Oh, October, how I adore you. This is the month of winds whipping and leaves falling and pumpkins and hot chocolate and ever increasing dark and stormy nights. Autumn is my favorite season and October reading is sheer pleasure, made even doubly so by the release of Kendare Blake's follow up to her stellar Anna Dressed in Blood. The sequel, Girl of Nightmares, picks up a few months later with ghost hunter and killer Cas and his friends Thomas and Carmel, ending their junior year of high school in Thunder Bay and wondering what became of the ghost who saved their lives and whom Cas fell in love with, Anna. (See Anna Dressed in Blood for the necessary back story; you must read the books in order if you have any hope of understanding what is going on.) They assume she went wherever ghosts go when Cas and crew dispatch them to "the other side." The problem is that Anna keeps showing up in unlikely places (haunted barns, the mall, Cas's bedroom), and she is clearly in trouble. Anna needs rescuing, but saving her is a lot more difficult then anyone anticipates.
Readers should not worry that there is a lot of angsty love talk in Girl of Nightmares; Blake makes it clear how Cas feels about Anna and then the whole "things that go bump in the night" bits begin. The complications of getting to Anna (and the politics of whether or not one should even try to reach a ghost after she has "gone away") permeate the narrative, especially as everyone the friends consult (voodoo practitioners, witches, ancient dark society types) all push against their plans. Ultimately Cas and crew find themselves in England with a Giles-type protector who is way wimpier then Giles at his worst, lost in a suicide-filled forest and forced to undergo the sort of ritual that involves nearly dying (of course), just so Cas can finally speak to Anna and figure out what the hell is going on (nothing good, of course). There is a lot of killing, a lot of bleeding, some teen drama, some solid reasons why you should never trust anyone, and a walk on the wild side that makes standard horror fare seem downright tame. This is an excellent sequel with a most satisfying ending, and Blake cements herself at the YA horror author to watch. I am ever hopeful that Cas and his friends will return in the future but I'll take these two books if they are all I'm lucky enough to get. Absolutely mandatory October reading, Girl of Nightmares is the stay-up-late title of choice this season.
Edward Hogan's ghost story Daylight Saving is a very different take on the afterlife, although it also sports a powerful teen heroine in the mysterious swimmer, Lexi. Our protagonist is antihero Daniel, out of shape, angry and overwrought with guilt over having broken up his parents' marriage (it is not his fault). Trapped with his soon-to-be-divorced dad, he is dragged off on a misguided bonding attempt to the bland-sounding holiday resort known as Leisure World. Hogan's setting is perfect; it's Disneyesque (without the rides) but carries an air of creepy perfection that makes it a Stepford Wife of vacation destinations. Dad starts to loosen up during the planned activities, while Daniel drifts from one uncomfortable moment to the next. Then he meets Lexi and, of course, everything changes.
The mystery unfolds with deliberate care, all about why Lexi is alone, why she seems to be appear more and more abused in each of their meetings, and why she swims in the lake even though the water is uncomfortably cold. Thankfully, Daniel is not kept in the dark for the sake of the plot, and as he figures things out and seeks to help Lexi, the creepier aspects of Leisure World's glossy brochure perfection is revealed. Daniel has to stay one step ahead of the law (essentially mall cops on steroids), try not to seem too crazy so his father doesn't wig out, and also try not to slip deeper into a depression over his own family situation (his father starts dating and his mother is still miles away). This would all be manageable if Lexi weren't in desperate trouble and if Daniel weren't the only one who could help her. It's CSI meets The Sixth Sense, and it has a great twist and, well, Leisure World is pretty much the most perfect setting for a teen horror movie ever. (Why hasn't a movie been set somewhere like this?) Quietly sincere, and believably frightening, Daylight Saving will make you think twice about stupid choices late at night when someone offers you a ride home. Daniel is a winner and one of my new favorite tough guys. Well done!
Hannah Barnaby combines two classic horror-filled tropes, the traveling carnival sideshow and a boarding school with a cruel headmaster (who, in this case, comes with Bluebearish tendencies), in her novel Wonder Show. This is a long, deep tale, one that moves from one severe setting and separate story to another, each tied together by the teen protagonist. It is also far more serious then many scary tales, as protagonist Portia's monsters are all too real: a powerful man who will not take no for an answer, a lack of options in terms of escape, and a family that has gone long missing. She has no chance other than the one she is willing to make for herself, but running is one thing and surviving on your own is another. That is where Mosco's Traveling Wonder Show enters the plot, and Portia's life takes an unexpected turn. You would almost think this is a happily ever story if the school's "Mister" wasn't an ever present specter in the distance and if the price of discovery wasn't so damn high.
Wonder Show is not nearly as violent as Girl of Nightmares, as its scariness is rooted more in dark corners, twisted desires, and the things that float in jars waiting to be discovered. There is more than one disturbing moment in this novel (conjoined twins who make extra money by performing a special show for the men -- no, it's not graphically described, but you can just imagine what's going on in there, and you can't blame these poor girls who dream of a house full of books and all the knitting yarn they can buy), and the Mister is so easy to envision that it makes him that much more terrifying. What readers learn, along with Portia, is that the freaks in the sideshow are a lot more human than a some of the other people, but thankfully Barnaby does not hit us over the head with this message. The sideshow denizens are far from perfect, and often downright obnoxious, which is a relief; there are no saccharine passages in Wonder Show, and that goes a long way in making it enormously appealing for teens.
