The October Country
October is my favorite month; with its falling leaves and wailing winds, it ushers in my favorite time of year -- the scary time, the sinister time, the time when Halloween proves that anything is possible, even the most improbable.
Ray Bradbury has thoughts on his October Country, as "that country where it is always turning late in the year, that country whose people are always autumn people, thinking autumn thoughts." This is the time of year where the unexpected can take an ugly turn down alleyways and tunnels and your very own hallways and find its darkest corners.
In celebration, I thought I would put together a column of books that fit perfectly into the October sensibility. Adventures, mysteries, even thrillers are here but all have one thing in common: something wicked lurks within their pages and makes the readers cautious about turning each and every page.
Tim Pratt’s The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl is technically a book for adults, but teen readers looking for a fantastic story about a big bad who literally can make the earth move should be running after this book. Firmly set in Santa Cruz (where I was most happy to discover that the boardwalk scenes from the best vampire movie ever, The Lost Boys, were filmed), Rangergirl follows the adventures of Marzi and her friends as they face down a comic book villain come to life. The comic in question is actually Marzi’s own, a “cowpunk neo-western yarn” titled “The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl.” It saved her sanity after suffering a nervous breakdown in art school two years earlier. Now she is the night manager at the very cool coffeehouse Genius Loci and works on her comic during the day.
As it turns out, Genius Loci is more than just a coffee shop, it’s also a gateway. And Marzi might think that the world of Rangergirl is all in her head, but really it’s on the other side of one particular door in the shop’s stockroom. There is also a girl made out of mud (who is surely one of the creepier crazies I’ve found lately), a guy who hears voices and does exactly what they tell him (to the detriment of others), and a vanished artist who has a lot more to do with everybody’s lives then his would-be biographer can imagine. Ultimately though it is all Marzi and “The Outlaw,” and the question is whether or not she has learned enough from her comic book to win the final showdown.
So, for the 15 and over crowd (there is some sexual content – a bit too much for the barely teen crowd, but plenty fine for the high school “please don’t insult my maturity” kids), Rangergirl is a true find. It’s an adventure, for sure, but it’s also a very serious story. Mudgirl is naaaasty and The Outlaw makes you remember just how violent all those old westerns really were, and why even our most treasured myths can be an excellent place to raise a few scares when in the hands of a gifted and imaginative author.
The Death Collector opens with a huge bang: “Four days after his own funeral, Albert Wilkes came home for tea.” He is giving us a zombie novel (a zombie novel!!!) that has the undead coming home, not to eat his family, but to have a traditional English tea.
Soon enough though, Death Collector proves itself not to be a zombie novel at all, not really, and much more an Industrial Age Frankenstein along with a Victorian version of The Relic and a bit of Dickens thrown in as well. Oh yeah – and dinosaurs. (I guess that means we have to include Jurassic Park in this particular creative soup as well.)
Poor dead Albert Wilkes is only a minor player in this very British, very suspenseful race against a crazed genius bent on creating all sorts of modern day monsters from the recently departed. Our heroes are George, who works in the British Museum and is a bit of a mechanical wizard; Elizabeth, who is the very definition of “intrepid and resourceful”; and Eddie, a young thief who is trying not to get killed by the bad guys who believe he knows too much. The three of them spend a lot of time running for their lives while simultaneously trying to get to the bottom of a cryptic clue left in burned up diary from a dead genius. Are you with me?
The plot flies along, the heroes all contribute as they should, and the addition of Sir William Protheroe, Curator of the Department of Unclassified Artefacts, recalls the classic scene from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Protheroe describes his department thusly: “Most of our artefacts seem innocent enough on first inspection. It is only when scientific and historical examination throws up contradictions and paradoxes that they come to us. A tooth might seem normal enough, unless it is the tooth of a vampire. The pelt of an animal of the canine family is unremarkable, unless it was taken from a werewolf. A stone tablet engraved in the Queen’s English is unlikely to cause controversy, unless it was unearthed from a site which is several thousand years old and might be the lost city of Atlantis.”
I might have considered The Death Collector to be a traditional adventure story except there is a layer of menace to the story – a relentless atmosphere of cloying grayness and sinister fog that covers the city. Richards does not have a cardboard crazy villain here -- his bad guy is a seriously bad man. Stopping him, and releasing poor Albert Wilkes from a true hell on Earth, makes this a very creepy story that is only better the second time around. There’s a lot of sequel potential in The Death Collector, and I hope that Richards follows-up with this fascinating world he has created.
