“She won’t say a word,” but that’s only part of why seven-year old Hanna Jensen is so creepy. In Zoje Stage’s debut, “Baby Teeth,” Hanna tries to get rid of Mommy, Suzette, so that Hanna can have all of Daddy’s love. The use of children in horror is common (“Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Shining,” “Children of the Corn,” the list goes on), but Stage adds a twist by writing half of the chapters from Hanna’s perspective. However, Hanna’s narrative voice is confusing, as it is filled with childlike metaphors, impressive vocabulary words for her age, and mature ideas. Furthermore, Stage forgoes the usual thriller trope of ending with a big bang and instead uses the last 50 pages to discuss the parents’ feelings about their child and each other rather than implementing any action.
Hanna has a twisted view of her father, believing that “when she grew up she’d marry him, and then Mommy wouldn’t be competition anymore.” But until then, Hanna wants her mother gone. At first, she tries to scare her mother off. Hanna speaks for the first time, but in a perfect French accent claiming to be a dead witch. When the scare tactics don’t work, Hanna moves on to more dire measures to physically harm her mother. Stage manages to make these moments of harm terrifying through Suzette’s perspective, even though readers already have a good idea of what will happen after reading Hanna’s preparations. However, some of the creepy things Hanna does are uncalled for and uncomfortable to read, even for fans of horror. Several times Hanna describes her parents having sex, which is unsettling to read through the lens of a seven-year old. Even more disturbing is when Suzette walks in on Hanna moaning and acting as if she is having sex with someone beneath the sheets. Suzette, horrified, asks what is going on, to which Hanna replies, “That’s how I get my power. From the devil, when he comes to me.” Although this scene succeeds in being scary, Stage has gone too far to achieve the horror by unnecessary sexualizing a child.
Hanna’s narrative voice is chilling, but after awhile, it begins to lose its effect due to its inconsistencies. For one, Hanna is able to pull off some remarkable feats: opening childproof medicine bottles, understanding that medicine capsules can be popped opened, and using the computer for research on witches and spells. There are comparisons a child would make, but written in words an adult would use, such as when Hanna feels like “the whole house was on a seesaw that wouldn’t level out.” Hanna uses words like “abyss” and “spontaneous combustion”—words that feel out of place among the constant talk of Mommy and Daddy. These words break the flow of Hanna’s chapters, making it difficult to immerse oneself in the narrative.
The most disappointing part is that by the halfway point of the novel, most of the exciting moments have already passed. Sure, there is an incident involving Hanna hurting her mother, but the last chunk of the book is dedicated to visits to a therapist and discussions between Mommy and Daddy about their relationship before and after having Hanna. There is much explaining of why, clinically, Hanna may be acting out in these ways and lots of kissing between the parents as they discuss the situation. The novel’s name and the sudden mention of teeth towards the end imply that something big, and teeth related, will happen before the novel’s conclusion. This is not so, however, and the last chapters of the novel fall completely flat.
At the novel’s peak, the excitement and the horror are excellent. Unfortunately, this is unsustainable, due to both lack of action and use of uncomfortable or inappropriate tactics. Hanna’s voice just doesn’t ring true, which makes it difficult for readers to lose themselves in the more terrifying moments of the narrative. Though at times chilling, “Baby Teeth” could have been so much more.
—Staff writer Caroline E. Tew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @caroline_tew
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