It’s October again, my favorite month. On the literary front that means it is time to celebrate Ray Bradbury, the man who coined the term “October Country” and taught us all, readers and writers alike, just how magical this time of year can be.
Neil Gaiman crafted M is for Magic as a bit of an homage to Bradbury whose own young adult collections R is for Rocket and S is for Space are still considered classics. (Go forth and get yourself copies now; they are absolute winners.) The idea was to pull stories previously published in publications for adults and repackage them for young adult audiences. As a big Gaiman fan I have already read most of the stories he chose, but I was interested to see what he would pick for teens and also to get a look at the short story “The Witch’s Headstone” from his YA work-in-progress, The Graveyard Book. As always, Gaiman does not disappoint and this collection should go a long way towards getting teenagers to join his ever growing list of readers.
There are several different genres present in Magic, from the noirish mystery “The Case of Four and Twenty Blackbirds” (Dumpty doesn’t fall in this one, he gets pushed) to the world’s best alien encounter in “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” but it is the spooky stories that are best represented. First and foremost, I defy you to read “October in the Chair” without getting thoroughly creeped out. The nifty little hook of having the months tell stories (and bicker) lures the reader in thinking -- quite wrongly -- that this might be a funny tale. But then October starts talking and there we are with a runaway named Runt who will do anything not to go back to a house where he is ignored and sad and slowly being destroyed. Although it was truly a classic Bradbury ending that didn’t mean I wasn’t totally freaked out by it.
“The Witch’s Headstone” is the real showstopper here though, and it is the only story that is original to the collection. The idea that a young living boy would be cared for by a group of ghosts in a cemetery seems oddly normal in Gaiman’s capable hands. Bod is a very engaging and brave young hero and his relationship with the ghosts, from the dead witch Liza to his teacher and protector, Silas, are all sweet and uncomplicated. It is the humans in this tale who are scary and the horrors that are hinted at by their presence make me wonder where Gaiman will go with the novel and just what Bod’s friends are going to have to do to keep him safe.
I have no idea what happens to a young man who grows up in a cemetery but I trust Gaiman will show us something that is both original and slightly scary when the final book is released. That is what he has done with this collection and it is his trademark. I hope he keeps his young adult fans in mind for many future stories and novels (and comics and movies) because you are never too young for great writing. Consider this the book to initiate the season of October Country, and put it in the hands of your nearest jaded teenager immediately.
Margo Lanagan is an utterly unique writer and her new collection, Red Spikes is further proof that her surreal and rather uncomfortable stories stand alone on the YA shelves. Weird stuff happens here, but it is a Lanagan-weird and thus provocatively entertaining.
Inspired by the image of a miniature warrior in Lynn Reid Banks’s Indian in the Cupboard series, “Baby Jane” is a dangerous twist on the fun of toy soldiers. Lanagan turns the tension up a notch by making the story as much about a birth as it is the miracle of the people (and bear) involved in it.
“A Good Heart” is also, after the fact, about a baby and young love and, surprisingly, about becoming a man. The subtlety of this wedding story, which will appeal equally to male and female readers, makes it rise above other similar concoctions that are all reminiscent of Bobbie Gentry’s infamous “Ode to Billy Joe.” In this case, Arlen loves Annie Stork and he knows that she loves him. But it is not Arlen whom Annie marries, and his relationship with her turns out to be far more secretive and dark, while still powerfully important. “Winkie” is a more traditional tale of horror that takes a beloved nursery rhyme (“Wee Willie Winkie”) and turns it on its head in a most disturbing fashion. Consider what little Ollyn unfortunately sees one dark night:
His knees came down inside the nightgown cloth like two great tree bolls falling from a woodcutter’s cart, and his fists came down like two more, either side of the jutting room.
Ollyn wilted and whimpered and shrank into a ball.
His face came down: his wide mouth with bad teeth saying, “Where can she be, my little mousette?” in that too-high voice; his nose, long and uneven and gristly-looking, with sprays of dark hairs from the nostrils; and eyes so big and so mismatched, searching, searching, first this one then that.
It’s the language Lanagan chooses that really brings home the ugliness of Winkie; words like “gristly-looking” bring nasty images to mind for the reader. What could have been a typical story about a young girl and a monster (monster under the bed, monster in the closet, monster on a dark street corner) becomes something far more sinister and overwhelming; it reaches a whole new gothic dimension.
