October 2008

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Pretty Monsters

If ever there was an author suited for a certain time of year, it is Cherie Priest and the month of October. Through her evocative southern Eden Moore trilogy to the 19th century frontier werewolf drama Dreadful Skin, Priest knows how to write a fear-filled story that never makes the reader feel like a fool. She is not an author that disappoints, in narrative or character, and she does horror like few others.

Her latest novella, Those Who Went Remain There Still is a perfect example of Priest’s strengths. Following two converging plots, it is grounded in the actual events surrounding Daniel Boone’s mission to clear a path through the Cumberland Gap in 1775. To that piece of actual American history, Priest has blended an old story handed down in her family, a story of dark suggestion and otherworldly activities. Together these narratives form a cohesive fictitious tale about what Boone and his men encountered, something that nearly killed them. That mysterious monster reappears in 1899 when it falls to five descendants of Heaster Wharton to go into a Kentucky cave on a mad search for their patriarch’s last will and testament. That cave was known to Boone and his men and it was known to the thing they defeated.

The story would not work on anything other than a superficial level if it was isolated around the Boone story but Priest goes far beyond that by adding her own dose of terror to history. Her development of Wharton’s descendants and their ongoing family feud pulls the reader in immediately and makes the attempts to break free of family chaos by some of the members, each of whom gets sucked into Wharton’s caving assignment, very compelling. You want to know what happens to these guys when they go into the dark and most especially, you want to know why Meshack Coy’s sister went missing one night in the past and if it was the cave she disappeared into.

With Those Who Went Remain There Still Cherie Priest continues her exploration of place and America's ghostly history. Her stories and novels are exquisite in the way they tap into our national consciousness. For older teens and adults Priest is not to be missed and this is certainly one of her best pieces of work to date. (And if you want the story behind the story, the limited edition includes a chapbook by Priest explaining how her family history entwines with Boone.)

Lewis Buzbee also includes a famous American in his new mystery/ghost story Steinbeck’s Ghost. This is a very original novel, one that is hard to pin down for readers who might be looking for a basic description. Buzbee has taken the very real events surrounding the 2004 proposed closing of the John Steinbeck Library in Salinas, CA, and turned it into a novel about why books matter, especially John Steinbeck in particular, why living an original life that doesn’t blindly follow the herd is something to strive for and also -- and most deliciously -- why dead authors sometimes haunt their former surroundings in an effort to give one final message to readers.

As the book opens, teenage Travis is stuck in the gated community from hell. His new home is a suburban version of Madeleine L’Engle’s Stepfordesque Camazotz from A Wrinkle in Time. The problem though is not so much that everyone stays locked up in their houses behind their perfect manicured lawns with their scarily similar facades, but that his parents are working themselves to death to keep this slice of the American dream -- which means no one can enjoy it, let alone time with each other. Buzbee makes clear that he isn’t messing around here; he lays bare the truth behind the “no one plays in the street, or paints their house purple or works on a car in the driveway” suburban insanity that Americans have willfully trapped themselves in and through Travis shows how shallow this way of life can be. Driven to find something real, something that matters, Travis goes biking one afternoon back to his old neighborhood library which he soon discovers is in danger of disappearing.

While joining the community effort to save the Salinas library, Travis also reconnects with Steinbeck’s writing and that is when things take a decidedly otherworldly turn. He sees the ghost of the author on several occasions and begins also to run into characters from his books. From the wild spaces of the California scrubland to the waterfront location of Cannery Row, Travis finds Steinbeck at every turn. It is clear the author wants him to know something, to uncover a truth that he was unable to tell while alive, but Travis can’t help but think that maybe he’s going a little crazy. He blunders along with the help of a somewhat curmudgeonly writer who wrote about Steinbeck in the past and the two of them make some startling discoveries. It’s not scary but it is increasingly mysterious, which is perhaps what makes the ghostly portions of the plot so powerful.

Buzbee has done a wonderful job of balancing all the aspects of Steinbeck’s Ghost and keeping the reader equally concerned about Travis’ family, the library and Steinbeck’s secret. This is one of the most carefully crafted YA novels I’ve read in quite some time; it’s beautifully done and packs a wonderful literary mystery in the midst of quite a bit of bookish talk, buddy moments and X-Files type encounters. Perhaps my highest praise is to admit that after a dreadful encounter with Steinbeck back in high school, Buzbee has made me long to read several of his classic titles I long ago decided to skip. There’s much to admire in this novel; it is a winner for anyone interested in a very smart and subtle literary ghost story.

