Nuclear fun and nightmares. Review: The Dead Boys, by Royce Buckingham

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.

The Dead Boys Book Cover The Dead Boys
Royce Buckingham
Juvenile Fiction
Penguin
2010
201

Timid 12-year-old Teddy Mathews and his mother move to a small, remote desert town in eastern Washington, where the tree next door, mutated by nuclear waste, eats children and the friends Teddy makes turn out to be dead boys trying to lure him into becoming the tree's next victim.

Review: Mothman’s Curse, Christine Hayes

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.

Alas.

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.

Mothman's Curse Book Cover Mothman's Curse
Christine Hayes
Juvenile Fiction
Macmillan
2015-06-16
320

"When Josie and her brother Fox discover the truth behind the legend of the Mothman, they must stop a disaster in order to break the curse that has been afflicting their town"--

Twisty, ghosty fun. Review: The Swallow, by Charis Cotter

Just two words: The Swallow.

Okay, three more words: by Charis Cotter.

If you haven’t read it, go get it–bookstore, library, friend–and enjoy. Beautiful writing. Characters that grab one’s heart and hold on from beginning to end.

Creating a new twist on ghost stories is really hard. More than a few times, as I’ve wrestled with the stories I’m writing, I’ve sighed and thought “it’s all been done! I’ll never think of anything original.” Reworking a theme isn’t bad, of course; arguably nothing new has been penned since Pliny the Younger wrote a friend about the ghost that haunted an Athens house, complete with rattling chains. So, yeah, imitation as the sincerest form of flattery, and all that. Some authors, however, don’t even attempt to disguise their borrowing; more than a few ghost stories I’ve read in the past several years are obvious variations–slight variations–on The Sixth Sense (he was already dead!), The Shining, or are just plain dumb as well as derivative.

The Swallow is something different. Does it borrow? Yup. Does it do so cleverly? Oh, yeah!

Kudos to Charis Cotter for such a great story! This one is a keeper.

The Swallow Book Cover The Swallow
Charis Cotter
Juvenile Fiction
2014-09
318

Seeking solace in the attics of their adjoining houses in 1960s Toronto, Polly and Rose develop an unlikely friendship based on Rose's ability to see and talk to ghosts.

Ghost story of the month: I Remember You

I Remember You, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

A good ghost story is hard to find.

What qualifies as great in this genre? I find it’s easier to say what stories haven’t reached the level of good, much less great horror of the ghostly kind. Some simply aren’t frightening, such as the unaccountably lauded The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill (2001), and everything written, thus far, by Sarah Rayne. Others substitute psychological ghosts for the genuinely supernatural, such as the recent The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, by Valerie Martin (2014), and while I accept our memories are peopled with the phantoms of incidents and relationships in our past that certainly haunt us, a novel focused solely on regrets and sins, rather than an actual revenant—a spook—don’t qualify as ghost stories. Too many contemporary ghost story writers don’t even bother to attempt the challenge of building the slow, subtle escalation of fear found in a half-heard whisper, a quickly glimpsed figure, an unaccountable chill; instead, they fall back on the easily gruesome, replete with chainsaws, nail guns, fangs, and claws.

A few of the better ghost stories include The Uninvited, by Dorothy Macardle (1942); Ammie, Come Home, by Barbara Michaels (1968); The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson (1959); The Shining, by Stephen King (1977). Each creates a creepy atmosphere, attributable primarily—if not solely—by the supernatural, atmospheres so suffused with tension the reader doesn’t dare stop reading, not matter how late the hour, lest she be forced to turn out the lights without having the mysterious explained, if not resolved.

Happily, the Icelandic author, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, decided to take on the genre, and while her attempt isn’t entirely successful, I Remember You rises well above the current competition to deliver genuinely chilling ghostly goings-on.

The first ninety pages unfold slowly, introducing an ever-growing, disparate cast of primary and secondary characters, and a large part of the fun of I Remember You is realizing how deftly Sigurdardottir deftly controls how and when we learn what each has to contribute to the two separate vandalism cases and the two separate disappearances. So adept is the author I had to read the book a second time, dissecting how the author constructed such an enjoyable puzzle.

In the far northwest of Iceland, in the town of Ísafjörður, a criminal psychologist named Freydr attempts to dissect an incident of destructive vandalism that has occurred at a local elementary school. Being around the children who attend this school revive Freydr’s emotional struggle to cope with the disappearance, three years earlier, of his young son, Beni, a struggle that escalates when Freydr discovers, almost by accident, that a similar incident occurred in the same school sixty years earlier . . . and that this presaged the disappearance of another young boy.

At the same time, three friends—Katrin and Gardar, who are married, and Lif, their recently widowed friend—leave Ísafjörður by boat and deliberately maroon themselves for a week in a remote, seasonal village, determined to renovate an old, abandoned house. They suffer the lack of electricity, cell coverage, heat, running water, and—beginning on the first night—a host of strange noises within their house. Floorboards squeak; mysterious, wet footsteps are found in the house despite locked doors and windows; shells arranged on the floor spell out an ominous word. Soon their days are equally haunted, when a haggard-looking boy appears and follows them, eluding all attempts to communicate.

Continue reading “Ghost story of the month: I Remember You”

I Remember You Book Cover I Remember You
Yrsa Sigurard[ttir
Fiction
Hodder & Stoughton
2012
391

"The crunching noise had resumed, now accompanied by a disgusting, indefinable smell. The voice spoke again, now slightly louder and clearer: 'Don't go. Don't go yet. I'm not finished.' In an isolated village three friends set to work renovating a derelict house. But soon they realise they are not alone there... something wants them to leave, and it's making its presence felt. Meanwhile, in a town across the fjord, a young doctor investigating the suicide of an elderly woman discovers that she was obsessed with his vanished son. When the two stories collide the terrifying truth is uncovered... "--Back cover.

Ghost Story of the Month: The Paranormalists, Case 1: The Haunting of Apartment 101

Who says a ghost story has to (a) be long to deliver a few chills and decent character development, or (b) be peopled with sympathetic protagonists? Not me. And certainly not Megan Atwood, author of The Paranormalists, Case 1: The Haunting of Apartment 101.

I came across this 2012 book in my favorite way, browsing through library shelves and taking a chance. I immediately liked the tone of the blog entries that lead off the story: brash, defiant, and funny. My enthusiasm dipped, however, in the next chapter, as Jinx, principal protagonist, made an entrance that wobbled wildly. One moment she’s humorously critical and the next she descends into an unoriginal, whiny, pain in the ass, and while one might say teenagers—and adults—do, in fact, run this gamut, I found myself wondering if Atwood meant this wobbling to last throughout the book, or if, in writing this quick book, she occasionally went for easy moments of characterization rather than working for a consistent wit and self-awareness within her principal protagonist. What saved Jinx in my eyes, and kept the book from being thrown across the room, was the compassion she shows for her faithful from-childhood-friend, Jackson, still grieving the death of his father.

I read on.

Continue reading “Ghost Story of the Month: The Paranormalists, Case 1: The Haunting of Apartment 101”

The Paranormalists, Case 1: The Haunting of Apartment 101 Book Cover The Paranormalists, Case 1: The Haunting of Apartment 101
Megan Atwood
Juvenile Fiction
Darby Creek Pub
2012-10-01
107

When popular, pretty classmate asks best friends Jinx and Jackson, high school sophomores, to investigate a haunting at her father's apartment, Jackson is sympathetic and convinces Jinx to trust him, despite her skepticism about Emily's true intentions.