"Are you bewitched, boy?"
During its first fifteen years, the library of my elementary school stood in the hallway to the gymnasium, books on misplaced shelves. The library proper opened, I think, when I was in the second grade. I recall passing those shelves one day-- kindergarten? first grade?-- and catching sight of a sinister cover bearing the title, Dorp Dead. Even at my young age I recognized the error, which did nothing to lessen the moment of passing terror.
I forgot about it, until many years later.
The twenty-first century brought the 1965 children's novel back into publication, and many consider it a landmark of sorts. Equal parts horror story, folktale, and contemporary children's novel, Julia Cunningham's Dorp Dead examines the dark side of childhood though that staple of children's lore, the orphan hero:
I am alone and on my own since my grandmother has been tucked away forever, and I intend to stay that way. I bear no grudges toward the world. I just figure I have a lot to learn and to sort out after I've learned it and it will be easier if I don’t get too tangled up with people, or at least, not until I'm better acquainted with how people are. (4)
Gilford Ground's grandmother dies, leaving him to the local orphanage. It's not a terrible place, but he makes few friends, and he dislikes the lifestyle. Despite being exceptionally bright, he does not apply himself to his schoolwork, and actively tries to conceal his intelligence. He prefers to be alone. Nevertheless, he connects, briefly, with a friendly local hunter, and he finds a hideout in some overgrown ruins.
Then Mr. Kobalt, the local ladder-maker, comes seeking an apprentice. Since Gilly does not fit the orphanage, he makes a perfect choice. Kobalt obsesses over time and order, but, initially, Gilly enjoys his situation. He leads a quiet and structured life, and he bonds with Kobalt's dog, Mash.
One morning he recognizes something amiss. Then he finds the "scarlet track," and follows where the "droplets become blobs and then splashes," and finally lead to a terrible discovery (54). Soon thereafter, he peeks into the one forbidden room and sees something even more frightening. The book moves rapidly and with a fair amount of suspense as Gilly plans his escape, and we arrive at a conclusion that makes sense of the title.
The book, written in strangely poetic yet child-like style, defies easy classification. Certainly, it has elements of horror, though fewer than my description of the plot would suggest. More often, Dorp Dead conveys moods of unease and dislocation, feelings familiar to many growing people.
The setting and characters do not belong to any specific time and place. The orphanage, the Home for Children, seems Victorian, and the village itself feels like something from an old tale. However, we have references to electricity, running water, and tin cans. Kobalt lives in "the only stone house in the village" (22) but, save for James Spanfeller's few illustrations, we have no sense of an architectural style. "The hunter" and "the ladder-maker" sound positively quaint. Cunningham has set her story in some obscure backwater that feels timeless. The plot, meanwhile, resolves in a manner reminiscent of old faerie tales—minus any actual magic. Gilly will persevere. Happy endings are possible—but we must be prepared to confront the sinister side of the world.