Country Focus: Belgium (Belgique in French or Belgie in Dutch)
The Angel Maker
By Stefan Brijs
Translated by Hester Velmans
Originally published as De engelenmaker in Amsterdam by Atlas, 2005.
My edition: Penguin, 2008.
Time period: 1948-1990
The town of Wolfheim can’t stop talking about the return of Dr. Victor Hoppe and his three disfigured triplets, Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel. No one knows why the doctor has reappeared, what he has been up to for the past twenty years or what happened to the boys’ mother.
The villagers relax their suspicions after they learn that Dr. Hoppe will treat them for their various maladies free of cost. Their visits to his home, which also serves as his office, give the nosy patients an opportunity to catch rare glimpse of the babies, whom the doctor rarely takes out of the house. Sporting identical harelip scars, alien-large heads and eyes, and bright orange hair, the boys are Wolfheim’s resident freak show.
The only person with ready access to the boys other than their father is former schoolteacher Charlotte Maenhout, who the doctor hires as babysitter. Initially, the strange triplets take her aback. Michael’s, Raphael’s, and Gabriel’s personalities and appearance are so alike that neither Frau Maenhout nor even their father can tell them apart without checking the color of their telltale wristbands. The boys display uncanny intelligence but exhibit few emotions. Their physical condition, behind the norm from the start, deteriorates markedly during the four years she cares for them and their father frequently places them under “quarantine” for illnesses that he doesn’t explain.
Desperately worried about her helpless and isolated charges and growing ever more mistrustful of Dr. Hoppe, Frau Maenhout searches his office for anything that could help her understand what is going on, anything she could use to help the boys. And she does find something…but her confrontation with Dr. Hoppe does not go as planned.
So ends the first section of The Angel Maker; the second section bounces back and forth between Dr. Hoppes’ recent and distant past. The reader learns that the doctor, a brilliant but controversial embryologist, had made wild promises to a same-sex couple who wanted a baby created from both of their eggs – no sperm involved. Dr. Hoppe’s reckless and unethical attempts to fulfill their impossible request are rooted in his miserable childhood, which he endured in a convent-cum-asylum. Cruel nuns, insane roommates and bedtime stories about a vengeful God are the main ingredients of the recipe for crazy in many a horror tale, and Dr. Hoppe’s mind – already plagued with Asperger’s syndrome – succumbs to the pressure of that tried and true combination.
The storyline returns to the present in section three, when an old colleague and one half of the childless couple feel uneasy enough about their last conversations with Dr. Hoppe that they decide (independently of each other) to check in on the good doctor in Wolfheim. Neither are prepared for what they find…
I count The Angel Maker as the first horror novel I’ve read for this project, but I thought it lacked any truly scary moments. I used to be an avid reader of Stephen King and Dean Koontz, two of America’s most popular horror writers, and I’ve watched a fair number of horror movies. I’ve found out that what scares me often doesn’t scare my friends, and vice versa. Horror stories that stem from religious beliefs don’t affect me much, but are extremely frightening to many people. Stefan Brijs preys on (and counts on) that fear with The Angel Maker, which is why it disappointed me but may keep another reader up at night.
Newly hatched fledglings – that was what the boys reminded her of as she dried them off. Not only because they seemed so vulnerable, so fragile, so helpless, but also because they were pink and bald and seemed to have far too much skin. And because the large, bulging eyes took up practically their entire faces. And because their mouths opened and closed like little beaks as they gasped for air. They did so greedily, as if they had kept their breathing to a minimum all this time because of the stench.