Halloween, my favorite holiday ever, (mostly due to pure nostalgia) is here! In order to recognize North America's macabre, spooky, and fun-loving ode to laughing at death and commemorating the end of the warm months, here are a few of the creepiest novels I read this year, for adults and children alike.
The best parts about Horrorstör, Grady Hendrix's cunningly designed and plotted horror-comedy set in a cursed Midwestern Ikea-knock off, are the characters and the setting. Each are so well executed, specific enough to be memorable yet open enough to be easily applicable to anyone, from the feel good business platitudes of the manager Cecil, to the quips of the bored employee Amy, to the specs of the various cheap furniture sold by the store. It is this familiarity that really draws you in once the horror, when least expected, begins to creep up out of the walls. I really love Grady's mixture of the banal, everyday, retail environment many of us suffer through at some point in our lives and the bleak, surreal horror of the Beehive and it's ghostly inmates. Maybe they are not so dissimilar after all...
Quite a riveting production, Lauren Beukes' Broken Monsters was a scary yet charming occult mystery. I was impressed with her ability to draw so many distinct themes and threads together so effectively into a suspenseful, gripping story, which worked very nicely in audiobook form with several expressive voice actors bringing the characters to life. Through their viewpoints, the surreal elements of the story meshed well with a very realistic take on how people would react to the approach of the unexplainable. In what boils down to a pretty pulpy police-procedural with supernatural undertones that seem to be quite dujour these days (i.e., True Detective, the Twin Peaks resurgence, etc), there is a lot of food for thought here. As others have noted, this is a truly genre defying novel, which often are the most interesting kind.
A common comment regarding this strange book, regardless of whether the reviewer liked or disliked it in general, is "difficult," "inaccessible." I cannot dispute this, I too found it hard going in spite of its relative slimness but I also found myself drawn in by its strong sense of tone and mood. "The Orange Eats Creeps" is pure, distilled punk style, dark, ragged, angry. Our narrator, who refers to herself as a "vampire hobo slut junkie," travels with a group of runaways riding the rails of the '90s Pacific Northwest, chugging Robitussin, crashing under bridges, and causing trouble in small town convenience stores, but this all makes the story sound too linear.
The description on the book jacket, while certainly weird, does not truly prepare the reader for the surreal, dreamlike, hallucinatory ambiance maintained throughout the novel; the crust punk vampire story, the grimy Twin Peaks setting, even the search for the narrator's lost foster sister are only vague overlays in the narrator's fevered narration. Nothing, except the narrator's pain and rage, is constant; this is not pleasant reading as she recounts distorted, illusory images of her tragic life; she is abused and she abuses others, as she helplessly drifts from one "scene," or "dream" to the next. There's no place for a discernible plot or even such things as a beginning or ending. Characters and themes come and go, are picked up and dropped at random; cat-rats, aprons, bones, small g-gods, the Donner Party, the "Road that Eats People."
Aaah, no! The cliffhanger, why the cliffhanger! I read the first two installments of the Lockwood and Co. series with rapt attention, enjoying the delicious ghostly chills and swashbuckling storytelling offered up by Jonathan Stroud in his spooky follow up to his great fantasy series, the Bartimeaus trilogy. It was with great excitement and anticipation that I checked out the latest in the Lockwood series, the Hollow Boy, after having requested it as soon as it appeared in the library system.
Like the latter, Lockwood and Co. is a great place for fantasy craving tweens (and teens and adults) looking for something to fill that Harry Potter hole. Steeped in chills, thrills, humor, and the spooky traditions of the English ghost story genre, there should be enough here to satisfy any reader interested in something a bit macabre. In the prior books in the series, The Screaming Staircase and the Whispering Skull, the trio of young Agents, Lucy, George, and, of course, Lockwood, delve into haunted locations across London, dealing with the hostile spirits of the dead that have been threatening the living all over England ever since the beginning of "The Problem." Lucy, ever the witty narrator, guides us through this sinister world as she and her colleagues deal with ghosts of various types, improving the standing of their agency, and begin to encounter darker secrets and mysteries. There is definitely more of the same in the Hollow Boy, as Lockwood and Co. continues to use the advice of the chatty, spooky, untrustworthy Skull as Lucy sharpens her ability to not only hear, but communicate, with ghosts, much to the disapproval of Lockwood. Can't wait for the last one! Or, will it be?
For a long time, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of writing a Lovecraftian series for young adults- not only for the incongruity of the idea, but also because, in my experience, this is a period in which weird, spooky, disconcerting fears and stories hold the most sway over our daily lives; the time when we would challenge each other to chant Bloody Mary in front of the bathroom mirror or play around with the Ouija board.
So, when I saw this series popping up, I was curious. Professor Gargyole, The Slither Sisters, and Tales of Lovecraft Middle School: Teacher's Pest all hinted at a typical American school with weird, strange problems, and I was compelled to check them out. Of course, the striking lenticular cover designs, depicting various Lovecraft Middle School Characters in front of a typical yearbook photo gray backdrop dramatically transforming from mundane humans to horned, or scaled, beasts, is to thank for a good deal of that. The addition of Lovecraftian elements to a Goosebump like series fascinated me and the covers were mesmerizing. So, when I saw the audio book version, I thought this autumn would be just the time to check this off my book list and see how deep the hole goes. Just how Lovecraftian could Tales from Lovecraft Middle School be, I wondered?
In the end, not terribly Lovecraftian but still an amusing and spooky horror series for middle schoolers. The “Lovecraftian” influence consists mainly of name drops and a few conceits regarding other dimensions and something indescribable threatening the normal everyday world. For the most part, the series follows fairly well worn tropes of middle grade fiction, with short, concise chapters relying on cliffhangers to keep up a quick pace, commonplace things are foreshadowed to be not what they seem, archetypal, larger than life characters, cute critters, plenty of puns, and a nice helping of comic relief. The reader reads with a gravelly, occasionally sepulchral, occasionally cheery voice that matches the mood of the stories, if not the age of the protagonists.
I must admit the series grew on me as it went on- the author writes with a witty voice that can build both atmosphere, suspense, and humor that I think a lot of kids, looking for a slightly higher end Goosebumps upgrade will appreciate (though they will probably not catch the Cthulhu Mythos references, not that it takes anything from the story). Robert Arthur is, refreshingly, a bit of a milquetoast who nonetheless steps up to defend his hapless, oblivious classmates and teachers from the supernatural threat and his friendship with his former tormentor Glenn Torkle and the ghost girl Korina Ortiz was also touching. While a deus ex machina or two do occur, a refreshing amount of the work of saving the school does actually fall to Robert and his friends. I’m looking forward to finishing up the series with Tales of Lovecraft Middle School: Substitute Creature.
*Theme music for entry: "Come Little Children" from Hocus Pocus, cover by Erutan