Poetry lovers get a rare offering this month, some truly dark -- dare I say gothic -- verse from Ron Koertge in Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses. Accompanied by Andrea Dezso's stark and intense silhouette illustrations, these poems use different perspectives and altered circumstance to portray familiar fairy tales in a new light. Koertge gives readers Cinderella's suffering stepsisters, tortured and abandoned by their greedy mother; the Little Match Girl selling CDs on a street corner, dreaming of "a mom with warm, clean hands / who doesn't bring home guys from bands / or make some sickening demands" (the bleakest tale ever manages to get bleaker -- and better -- in this example); and the Beast, who loves Beauty, but can't help dreaming fondly of the days when he had fangs. (Married life is a bit dull, after all.) Also, the Miller's Daughter becomes a feminist theory and practice professor, after facing down The Robber Bridegroom, while Bluebeard's latest wife is a tad less proactive (that one never ends well), and the heroine from "The Princess and the Pea" proves to be too tender skinned for, well, anything.
For the younger set, Charles Gilman and illustrator Eugene Smith start off a new series, Tales from Lovecraft Middle School, with the perfectly creepy Professor Gargoyle. Twelve-year-old Robert finds himself struggling to fit into the brand new school which sports state-of-the-art everything, except for the rats in the lockers, and includes an extremely weird science teacher and suddenly missing student. Robert manages to make a couple of friends -- one while fighting off some monster tentacles (it's the perfect way to bond), the other while in Lovecraft's answer to the Restricted Section of the library that is so secret that no one knows it's there, which makes perfect sense when you find out how it came to be.
There is a lot going on here, including a two-headed rat, and the casting of spells, and lots of getting mysteries solved just in the nick of time. But the three main characters (two boys and a girl) are enormously likable, appropriately snarky, and very smart. They don't spend a lot of time wondering what is going on or doubting that they really saw monster tentacles coming at them. These are proactive kids (even in the face of the mother of all spiders), and they embrace the adventure that they find in their midst. As for the series setup, it's really well done, and Gilman should have no problem keeping readers coming back for more (book two, The Slither Sisters, is due in January). Tales from Lovecraft Middle School is perfect for younger paranormal fans and a great way to have a good time that scares you just enough to keep the pages turning.
Finally, a few short takes of note. Holly Black's collection The Poison Eaters and Other Stories has several standouts including "Virgin," a unicorn story that made me think of Charles de Lint at his teen runaway best, and "Paper Cuts Scissors," which manages to appeal wildly to that most underserved demographic: book loving romantics who dream of adventures within the stacks. (There are many of us, I promise you.) The real page-turner, though, is her futuristic vampire tale "The Coldest Girl in Coldtown," which has sparked an upcoming novel. With all of Stoker's darkness and nary a sparkle to be found, this is a vampire world with a Bordertown vibe that finds a teen protagonist on the run, desperate to survive, while suffering tremendously from a vamp infection and drinking herself into oblivion to kill the blood craving. It's smart, it's original (to put it mildly), and it's about what the hell you do for yourself, and for love, and how some of the most pedestrian teenage problems don't go away even when you get bitten. Consider the story a teaser for what will be a major book next year.
Older teens should also check out The Best Horror of the Year Volume Four, edited by Ellen Datlow. It includes a host of stories by the likes of Stephen King (although I think his story is one of the weakest), Margo Lanagan, Peter Straub, A.C. Wise (who tells us what happened to the "final girl" in a particularly frightful horror movie), and Simon Bestwick (consider this the antithesis to Ray Bradbury's "The Foghorn"). Datlow's anthologies continue to be standouts and are always a safe bet for frightful reads of epic proportions.
And finally, the upcoming Subterranean Press limited edition release of Kelly Link's collection Stranger Things Happen, with two previously uncollected stories, is all the excuse I need to mention her epic tale "The Specialist's Hat." In fewer than fifteen pages, Link takes a babysitter and her two charges into the kind of tension-filled horror that moviemakers wish (dream!) they could duplicate. It's simple, it's subtle, and it's stunning. There is no gore and no blood, but the hint of violence is huge, and the possibility of what will happen, and the insinuation of what will happen, and the ending all combine to make storytelling magic. "The Specialist's Hat" is October, and Kelly Link is as good as it gets. Ray Bradbury would be proud. (And yes, you need to read Something Wicked This Way Comes this month as well.)
COOL READ: Jack Vance's short story gets the graphic novel treatment from Humayoun Ibrahim in a recent release from First Second, The Moon Moth, which captures the surreal nature of the original in fine form. Set in the interstellar travel future on the planet Sirene, the story centers on Edwer Thissell who has been reassigned as a "Consular Representative of the Home Planets" (his predecessor having been beheaded for violating a local law). On Sirene everyone wears masks and a man "literally never shows his face." The masks are not chosen randomly; they signify position in society, as well as the wearer's opinion of himself and others. Wearing the wrong mask can mean an insult or it can get you dead. For Edwer, navigating this society, with all the suppositions built into the masks and with the ease in which individuals may pass for others, becomes increasingly difficult. Misunderstandings ensue (no surprise) and the more he tries to fix the problems, the worse they become. People aren't who they seem, and the complex society of Sirene, where appearance should have meant nothing (the masks are supposed to negate that) but instead means everything, is fraught with cultural peril. To say that Edwer fears for his life is an understatement made clear as the final pages literally fly by.
Ibrahim has done a fine job of adapting Vance's story, which is complex on multiple levels. His illustrations are nicely done, although readers will have to be patient during the initial pages, until the backstory of Edwer's assignment and Sirene's laws is provided. This is a perfect take on the notion of "stranger in a strange land" and captures all that is so frightening about the notion of foreignness. The best thing would be to seek out Vance's story after reading this graphic novel, and thus appreciating it on multiple levels.
Colleen Mondor is the author of The Map of My Dead Pilots, which is all about flying and Alaska, a subject she is tackling again for another book (with bonus mountain climbing as well!). Find more at www.chasingray.com.