Half the world away in a fictional version of Indonesia, young Adi nearly loses his life to a human version of the Wild Hunt on motorcycles in the opening scene of Sophie Masson’s Snow Fire Sword. What drew me to this book initially was the setting -- Masson was born in Indonesia and clearly was comfortable with its deep mythic history when establishing her island world of Jayangan. I found this to be a wonderful adventure as Adi and his new friend Dewi set out on their quest to recover Snow, Fire, and Sword (whatever they might be) and save their Sultan from being overthrown.
The kids question why it is all up to them early on, and learn that, as children represent the future, the future must be up to them. It’s a nice touch by Masson, although most YA readers will not care why Adi and Dewi are traveling around the countryside seeking the assistance of denizens of the spirit world and ancient goddesses. They will be too caught up in the search for truth and the race to discover it before the “Sorcerer” attacks the Sultan and captures Jayangan. There is no time in Snow Fire Sword to question or mourn or carefully consider options. Everything moves very fast in this combination of myth, magic, and technological realism (motorcycles, cars and helicopters mix with ceremonial swords and ancient traditions). What really makes the danger palpable is that politics plays a part in this novel -- a brutal overthrow of a government is planned by the mysterious Sorcerer, a situation that will appear all too familiar to savvy teen readers.
Masson does an excellent job creating a world that is both like ours and utterly different in Jayangan -- she makes it exotic and commonplace with descriptions of clothing that will read like an ancient tale of the East and music that fits on any modern CD player. She has managed to accomplish a forbidding tale that seems both old fashioned and contemporary and thus succeeds on multiple levels. More than anything though, it proves that some mad men wear a benevolent guise right up until the time where they try to kill you. On that score, it is utterly modern and will appeal to everyone who sees the world around us today for the scary place it truly is.
The situation is fairly grim in the village of Noor as well, where Miles and Hanna Ferrell are the youngest members of a family that has been long blamed for the occasional arrival of a horrible dog-beast, the Shriker. In Janet Lee Carey’s The Beast of Noor, the Ferrells don’t have it easy even without the curse -- they live some distance from the town and are considered different by the locals. (Nothing good ever comes from the locals not liking you.) But when the Shriker suddenly returns and claims his first victim (by page 4) life takes an ugly turn. Miles decides he has to deal with the Shriker. A deal with faerie soon follows and the true nature of the Shriker is finally revealed.
Noor is pure fantasy of a delightfully dark kind, with a forbidding forest, howling monster, and a heroine with a habit of wandering off in her sleep. Carey has created a village quite reminiscent of those in Irish or Welsh tales from the past, but the prose and action are certainly not old fashioned. I liked that the kids are not cheeky or smart-alecky and there is more than one adult who lends a hand when necessary. The Beast of Noor proves itself to be a classic coming-of-age drama, which might surprise Carey but certainly seemed appropriate to me.
Finally, because this is the Halloween season, I have a couple of vampire novels that recently impressed me. They could not possibly be more different -- other than the blood-sucker factor, they have nothing in common -- but boy did I enjoy the heck out of them. So for all those looking for a Buffy fix, here are two that will certainly help until Dark Horse gets their new comic on the slayer out. (Supposedly this month and written by Joss Whedon – keep your eyes peeled.)
With Bloodline, author Kate Cary takes on the Bram Stoker legend of Dracula but updates it to the early twentieth century. By opening during World War I, she introduces not only some new characters, namely Lt John Shaw, his sister Lily, and Nurse Mary Seward, but also a man with a very familiar last name, Captain Quincy Harker. I was immediately taken with the WWI setting and John Shaw is a very sympathetic protagonist. You feel the same horror he does in the trenches and share his suspicions about his commanding officer, Harker. Shaw is not the only mind the readers climb inside, however, as the story is largely told through the journal entries and letters of all the main characters.
