The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, 1971.
This is the first book in the Stanley Family Mysteries series. Some people might be put off by the occult themes in this book, but this is a mystery story, and all is not what it seems. Read to the end to find out.
Eleven-year-old David Stanley has had to help take care of his younger siblings since his mother’s death. In some ways, he feels like his mother knew that she was dying before anyone else did, preparing David to help his father by taking care of his younger sister Janie and the young twins, Esther and Blair. David thinks that his mother might have been psychic because she tended to believe in some odd things and often knew things before other people did.
Now David’s father, a college professor, has remarried, to a divorced woman with a daughter of her own, Amanda, who is twelve years old. David likes his new stepmother, Molly, who is an artist, and he appreciates having someone else to help take care of the other kids. Amanda is a different story. She was an only child before her mother’s remarriage, and she’s not happy to suddenly have step-siblings, some of whom are rather young. Amanda has been unhappy in general since her parents’ divorce, and she wishes that she could go to live with her father full time. Her father says that he can’t take care of her because he has to work so much, but he spoils her whenever they spend time together. David has doubts about the things Amanda says about her father, but he and the others try to make her welcome in their new home.
With their family suddenly much larger, David’s father bought a new house for them to live in. Actually, it’s a very old house just outside of a small town that people call the Westerly house after the former owners. Not long after they move in, they find out that people used to say that the Westerly house was haunted. Mr. and Mrs. Westerly used to travel around the world with their two daughters because Mr. Westerly worked for the government, but after they settled down to a quieter life in this small town in the late 1800s, strange things started happening in their house. Rocks would fly around the house, seemingly thrown by invisible hands, and someone (or something) cut the head off of the carved cupid on the fancy staircase banister. The head was never found. These incidents were reported in the local paper, and people believed that the Westerly family was haunted by a poltergeist. These hauntings seemed to center around the two girls, particularly the older one, Harriette, which made some people think that they were faking it. However, they were never able to catch either of the girls doing anything. The strange activities finally ended when the girls were sent away to boarding school, but now that the Stanleys have moved into the house, strange things are starting to happen again.
Amanda is fascinated by stories of the poltergeist. A friend of hers where she used to live (one her mother didn’t approve of) was teaching her about the occult and how to do magic spells. When David tells Amanda that he thought that his mother was psychic, Amanda is surprised, and she offers to teach David and the other kids about magic over the summer. David eagerly accepts the offer because he finds the subject fascinating and because it’s the only thing that Amanda really seems interested in. The other kids are also fascinated at the idea, even the littlest ones, which takes Amanda by surprise. She had expected them to be scared.
Still, Amanda begins leading the kids through a series of rituals that will supposedly initiate them into the occult world, all of which have to be done in secrecy, without the parents’ knowledge. They have to do some bizarre things like spend an entire day not talking (they have to take turns so the adults won’t notice, and it’s harder for some kids than others), spend a day where they can’t touch anything metal (mealtimes are awkward), offer “sacrifices” to the spirits, and find animals to be their “familiars.” As some of these rituals and the kids’ strange, secretive behavior cause problems, particularly for David’s stepmother, David begins to suspect that Amanda’s “rituals” have an ulterior motive that has nothing to do with magic at all. Then, the poltergeist activity begins.
Just as with the Westerly family years ago, rocks are thrown around the house or found just laying around. Things are broken in the middle of the night. Have Amanda’s rituals somehow awoken the poltergeist once more? David has his doubts, suspecting that it’s part of Amanda’s playacting, but she is accounted for when some of these strange things happen. The younger kids are still more fascinated than frightened by these strange happenings, but their stepmother finds them particularly unnerving.
Then, just when David thinks that he understands the situation and Amanda seems to be calming down her occult talk and behaving more normally, something happens which is really inexplicable: the missing head of the cupid suddenly reappears.
That Amanda is faking at least part of the haunting is pretty obvious even early on, so it’s not much of a spoiler to say that. Amanda is an unhappy girl whose life abruptly changed with her mother’s remarriage, and her occult talk and fake witchcraft is part of her way of dealing with her feelings. She admits to David at the end of the story that she was purposely trying to frighten her mother, trying to “get even” with her for turning her life upside down, first by divorcing her father and then by getting married again, forcing Amanda to move to a strange town where she has no friends and live with a bunch of kids she hardly knows. Getting to know her new siblings better and sharing adventures with them helps, but it takes the frightening moment when the cupid’s head suddenly reappears to get Amanda to admit that real occult stuff scares her too and to confess the truth of what she did and her real feelings to her mother.
There are some elements of the happenings, particularly the reappearance of the cupid’s head, that are never fully explained, although David ends up knowing more than Amanda by the end. Some aspects of it are hinted at. There may be a real supernatural event at the end of the story. Blair appears to have inherited psychic abilities from his mother, and there is a distinct possibility that the Westerly sisters who once lived in the house were just as unhappy with their parents for the changes in their lives as Amanda was with her mother. Although the “poltergeist” as it first appears doesn’t exist, it may be that the “poltergeist” of the past remembers what it was like to be young and unhappy and wanted to make amends for past wrongs and to help another troubled young girl to make peace with her life and family. But, if you don’t like that explanation, there is a more conventional explanation that is equally possible. Personally, I think it’s a combination of the two, but it’s not completely clear.
As a kid, I enjoyed the creepy aspects of the story and the sense of wonder the kids experience as they go through their “rituals,” trying to bring some magic to their regular lives, wondering if things like ghosts and magic can really exist. Now, I more appreciate how Amanda researched tricks used by fake psychics and mediums and used them creatively to her advantage. I also like the way David sensed the truth behind Amanda and the strange happenings even though he didn’t really understand how or why it was done at first. David has some genuine curiosity about magic, but even after he realized that Amanda was faking things and was disappointed by it, he didn’t immediately tell the others. He could have unmasked her as a fraud, but he knew that would only earn her resentment. He wanted to understand her motives and help her feel better, giving her the chance to make peace with her mother herself.
This book has been frequently challenged because of the children’s inquiries into the occult, but I would like to point out that their “occult” experiments were all fake, pretty obviously so, and it is acknowledged that Amanda’s interest in the occult was fueled by her emotional distress (part of her urge to “get even” with her mother by causing problems). By the end, Amanda has admitted her true feelings and made peace with her mother, and she also says that her mother has explained some things that Amanda didn’t know before. Some of Amanda’s resentment toward her mother was fueled by things that her father had told her, and Amanda also realizes that some of the nasty things that her father told her about her mother may not have been true. In the end, she realizes that her resentment toward her mother for causing the divorce was needless. Much of the story involves unresolved feelings and the need to communicate them honestly.
The difference between reality and perceptions is also important to the story. Although Amanda at first tries to convince the other kids that she is an expert on all things magic, David soon realizes that she’s not (she acts like ordinary, easily-identifiable wild flowers are rare herbs and can’t control her “familiar” because she has no idea how to handle animals), and when things happen that Amanda can’t explain, she’s the first to be terrified. In the end, Amanda gives up on the idea of the occult completely, realizing that the things she did were wrong and that she had gotten involved in something that she really didn’t want to be involved in. Many kids wonder about the supernatural when they’re young, and I don’t think it’s bad to point out to them that they if they experiment with such things, they may be getting involved in something they could regret and that they should consider their motives for wanting to do so.
This is a Newbery Honor Book.