Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
A review of The Dead Boys, by Royce Buckingham
The town of Richland, in Washington state, is famous and infamous as the location of the Hanford Site, the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States (it produced plutonium for most of the nuclear weapons developed by the U.S.) and the focus of the nation’s largest environmental clean up. As if this disaster on the Columbia River wasn’t sufficiently horrifying, Buckingham uses his hometown as the setting for a story that combines an unconventional serial killer, its victims, and a smart protagonist.
Twelve-year-old Teddy’s nurse mother moves him to Richland a month before the new school year begins, then pushes him outdoors to find new friends. Teddy is a smart, likeable, shy, and brave protagonist, and down by the river he meets Albert, dressed in old-fashioned bell-bottom jeans. Albert warns Teddy about the local bullies, led by a kid named Henry, and hints at a greater danger, but before he can share more, the bullies appear. Albert slips into the river to escape, leaving a bewildered Teddy to deal with Henry on his own. Teddy meets other boys around town, all of whom talk and behave—then disappear—in odd ways. Just as odd and even more intriguing is an enormous sycamore tree growing in the yard of an abandoned house next door. Fairly quickly, Teddy figures out the tree, the Hanford Site, and the mysterious boys are connected and that the tree, which scratches at Teddy’s window with long, grasping branches, seems determined to lure Teddy closer. When the tree takes drastic, dangerous action, Teddy realizes it will stop at nothing to bring him under its control, and he learns that it knows—and will use—Teddy’s deepest fears to achieve its goal. There’s a wonderful scene in which a black widow spider threatens Teddy; our hero’s decisive action made me squirm, and undoubtedly it will please everyone who reads it.
Buckingham adapts the villainous tree motif by adding ecological terror in the form of the Hanford Site, a nice touch by the author, a Richland, WA, native. The Dead Boys, of course, isn’t unique in using a tree as villain: Apple trees make Dorothy Gale’s life briefly miserable in The Wizard of Oz; hundreds of kites were lost to one greedy tree, courtesy of Charlie Brown and Charles Schulz; and Buckingham’s giant sycamore bears a strong resemblance to a gnarled tree that loomed outside the home of the hapless Freeling family in Poltergeist.
The story benefits from fast pacing and action that doesn’t encourage reflection, an asset in a story that, judged by the most lenient standards, fails just about every logic test. Why, for example, does the tree only crave 12-year-old boys? Engaging as each boy proves—and Buckingham does deft, quick characterizations of each—wouldn’t the boundless energy of 5- or 6-year-olds provide enough power for entire forests? What does the tree have against girls? Adults? Or dogs and cats, for that matter? Equally puzzling is why the police don’t seem to realize that over the decades there’s been a systematic series of disappearances among the 12-year-old boy population; has the tree cast some form of glamor over the entire town? The climax, in which Teddy negotiates the dim, dusty world of the sycamore, proved so visually confusing I gave up trying to make logical sense of it and let myself succumb to a surreal vision—it worked for me.
When I closed the book, I wondered how the boys Teddy saved would cope with their new lives, devoid of family and many familiar landmarks; and I liked Dead Boys even more for having provoked such questions. Highly recommended.
I have a strong prejudice: The world needs more MG horror stories that deliver supernaturally-provoked chills with bedwetting intensity. MOTHMAN’S CURSE ignited my hope that here was a worthy addition to a fairly short list; it begins out with a great hook:
“When you live in the most haunted town in America, you’ve heard most every ghost story that’s ever been spun about your corner of the world: . . . .”
I prefer ghost stories, but I happily scoop up MG horror stories that creatively skyline all sorts of supernaturals, so long as they don’t cheat on the creep. A sleepless night (or two) may inspire a love of horror that lasts a lifetime; that was certainly true for me.
The premise of MOTHMAN’S CURSE focuses on an intriguing supernatural legend that supposedly lurks—or did—in the mountains near Point Pleasant, West Virginia. In 1966 and 1967 a man-sized mothy critter reportedly fluttered through the area, looming up at night and scaring the poop out of a number of people. Some believed Mothman, as the apparition came to be called, was a harbinger of the late-1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge, which killed 46 people. This insect-man-thingy inspired an entertaining, if imperfect, movie—The Mothman Prophecies (2002)—in which Richard Gere dashes around Point Pleasant trying to fathom Mothman’s meaning. Prophecies wanders down one too many odd side paths, but it also delivers several nicely unsettling moments.
MOTHMAN’S CURSE is not unlike this movie. Excellent choice of supernatural beastie, intermittent entertainment, and a meandering plot.
Unsettling moments? Sadly, not so much.
The story: Josie, daughter of a widowed auctioneer and older sister to two brothers, finds a Polaroid camera that, although empty of film, produces pictures that reveal the image of a sad-faced elderly man, Mr Goodrich, who seems desperate to deliver a message . . . and who, they discover, killed himself. Josie learns the ghostly warnings refer to the Mothman, whose appearance presages deadly natural disasters.
From this intriguing premise, things grow complicated. Very complicated.
There’s a cursed gold hatpin; a dead mother, for whom Josie and her brothers grieve; boxes and boxes of papers, whose contents seem divorced from the plot; radios and televisions that transmit the voices of the dead; another ghost who occasionally flickers into view for no reason that moves the story forward; a father who spends most of the book confined to a hospital bed; a hairdresser who tells Josie’s aunt secrets surrounding deaths related to the Mothman, then clams up when approached by Josie and her brother; a pace-killing sidebar about Josie’s resentment that Mr Goodrich committed suicide; and, most disappointing, the Mothman reveal.
In one of the few nicely done chilling moments, early in the story, Josie catches a glimpse of red eyes glowing outside her bedroom window; a lovely bit of creepiness. However, having created an expectation that Mothman will continue to haunt Josie’s nights, Hayes has Mothman swoop about the auction house in broad daylight, practically brushing the heads of people gathered to bid and buy. Glowing red eyes in the night and a half-seen figure terrified Point Pleasant in the mid-sixties; sunshine and broad exposure turn this Mothman into a cross between an alarmed bat and a cheap, flashy Marvel comic character; hardly a figure to inspire fear. In fact, so unscary is this sight, hordes of sightseers promptly camp out in front of the auction house, hoping for another sighting.
The pace is quick, but this is almost despite the fact MOTHMAN becomes hampered by a confusion of minor characters (e.g., the helpful-then-not-helpful handyman/security guard/graduate student Mitch).
Yet, even all these things could not kill my anticipation; I can deal with myriad subplots and a broad cast of characters if the plot and writing deliver on the chills that are an inherent promise in a horror story.
From beginning to end, scenes that ought to ratchet up the suspense, pushing readers toward a fit of shudders and a desperate need to learn what happens next—Will thousands be killed in a stadium collapse? Will Josie die because of the Mothman’s curse?—is delivered with all the tension involved in changing a roll of toilet paper.
I did enjoy the illustrations, and I hope the increased use of illustration in middle-grade books continues. This was once very popular, used to advance the plot, and its resurgence in recent years is gratifying. Kudos to James K. Hindle for this bookful of lively pictures.
I SO wanted to love MOTHMAN’S CURSE. I applaud Hayes’s attempt to exploit the Mothman legend in a middle-grade book. I hope she will try again, and I also hope more authors will produce genuinely scary horror—no gore or gratuitous violence—that will cause at least one or two sleepless nights for children of all ages.