Lanagan switches gears a bit for “A Feather in the Breast of God,” a story about a family pet with an angelic-like presence that brings heaven to earth in an effort to save a wayward daughter. “Feather” reminded me of a bit Philip Pullman; there are echoes here of a heaven not like the one we so envision from earth, and a power that intercedes with only the deftest touch and not the kind of heavy hand that prayers and offerings seem to long for. "A human eye is bigger than the head of a bird like me, if you take into account all the parts behind their eyelids. When it looks at you, it’s hard to think straight, for fear of where all that attention might lead."
There are other equally powerful stories in Red Spikes, including an earthy version of a changeling story in “Daughter of the Clay” and an outstanding twist on the nightmare of boarding school hazing in “Hero Vale.” (One does wonder how Hogwarts managed to escape all that brutality…) Altogether, Lanagan provides a solid mix of familiar and fantastic in a collection that is more unsettling than terrifying but certainly disturbing all the same. It’s good for a shiver or two and should impress and delight equally.
For middle grade readers, David Lubar has a less intense anthology of stories out now, The Curse of the Campfire Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales. From a first story about clowns and why they must not be trusted (“Mr Hoohaa!”), he makes it clear that while he’s not going to shy away from scary moments. This is definitely a collection for the younger set. Most of the stories are less than ten pages long and can be read at a steady clip, providing giggles and chills with abandon. “The Tunnel of Terror” riffs on all those carnival rides our mothers warned us about, and “Tied Up” is a near death story that manages to be both fresh and original. “Predators” is when Lubar really got me though; this three-page short short about online chat rooms seemed to be such a timeworn cliché that I almost skipped it. Good thing I didn’t because it has a zinger of an ending that sold me on the whole collection.
There’s a lot more to enjoy in Campfire and young readers will especially enjoy those stories with adults getting their comeuppance. The really truly scary ones though are those that deal with the evil that children can do. He writes in “Eat a Bug,” “Debbie smiled. The smiled reminded Laura of a caterpillar stretching across a half-dried leaf.” Poor Laura, poor poor Laura. But lucky us, who get to read all about Debbie and all the others in this confection of Halloweeny goodness.
Initially, T.K. Welsh’s The Unresolved read like a traditional historical novel, albeit with a narrator who dies in the opening chapter. Welsh does an excellent job of detailing the tragedy of the General Slocum, a steamship that caught fire in New York’s East River in 1904 and caused the deaths of more than 1,000 people. In the weeks after the accident it was revealed that much of the rescue equipment onboard was unusable, including fire hoses, life boats and life jackets. It’s a rotted life jacket that led to the drowning death of Mallory, the book’s undead protagonist, and is the reason why she is begins haunting many other people.
The survivors are suspicious and they and their families need to find somebody to blame. The tragedy pulled apart the New York community of Little Germany and the deaths ultimately led to its demise. Mallory moves between family members and friends, sharing their thoughts, and then eases into the lives of those who were responsible for the tragedy, forcing liars to see the truth and not letting others forget. Along the way, she observes what it means to be not only dead, but to have left behind a body that is unrecognizable:
And then it was my turn. I saw my mangled body being lowered down the frightful lip of that mass grave -- great hole for the unrecognized and unremembered. I felt my torso slide, my legs unfold beneath me. Legs wrapped about yet other limbs, despite our individual coffins. And arms and fingers, intertwined. That’s how I stumbled onto Nixie. What was left of her was propped up underneath another girl so that it was hard to tell where one began and the other finished. They had been baked together by the fire. My sister sat there, looking so nonchalant, without fear, without the slightest trepidation. I caught her eye, and I could feel her smile.
The Unresolved scores on several levels, most notably as a drama that blows apart all preconceived notions of how history can be retold. Mallory is a very engaging protagonist, both alive and dead, but it is as she evolves as a ghost that she will truly resonate with readers. Equal parts naïve and determined, eventually she becomes a force to be reckoned with and the true face of an avenging ghostly angel.
With One For Sorrow, Christopher Barzak has also written a ghost story but it is less about dying then struggling to live. It begins with the disappearance and murder of Jamie Marks, and the unexpected of impact of this event on his classmate Adam McCormick. Jamie is dead but he clings to the living and Adam is a boy halfway on his way to dying who sees Jamie as someone who can make that deathly trip easier. He is actually ready to die before Jamie’s body is found and before his ghost starts hanging out with him every night. It just takes him a little time to figure that out, and to begin to wonder just why Jamie sought him out in the first place.
