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Literature / Wait Till Helen Comes

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Wait Till Helen Comes is a 1986 children's novel by author Mary Downing Hahn.

After their mother Jean marries Dave, twelve-year-old Molly and her younger brother Michael find themselves stuck in the country for the summer with their new Bratty Half-Pint stepsister Heather. At age three, Heather witnessed the death of her mother in a house fire and is now clingy and possessive of her father, to the point that she resents the attention he pays to his new wife and her children. In hopes of splitting the family apart, Heather manipulates Dave into believing that the older children bully her. Molly and Michael are frustrated that their mother Jean always takes Dave's side in believing Heather's lies.

But behind their new home is a graveyard where Heather soon starts spending all of her time. She boasts to Molly that she's made a new friend, Helen Elizabeth Harper, who hates Molly and Michael as much as Heather does and who will do anything Heather asks. Heather withdraws further and further from the family in favor of her new "friend," even as a string of destructive, inexplicable events begin.

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In spite of her resentment toward Heather, Molly comes to fear that her new stepsister might be in terrible danger. Because over the past hundred years, Helen's had lots and lots of friends...all of whom ended up at the bottom of the local pond.

The book was adapted into a Lifetime Movie of the Week (alternately titled Little Girl's Secret) in 2016. The author herself appears in a cameo as the helpful town librarian.

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This work contains the following tropes:

  • Creepy Cemetery: Molly is horrified to learn that the family now owns the cemetery behind their new house, though it's actually quite ordinary and even pleasant in appearance.
  • Crusty Caretaker: The Creepy Cemetery above comes with one, complete with dire warnings against playing around the old Harper Place (though this warning is more to do with rattlesnakes than ghosts).
  • Dark Secret: Heather and Helen bond over theirs.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Molly gave up on reaching out to Heather after Heather reacted this way one too many times.
  • Due to the Dead: Only after Helen is buried with her parents under a tombstone bearing her full name does she finally depart for good.
  • Exactly Exty Years Ago: Helen Harper died exactly 100 years before the kids learn about her.
  • Forgiveness: What ultimately frees both Helen and Heather. Helen's parents forgive her for causing the fire that killed them, and Dave tells Heather that he doesn't blame her for the fire, allowing her to forgive herself.
  • Free-Range Children: Deconstructed, as part of the reason the family moves to the country is so that the kids can roam unsupervised (as opposed to their home in Baltimore, where it was too dangerous).
  • Ghostly Gape: Helen's eyes are nothing but shadowy sockets.
  • Haunted Fetter: Helen's locket, which seems to give her power over anyone who wears it. When the locket's on the verge of being lost, Helen instantly gives up her chosen victim in favor of rescuing the locket.
  • Hazardous Water: Molly, Michael, and Heather are warned that many kids have drowned in Harper Pond over the years.
  • I Just Want to Have Friends: The bodies of Helen's parents were never found, leaving her alone under a temporary tombstone where no one ever came to visit her. Her loneliness drives her to seek new friends.
  • Old, Dark House: Harper House, which is nothing but a burned-out shell.
  • Overprotective Dad: Dave isn't going to tolerate anyone who tries to mess with his daughter—a fact she frequently takes advantage of.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Molly is the imaginative, dramatic, superstitious, and intuitive sibling, while Michael is more down-to-earth, rational, and likes to believe everything has a scientific explanation.
    • Dave and Jean are also a Red Oni, Blue Oni parental team, with Dave being the emotional, explosive, hands-on parent and Jean the more laid-back, logical, and hands-off one.
  • Survivor Guilt: A theme that impacts the entire family (and Helen!), each in very different ways.
  • Theme Initials: Helen and Heather share the same initials—H.E.H.—which is what initially draws Heather to Helen's grave.
  • There Are No Therapists: At age three, Heather witnessed her mother burn to death and has since become more and more withdrawn, complete with nightmares, flashbacks, and emotional regression. But sure, let's remarry and make her adjust to much-older siblings and a replacement mom, then drag her out to the middle of nowhere!
    • The film at least attempts to address this by saying that Heather has spent the last few years in a juvenile mental institution, but does not address that Dave yanked her out while she's still clearly deeply troubled.
    • There's also more than a little indication that Molly is still deeply scarred by the death of her father (she suffers from chronic sleeping issues and a deep aversion to death), but no one ever suggests that this might be the cause of her acting-out, nor do they suggest she seek counselling. (The film, again, averts this, stating that Molly has been seeing a therapist and showing her taking medication for her sleep disorder.)
  • Title Drop: Heather shouts the title at Molly as a warning.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Helen's modus operandi is to lure girls her own age into the pond where she drowned. The book implies she's done this dozens of times over the years. In addition to this, she appears to have the power to hypnotize her victims, to appear and disappear at will, and the ability to interact with solid objects (at one point even overturning an enormous heavy curio cabinet). Molly later realizes that Helen is acting out of loneliness after Helen says that none of the children she murders ever stay.
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