By Susan Hill (Long Barn Books; 1970/2012)
Nowadays, with pubescent bullying a hot-button issue, I’m surprised this 1970 novel hasn’t gotten renewed attention in the US. Then again, I’M THE KING OF THE CASTLE doesn’t appear to have ever gotten much attention of any sort on these shores–in direct contrast to its reception in its native England, where the novel is regularly taught in schools.
With impressive simplicity and directness, it details the macabre yet all-too-convincing relationship between two preteen boys, one a thoughtful introvert and the other a scheming sociopath. The latter is Edmund Hooper, who lives with his father Joseph in the latter’s ancestral country home. They’re joined by Helena Kingshaw, a widowed housekeeper, and her son Charles.
The adults decide that the two boys, being the same age, will get along fine. From the beginning, however, it becomes clear that’s not the case, with the young Hooper (a peculiarity of the book is that the boys are identified by their last names and the adults by their first) revealing his cruel nature via a handwritten note to Kingshaw reading “I Didn’t Want You to Come Here”–the start, it turns out, of a thoroughly twisted dynamic in which Hooper, who quickly recognizes Kingshaw’s apprehensive nature, mercilessly torments the latter.
The focus throughout is on the two boys and their exploits, which come to include a dangerous expedition through the untamed woodland surrounding the Hooper house and a nightmarish sojourn in a dark shed, although the author frequently switches viewpoints to show what’s happening in the lives and thoughts of the kids’ parents–a device I initially found off-putting but which came to make sense, as it shows just how self-absorbed the adults are, and how their disregard leads to a lot of unpleasantness and, eventually, tragedy among their offspring.
The novel’s relentless trajectory is the likely reason it never got much attention in the US. The ending might charitably be called bleak, but makes sense, I believe, especially in light of all the real-life cases of bullying that have made the headlines in recent years, which rarely conclude in a hopeful manner. Beyond that this book has the focus of its prose and an unerring psychological acuity to recommend it. Speaking as one who’s experienced the not-so-joyous realities of male adolescence firsthand, I can attest that this is one of the very few fictional depictions of that period that actually gets it right.