Santa’s Little Helper, a Christmas-themed horror novel by H.D. Gordon, is about the size of most Stephen King tales. At close to 400 pages, Gordon writes the stories of four children, all age five: Manny, Mikey, Emily, and Benny. Benny’s story is shared with his four-year-old brother, Tuck, so, really, there are five children total. Each child’s home receives a mysterious white box with no return address. Inside is an elf—quite possibly an Elf on the Shelf doll, though Gordon doesn’t outright say this—and a book describing how the elf is “Santa’s Little Helper,” a companion to watch children for Santa come Christmastime. But Satan’s—sorry, Santa’s—Little Helper isn’t what he seems. This elf is out to murder, and readers learn that this elf is an evil demon that sometimes appears in different forms, and has in the past…
Santa’s Little Helper has fairly an unusual narrator. At times, this limited omniscient storyteller takes on the language of the children, using words like “mommy” and “doggy.” In other places, the narrator has a very adult tone: “But if that list was handed over to anyone at all, it sure as shit wasn’t Santa. It wasn’t the Easter Bunny, either.” The narrator tells us what the children are thinking while assigning them words children wouldn’t know and then stating that of course a child wouldn’t know such words. In some sections, the narrator follows the thoughts of the children’s parents, describing the innate fear they feel that they can’t actually pinpoint, and the doubt most adults have about bad feelings and over-active imaginations. H.D. Gordon’s choice of narrator kept me engaged as a reader. I wasn’t stuck with one type of storytelling, and I really liked it when the narrator’s own personality came out (like saying “sure as shit”).
The narrator telling four separate main stories in which basically the same things happen to the children did get a bit repetitive. The story justifies four stories by giving each child has his/her own trait that makes the child special: Manny’s is observation, Mikey’s imagination, and Benny’s is courage. Emily’s trait isn’t given, but the author suggests that having a special trait is what made Santa’s Little Helper choose these children. Although Benny’s courage shines through as a direct result of his sense of duty to little brother Tuck, the rest of the children’s traits aren’t emphasized. I would have thought Mikey’s trait was intelligence, as he is always thinking, questioning, and working hard to learn to read. Manny, I would have guessed, would be defined by love, not only for his parents, but for a very special dog that stole my heart, as I read about his heroism and loyalty.
I wondered if H.D. Gordon could have cut out one of the children. I imagined the novel without Mikey. Manny seemed pretty close to Mikey’s personality. Tuck was also a thumb sucker, so he seemed similar to Mikey at times. Santa’s Little Helper would then lose Mikey’s mother, who was a writer, but one of the other children’s mothers could have been a writer. I didn’t see where, until the very end, that Mikey made a big impact, and his actions could have been done by others. Emily seemed necessary because she was the only girl, and her parents’ situation was unique and added a level of terror to the story. Benny and Tuck together had a nice brotherly-love thing going on, causing the boys to look out for each other and team up without their parents (as siblings often do). And Manny had his dog, who plays an important role.
While some of the physical descriptions of the children seemed a bit generic—missing front tooth, floppy curls, blond pigtails—other times a character was so real I could see what was going on:
“Mikey stuck his two middle fingers in his mouth, a habit he was slowly breaking because of being denied the pleasure during the long, long hours he spent at school. Callouses had formed on the knuckles of those two fingers, and his teeth set into the grooves of them perfectly, his mind taking more unregistered comfort in the feel of them there.”
On the other hand, the description of the elf was given over and over: the “oval-shaped plastic eyes, the wide, red-lipped grin, the gold bells on its shoes and hat.” There were also mentions of the elf’s green costume. Since there were four parallel stories in which characters are introduced to the elf doll, the description happens at a number that is, to be honest, annoying. Next, the four story lines had the elf moving and creeping around, so again we got the description of the doll. But then, about 2/3 through, something happened: Mikey decided to tell his mom the writer what was really going on:
The story [Mikey] was telling now was in no way lacking. It had everything: main characters, setting, a problem that grew and grew, building in tension and dread—which was something even good writers struggled with regularly. And if that were not amazing enough, the devil was in the details, almost literally. The way the boy was describing the happenings involving the elf doll—or Santa’s Little Helper, as Mikey called it in his telling—was chilling in its details. By the time he was nearing what she hoped was the end, Sarah-Lynn was more than ready for him to quit using the words red-lipped grin and tiny gold bells.
Damn you, H.D. Gordon! My first thought was “She be all up in my head!!!” I actually laughed when I read Mikey’s mom’s annoyance at the descriptions of the elf, and I totally forgave the author all her repetition in that moment. There were other places Gordon switched up the descriptions. When she imitated the sounds of an elf doll’s plastic feet heading toward a child in the dark (Click. Tink! Click. Tink! Clicktink! clicktink!), Gordon scared me! The image of the scary doll lost its effect, but here my fear was reignited by sound.
There are some really scary parts in Santa’s Little Helper, like a zombie that personifies Manny’s fears, the children’s teacher’s visit to the town witch, and the first instance of blood drawn. I like that the elf swears and is terrifying because I half expected the novel to be PG, as elves are related to children, and children are in this book. The violence doesn’t occur right away, but when it gets going, I had no doubt that death and terror were going to rain down upon the characters.
Santa’s Little Help is a fun, scary book that I would recommend to fans of horror by authors like Stephen King because the pacing is a bit slower than modern consumers want (think about how most American horror movies don’t even reach 90 minutes), but it’s a scary-good time!
*I want to thank H.D. Gordon for sending me a copy of her book. I have no professional, personal, or familial relationship with the author. You can learn more about H.D. Gordon by reading her Grab the Lapels “meet the writer” feature!