I think everyone can agree that Neil Gaiman is a master when it comes to fantasy and his latest YA title, The Graveyard Book only affirms his reputation. As compelling as the fantasy elements are (due to its primary setting, ghosts abound), it is the all too prosaic murder mystery that truly compels. “Bod” is a toddler who wanders into a graveyard the night his family is murdered by an unknown assailant. Why someone would want to kill this baby is the narrative thread that links the stories about his life. Although there is no traditional plot structure the tension still slowly builds as Bod takes steps away from the safety of the dead and reaches out to the world of the living; the world he longs for but is still too dangerous.

As the toddler Bod settles into graveyard life he is taken care of by a married couple who “adopt” him, the Owens, and watched over by Silas, a mysterious figure who dwells somewhere between the living and dead worlds, having a place in each (much like Bod). Each chapter shows the boy growing older and interacting with the many ghosts who surround him and learning their history. Some of them he becomes quite close to while others appear briefly as teachers or associates who answer his questions and provide occasional guidance. Everyone in the graveyard loves Bod to one degree or another and all of them take seriously the responsibility of keeping him safe. There is plenty of room for drama however when he leaves to attend school, find a gift for a friend or when he meets a living girl on the cemetery grounds. But each exposure to the world of the living brings Bod closer to danger as his killer closes in. Who that man is and how Bod will ultimately evade is the source of the book’s ever-increasing tension.

One of the aspects of The Graveyard Book I really enjoyed was the normalcy of life in the cemetery. Gaiman goes out of his way to make the ghosts believable and normal in all of their quirky and individual ways. There are no saints or demons here, merely a lot of people formerly living who are trying to get along now that they are dead. Bod’s relationships with this new “family” are the crux of the novel and the emotional weight that carries him and the reader along to the end.

At this point in his career, Gaiman has succeeded in making his books look almost easy -- he consistently provides such a well-written reading experience that many critics might think there is little to be impressed by here. That consistency is what makes him one of my favorite authors. He is brilliantly creative but just as importantly, supremely dedicated to his craft. Simply put, Gaiman works hard at writing good books and The Graveyard Book is another stellar example at the results of his work ethic. Perfect reading for kids who like to be a little bit scared, Gaiman is the modern day bearer of Bradbury’s mantle.

Very quietly, Kelly Link has been carving out a niche as an author of surreal and spooky short stories that defy description as effectively as they scare the bejeebers out of their readers. Her latest collection, Pretty Monsters collects several previously published stories along with a new tale in a package that is directed at teens. Rounding out the title are illustrations from Shaun Tan whose own iconic and unusual vision of the world is a perfect match for Link’s. This is a perfect match of author and illustrator and a great introduction to an author who will be loved by teen readers.

There are several standouts for me in Pretty Monstersstarting with the first story, “The Wrong Grave.” Riffing on the true story of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal, Link references everything from Buffy to Survivor as she writes about Miles Sperry who decided to dig up his dead girlfriend and recover some poems he had melodramatically buried with her (they were the only copies of course). Miles digs up the wrong girl and finds himself instead with “Gloria” who is not at all like the dead Bethany and not interested in Miles's reasons for disturbing her peace. Gloria has been a bit bored it seems and Miles becomes her new diversion -- no matter how hard he tries to get away. It seems a cliché to say the ending is a shocker, but it is and it is splendid and Gloria is pretty much my new ghost hero.

“The Specialist’s Hat” has gained a lot of attention for its spin on babysitters with bedtime stories and still manages to creep me out every single time I read it. (Knowing what will happen next in this one does not diminish it -- if anything the tension builds even more in anticipation of the final page.) “Magic for Beginners” defies expectations and assumptions every step of the way as it follows teenage fans of an unscheduled unexplainable television show who group together to discuss its every twist and turn. The fact that the story’s plot also involves a phone booth bequeathed to the main character and a love triangle (or more) makes it both odd and typical. This is coming-of-age of the decidedly Addams Familyesque kind but crossed as well with a healthy dose of X-Files paranoia. Smart and snappy, “Magic for Beginners” is one of my all-time favorite short stories.