On the surface though Adam has a typical fifteen-year old life. His parents fight a lot and his older brother is a total jerk, but none of that is beyond the pale. He knows Jamie from school and they are casual friends; the kind who see each and exchange a few words but little more. It is only after Jamie is dead that they really meet, but from where Adam is sitting makes a whole lot of sense. His family is falling apart, no one understands him, the only girl who has shown any interest in him is the one who found Jamie’s body; of course his best friend is a ghost. Of course.
From nights of playing computer games and days dodging school, Adam’s life quickly deteriorates into running away and living on the street and Jamie becomes his only tie to reality. Even his budding relationship with Gracie, who Jamie also reached out to, is tenuous as best. As Adam pulls away from the living he discovers all sorts of nightmares in the land of the dead; nightmares that terrify him but he still doesn’t want to go home.
What really impressed me about this book was how it was a familiar story on one level and yet completely unique on another. We have read stories about ghosts forced to relive their deaths over and over again, but in Barzak’s hands that old chestnut becomes Frances Wilkinson, a tortured, tormented and twisted ghost girl Adam meets who the author takes to a place few writers would dare. And Barzak wasn’t done when he revealed Frances’s ugly truth; he still had more to go.
One For Sorrow is deep and dark in different ways from the average coming-of-age tale. It takes readers to a place rarely visited with teen books and perfectly blends multiple genres to make a new kind of scary book; one that is all too damned believable. This is a debut novel for Barzak but reads as the work of an old soul.
Finally, Vasilis Lolos has created a funny fright of a book with his graphic novel Last Call (the first book in a new series). From the always impressive Oni Press, Last Call is about Sam and Alec who are out cruising late one night banging their hands to some very loud music when their car suddenly stalls on a lonesome hallway and they find themselves transported onto a train in a demon dimension. These guys are not vampire slayers, not by a longshot. “This isn’t a TV show! We’re in hell!! Our parents were right! Listening to metal will doom our souls and now we are paying the price!!
As the two of them open one door after another on the train and get more and more freaked out by what they see, Lolos has a blast with the artwork, crafting some truly bizarre creatures. The train is normal, but that’s the only thing that makes sense. The passengers are monstrous, the conductor is a violent soldier-type bent on murder for all those without a ticket (guess who don’t have tickets?) and the cars seem to shift in size at will.
The Last Call is gearing up to be a very good time on the dark side. Lolos has created a character in Sam who reacts exactly as you would expect a slacker teen to and Alec, who gets thrown off the train in a terrifying confrontation with the Conductor, is looking less like a pal and more like monster boy as the first book ends. I loved how no one is how they appear in this book; how the good and bad guys are hard to identify and also the all out creepiness of the setting. It’s a train to hell and the boys got there by stealing a car and listening to loud music. What better metaphor could there be for your teen years? I look forward to the second book and seeing what happens next for Sam and all of his fellow passengers.
Until next month, you can check me out at chasingray.com where there will be a lot of discussion of scary books in the month of October.
Cool Read: Mark Svendsen’s Circus Carnivore is one of those picture books that would be mostly lost on the under-five set. This is for lovers of Emily the Strange and Courtney Crumrin and all things Wednesday Addams. It also has a huge dose of Edward Gorey’s sly creativity thrown in and is a must have for the Nightmare Before Christmas crowd (of which I am a proud member).
The story, told in rhymes that include words like “noise-a-matron” and “thunder-undertrod,” is written across full page illustrations courtesy the fiercely imaginative mind of Ben Redlich. I can’t say enough about these illustrations which dazzle and disturb. The heart of the tale however is Kate, who allows the reader to peek inside her head, where her “cranky and pernickety” self is controlled by a host of odd little people operating interesting machines which send out words through Kate’s mouth. (“And they make whatever noise they choose/To show the world I’ve got the blues…”) The whole thing is a cacophony-filled ride on the dark end of the carnival (many echoes of Something Wicked This Way Comes) as seen through the eyes (and heart) of a little girl who is strange in all the best way. Clearly Svendsen and Redlich had a lot of fun with this book and it shows on every page. I wouldn’t share it with the little little ones (they won’t get the jokes), but for any angry teenager (or very creative soul) then it’s a dark artsy winner from start to finish.