In Falter Kingdom, Michael J. Seidlinger explores the voice, character, and habits of a young man who is possessed—literally possessed—by a demon.
Though Falter Kingdom had been marketed as YA, it doesn’t do what books by J. K. Rowling or John Green or Rainbow Rowell or other YA authors do. It isn’t a cozy read. Maybe Falter Kingdom isn’t YA, or maybe it’s a daring evolution into what YA could be.
The premise of the novel is simple: Falter Kingdom is the name of a tunnel through which local kids dare each other to run. If you run far enough, you’ll get a demon stuck to you, which will, in time, inhabit you. This is what happens to the aptly named Hunter (as in demon hunter) Warden (as in a bad one, because he’s clearly not warding off any demons).
In the book’s version of the world, which just a little slant from ours, demons are relatively common. The rest of the world is exactly the same, cellphones and high school cliques and social media and all, right down to the narrator’s obsession with unboxing videos and ASMR soundtracks.
The novel’s plot, in other words, is simple: teenager gets possessed by demon, teenager is taken over by demon, teenager needs to figure out whether to let the demon run wild or exorcise it. But it’s the teenager’s voice that makes it work. Anti-hero Hunter Warden is like Holden Caulfield on downers. He is cynical and distrustful of the world but he continues to navigate it, ignoring the people he doesn’t like even while he spends time with them (a truly teenage feat). Of his friend Brad, Hunter says:
I guess we’re friends because I’ve gotten used to him being around.
Sort of like most people, I get used to them, and in time, it’s all the same.
This is as close to getting alone as I’ll probably ever know.
But yeah, Brad can be a real asshole…
Hunter’s disdain for others reflects his disdain for himself. His voice is gritty, uncomfortable, at times repetitive. His inner monologue is peppered with “um”s and “you know”s and “anyway”s, which may grate on some readers, but others will find it strangely piercing. Hunter’s voice is familiar, and even after putting the book down, his thoughts hang around, blending in to daily life.
This is entirely fitting for a novel about demon possession, haunting, and losing oneself. As Lizzie Skurnick has said, “It’s not surprising that YA is always dealing with transformation, whether it be realistic or supernatural.” And there is transformation here, of a sort, but it may be in Hunter’s decline or even in his static state. The demons of the novel can be read as variety of different metaphors.
Catching a demon, as Hunter does, is like catching a bad cold at first—one of the early symptoms is the frigid temperature that permeates Hunter’s room. While it isn’t passed on from one person to the other, the haunting can affect people in the vicinity of the possessed. One reading of demonic possession is as an STI—it’s the sticky, complicated evidence of being cool (if we compare running through Falter Kingdom to having sex), and it’s something you need to cure, to get rid of. But unlike STIs, demonic possession makes everyone want to be closer to you, at least superficially, until you start looking ill and bedraggled and red-eyed. The later stages of possession seem weirdly syphilitic—more and more, Hunter’s friends don’t want to be too close to him, as if he is contagious, and they tell him over and over again that he looks like shit.
Another way of looking at Falter Kingdom’s demons is through the lens of mental illness. Being diagnosed with demonic possession involves going to see a priest in order to discuss next steps and schedule the time for an exorcism, almost like seeing a psychiatrist and making plans for electroshock therapy. And like in some mental illnesses, depression in particular, the symptoms of possession—the cold, the time lapses, talking to the demon in your head, allowing the demon to take over your body—start to feel comfortable. In psych jargon, the demon becomes ego-syntonic (consistent with one’s self-image) rather than ego-alien (alien to one’s self image).
Hunter’s demon finds a lot of empty space to fill. Even before his possession, Hunter is emotionally drained, floating along in a life that he doesn’t enjoy, with a girlfriend he doesn’t like, with friends who annoy him. He is self-effacing, even while being intensely critical of his surroundings, which makes the moments when he’s vulnerable all the more poignant:
I can’t help it. It’s so awesome to think that I’m the one being talked about, all the way up to the ‘it’ people. Though I don’t totally know what that means. I’ve always had some names in mind, the people you know of but never really talk to. Those kinds of people. They are talking about me, maybe the way I’m thinking about them right now. Their talk is all curious and wondering, being like, ‘Hunter’s possessed…’
Over time, the demon digs in its heels, finding the spaces where Hunter doesn’t understand himself and attempting to fill them, much like mental illnesses often do—depression fills doubts with reality, anxiety fills reality with urgency, eating disorders fill stomachs with emotions, and the list could go on.
This terrifying, yet gratifying, attempt to fill up a loneliness is the most striking thing about Falter Kingdom. Anyone who has ever felt existential solitude will recognize the signs in Hunter’s posturing, his insecurity, his anger, his apathy. When a demon joins him inside the body that he has been feeling lonely in for years, of course he invites it in. Like an addiction (yet another way to read demonic possession), the demon convinces Hunter of its vitality and friendliness, and in the process convinces the reader too. It becomes so much a part of Hunter that it seems appealing. The demon’s presence allows him to carry a conversation rather than a soliloquy. By the end of the novel, I found myself craving answers to my inner monologue like the ones Hunter gets to have. Falter Kingdom is uncomfortable, familiar, and as addictive and haunting as Hunter’s demon.