There are several other outstanding offerings in the collection including the Nebula Award winning “The Faery Handbag.” But it was the title story “Pretty Monsters” (published here for the first time) that really put this collection over the top for me. Link takes the “mean girls” high school dynamic and turns it on its ear. In this story the popular girls are not necessarily vicious or cruel but they are foolish and decidedly narcissistic. They “kidnap” Czigany Khulhat, daughter of a foreign diplomat, as part of an initiation. Because she is watching her younger sister, Parci must thus come along as well. Czigany is up front from the very beginning that they must be home at a certain time or her parents will become very upset. The other girls play along with this subtle threat, which steadily becomes more hysterical as the day progresses, until it is clear that the Khulhat girls are not going to be home until well after dark. The others think Czigany is silly, her parents too controlling and that the rules need to be flaunted for their own good. They talk about their own problems and think about their own concerns and barely give Czigany more than a moment’s thought -- except when they are congratulating themselves on how nice they are to initiate her in the first place. This acute inability to see beyond their own noses is classic behavior and sets the girls up for the ultimate fall when it becomes clear Czigany has not been kidding. She and Parci really did need to be home at a certain time and now that they haven’t everything is going to get a whole lot more serious.

Except it might not if the whole thing is just a story. And Link also throws out the caveat that the happy ending depends on whether or not you are a teenage girl or a monster, which sometimes might be the same thing. This takes the mean girls conversation to a fantastic new level which is what Link excels at the most. She is a writer who watches the world around her and then spins it to reflect her own extraordinary visions. For teens who have missed Link’s stories so far, Pretty Monsters will be a treasure of great literary value.

The Secret of Laurel Oaks is based on the very real events that occurred at the Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana. In the 1830s the owner’s wife and two daughters were poisoned during dinner and in the days that followed a house slave was hanged for the crime. The Smithsonian lists Myrtles as one of the ten most haunted places in America and supposedly the dead children, the slave Chloe and also some people who died later, all walk the grounds at night. People have seen strange things there and it has been the subject of more than one investigation.

Author Lois Ruby takes the truth about Myrtles and turns it into a contemporary fictional story that includes flashbacks to the 1830s. Teens Lila and Gabe arrive at the “Laurel Oaks Plantation” for a working vacation with their parents and soon find themselves with a lot of time on their hands. Lila in particular is susceptible to the ghostly atmosphere and quickly makes friends with Sal, the owner’s foster daughter. The three children find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into the mystery of just what happened to the plantation owner’s family and what task might have been left undone in the wake of their deaths. It is most especially Daphne, the slave girl accused of the murders, who Lila feels an affinity for. Clearing Daphne’s name soon becomes of paramount importance.

To keep the suspense going, Ruby introduces Daphne as a character, telling part of the story through her recollections and part of it through Lila’s discoveries. Daphne reaches out to the children, and her memories of life in slavery are quite vividly told making the novel work on two levels, both as a mystery and a powerful historical drama.

The Secret of Laurel Oaks is a solid page-turner for younger teens and its close proximity to a true story is enough to make anyone wonder about the possibility of ghosts. Ruby has an afterword where she writes about Myrtles and the differences between face and fiction. It will be hard to read this book without wondering what really happened almost two hundred years ago.

Deborah Noye takes on Edith Wharton’s ghost story “Kerfol” about a Frenchwoman convicted of murdering her husband with her collection of related short stories The Ghosts of Kerfol. Beginning in 1613 with direct homage to Wharton, she continues forward in time, always returning to the Kerfol estate, with stories in 1802, 1926, 1982 and 2006. The first story, “Hunger Moon,” is solid horror, with a cruel husband, trapped wife and more than one tragically dead dog. When Wharton’s original twist unfolds, Noyes stays true to the story although she adds multiple other twists that make it both more frightening and poignant.

The subsequent stories all involve visitors to the estate who encounter echoes of the original tragedies. Evil continues to lurk at Kerfol, as do the lost and eternally sad. Each story builds on the ones before, adding layers to Wharton’s legend and creating new supporting characters. Noyes makes it clear that when you brush close to something this unsettled -- to a permanently disturbed location -- even if you walk away from it, you are still altered by the experience. How altered is what she explores and the answers, as varied as life and death, make the original “Kerfol” story that much more compelling.

Readers who enjoy their ghost stories steeped in atmosphere will find much to like in The Ghosts of Kerfol. Noyes captures the periods she writes in quite well and using various plot elements to link them together (far beyond the location) creates an overall tale of murder and lost love that fits as perfectly as any novel length puzzle. Bronte fans take note; this one is a solid entry in Wuthering Heights country.