Bloodline does not update or rewrite the original Dracula story, this is more a sequel of sorts about the generation that followed Mina, Van Helsing and everyone else in their famous Transylvanian trip. Cary is not tampering with literary history; she’s just writing another chapter in a long running saga, and bringing her own mind bending spins to what readers might expect. In some respects Bloodline is a very traditional story. At first, no one can really believe what is happening every time Harker takes a trip into No Man’s Land, and then, back in England, it all starts to seem like one long bad dream to the newly shell-shocked and gravely injured Lt. Shaw. But Harker shows up unexpectedly and then moves in on Shaw’s younger, and typically naïve, sister Lily. (Girls of that era were not known for their worldliness.)
Cary has a sequel, The Reckoning, due out next year; there’s a teaser at the end of Bloodline to get you ready for Book 2. (And yes, I’m very much looking forward to reading it.)
Glass Houses is also all about vampires, but these vamps are living in modern day Morganville, Texas, and there is nothing gothic or legendary about them. It only took one sentence to draw me in, as it begins with young college freshman Claire discovering that someone has stolen her laundry out of the washing machine. This might seem like a strange thing to resonate with a reader, but when I was in college, we had to babysit our laundry if we wanted to keep the same clothing we started with. It might seem like a silly thing, but having sweatshirts and jeans disappear is no easy deal when you are trying to live on your own for the first time, and Claire’s problem immediately struck me as a universal one. Then the bitches who took her clothes showed up and tried to kill her.
The bad girls are not vampires, they’re just the sort that seem to dog the world from elementary school on into soccer-mom-status, no matter how much we all puzzle about who could possibly love them and why. Claire is in trouble from the beginning because she’s younger than everyone else and less capable of playing necessary mind games. With no chance of making it through the night in the dorms without even more pain, she hits the college bulletin board looking for another place to live. She ends up at Glass House, an off-campus private residence where Eve, Shane, and Michael are looking for a fourth roommate. What she doesn’t expect is all the new insight into the town’s vampires or that shortly she will have one of them determined to make her dinner.
Make no mistake here, we’re talking run-for-your-life-and-try-to-make-it-in-the-door-cause-he’s-breathing-down-your-neck kind of determined, and Claire is looking more and more like a hors d’oeuvre on the town’s buffet. (Which includes a percentage of college students every year who just seem to disappear while partying. Morganville might as well have been Sunnydale in terms of rolling out the red carpet for visitors.) This goes on until she latches onto the thing the local vamps want, then there is a seismic power shift among everyone involved. I thought Glass Houses was a blast and I’m so glad Penguin sent it my way. It was the perfect antidote to a night of heavy reading and is one of the most fun reads I’ve had in a while.
As an extra special holiday treat, I’d also like to suggest you take a look at the gorgeous picture book Los Gatos Black on Halloween, written by Marisa Montes and illustrated by Yuyi Morales. In smart and spunky poems, Montes takes readers through a very imaginative and appropriately creepy Halloween night as Morales gives full color pictures that spark with deep rich color and spooky flare: “Los esqueletos rattle bones; the skeletons with creeks and groans; delight the night, in moonbeams dance – an awkward bow, a clattering prance.”
The mix of English and Spanish is clear and easy to follow, leaving no confusion for English readers and hopefully will instead spark a bit of curiosity for the other language. Young readers will eat this up -- it’s not often that you get a Halloween story that isn’t all silly grinning pumpkins and anemic-looking witches. Older readers will surely find it irresistible as well; both those reading on their own and teens who appreciate a sneaky phrase or gothic drawing will find something here to enjoy. Consider this a gift for the Timothy Burton fan club crowd -- it’s funny but in the best sort of dark way and with cemeteries, haunted houses, werewolves, and witches, it hits on all the things we love about Halloween.
Cool Read: My cool read this month is actually a travel guide. Written for nature lovers, the Travellers’ Wildlife Guides focus on plants and animals in destination countries with a goal of combining multiple field guides into one smart, full-colored illustrated package. What caught my eye in the new Australia: The East guidebook were dozens of pictures of animals -- all of them with excellent concise descriptions that any budding naturalist would enjoy. In light of Steve Irwin’s recent death, the Australia guidebook in particular should appeal to animal lovers but what’s really cool is these books will never go out of style. Elementary school readers (and younger) can start with the animal pictures, but as readers age, they will get more and more from the entries on national parks, plants, and environmental issues. Everything about the East Australia Guidebook is first class and I’m sure all of the series titles will see years of use and appreciation.