at eleven, but what?).

In George's journal, we learn what happened: A disembodied face appeared to George in the shower: Demon, or delusion? A "Friend," an entity we'll come to know later as "The Other George," visits him at night: Imp, or imagination? When George looks in the mirror and sees The Other George reflected back, only not reflecting George's own movements or facial expressions as a proper mirror should, we wonder: Reality, or hallucination? Spooky stuff, no matter what's really happening.

Complicating matters, family-wise, George's father, Paul, is dead. How did he die? Demons killed him in Honduras, if we're to believe his close friends, Tom Harris, medieval scholar, amateur exorcist; Clarissa Bing, psychotherapist and deacon well versed in demonology, and an amateur exorcist herself; and Freddie, George's good natured godfather. George's mother, Joan, doesn't subscribe to her late husband's friend's beliefs, not at all; she's a (according to George) "liberal who doesn't believe anything." Her late husband, Paul, wrote a book not long before he died ascribing belief in demons, known to George as "That Book" (how his mother pejoratively denotes it) and it cost George's father his academic reputation and, by association, cracked off a chunk of George's mother's academic credibility, and loads of social embarrassment to boot. This polarization between religious/empirical beliefs in a university setting plagues the entire novel (in a good way) as divergent beliefs (and the subsequent actions taken based on those beliefs) escalates and adds even more tension and butting-heads conflict to an already tense and exciting - and scary! - reading experience.

So are we to believe what George wrote in his journal? His therapist asks George point blank: Do you believe it; that it was demons; that you were possessed? We know the therapist doesn't believe. But what we don't know is how whatever George believes will effect the rest of his life. His marriage. His baby boy.

I believe future readers, regardless of what George believes, will be as enthralled with this thrilling psychological?/supernatural? (both?) thriller as I was.


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