The Mystery of the Fool & the Vanisher by David & Ruth Ellwand has to be one of the coolest books I’ve seen for the ten and up crowd. The plot involves a recovered journal and the discovery of fairies plus an archaeological dig, some folks involved in nefarious activities and a box buried in a very scary section of the woods. Flashing back and forth in time between the words of Isaac Wilde’s 1889 journal and photographer David Ellwand’s contemporary diary of events, this is a surreal journey in words and images. As Ellwand immerses himself in Wilde’s long lost world, he is both surprised and frightened by the weirdness he uncovers. Wilde saw something he could not comprehend while working on a dig and he carefully preserved all the clues to that discovery for future investigations. The collection of odd tools and masks prompts more questions than answers for Ellwand and compels him to embark on his own investigation. That’s when things take a dark turn and the mystery of Wilde’s disappearance becomes more significant.

Written as fiction but read as nonfiction, it is hard to ignore the museum-like presentation of this richly illustrated story. Piece by piece the authors lay out what Isaac Wilde had to say and what he found in an isolated corner of the English Downs. It’s not a gothic mystery but a trip through fabled history; a visit to the lost part of some deep dark magic archive. Cross Indiana Jones with Spiderwick and you are getting close to what Fool & the Vanisher is all about. As interesting as the mystery is though, I can’t overstate how impressively designed this title is. Its photographs are stunningly orchestrated. This is a book that will draw a wide audience from reluctant younger readers to teens who will find the design unique and definitely worth poring over again and again.

In terms of true gothic, you couldn’t ask for much more of a spot on title then J.P. Hightman’s Victorian era chiller, Spirit. Based on the premise that not all the Salem witches were innocent, it starts with a very creepy bang and doesn’t slow down much from there. Early on readers meet seventeen-year-old spouses Tess and Tobias Goodraven, who have been strongly attached since a fatal fire destroyed their families when they were young. As wealthy teens with an unnatural compulsion to investigate tales of the ghostly and strange, they are very unusual protagonists. Drawn to the story of some banned Salem witches who died at the town of Blackthorne, which is enjoying a resurgence of popularity due a new rail route, the Goodravens are onboard a train filled with revelers for the town’s village carnival when otherworldly events cause it to derail. People are maimed or killed and Hightman doesn’t shy away from describing the bloody details. Slowly but surely the Goodravens uncover the nasty truth of the long dead Blackthorne witches and take them on in a head to head battle for their very souls. I won’t spoil the ending but will say it is in the classic gothic tradition and will certainly keep you up at night. This is absolutely some very creepy October reading and a throwback to old world tales of terror. Don’t think you can outguess where Hightman’s plot is going; it is a surprise every step of the way.

Cool Read: Photographer Jo Whaley specializes in taking photographs of insects and creating what she terms “photographs of narrative fiction.” Her unique fusion of art and science does not horrify, but rather begs the viewer to come in closer and reconsider the common creatures that she frames in spectacularly unexpected tableaus. In the introduction to Whaley’s new book, Theater of Insects photography curator Deborah Klochko writes that her work, “awakens us to the insect” and also that “the stage she creates for each insect is meant to open the viewer’s perspective, allowing associations that would not be likely to arise when viewing a purely informative image.”

So what you see in Theater are butterflies perched above faces on century old sepia-toned photographs now artfully splattered with color or moths staring down the moon and beetles considering the inner workings of a mechanical wonder. Anatomy charts are present, along with reflections, torn pages and little girls lost in a lens that now begs them to fly away. Whaley is a kindred spirit of Rosamund Purcell and fans of her work will certainly find Whaley’s equally appealing. They will also ponder however the source of the artist’s imaginative ideas and the technique that creates rich fantasy out of such ordinary creatures.

In a concluding essay Whaley explains the mechanics of her art and the appeal of her subjects. “The phrase ‘still life’,” she writes, “…comes from the Latin natura mortalis or dead nature. My approach is to consider the still-life set as a theatrical stage, where the backdrops are fabricated and the objects are positioned to create a visual dialogue.” She refers to her photos in Theater of Insects as “fantastic field illustrations.” Anyone intrigued by nature and appreciative of surreal beauty will be drawn to Whaley’s work -- it honors both science and beauty and reminds us how closely the two are entwined. The conversation Whaley is developing here is both personal and wild; it is nature from an uncommon perspective and invites viewers to throw convention to the wind in an effort to join her in this new vision of the natural world.