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.

What Lies Beneath Stonehenge?

One of the western worlds most delightfully mysterious sites–Stonehenge–lies on the broad Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England.  Massive stones tower over visitors, inviting speculation about how, why, and what if, weaving dreamy spells that have captivated visitors for thousands of years.

Scientists have conducted the most extensive survey of what lies beneath and around Stonehenge–the subject of today’s re-post–and what they’ve discovered opens new possibilities about the complex theological activities that may have surrounded the stones.

The pictures are excellent. The science fascinating. Enjoy.

What Lies Beneath Stonehenge?.

Ghost Movie of the Month: The Uninvited (1944)

Based on the novel, The Uninvited, by Dorothy Macardle (1942), originally entitled Uneasy Freehold

Screenplay: Frank Partos & Dodie Smith

Starring: Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Gail Russell, Donald Crisp

Turner Classic Movies (now, simply, TCM) saved classic movies. The channel bought huge numbers of old films and, through their commercial-free broadcasts, introduced new generations to acting, screenplays, cinematography, directing, and music that came out of big and small studios, in the U.S. and abroad, that otherwise might have decayed within their cans in forgotten vaults.

I have long admired the moviologies made available on the TCM website. Men and women who love movies present information that enhances my own enjoyment of old favorites and new discoveries. It’s not often I take exception to the opinions shared in these, but the other day I found one.

“While it might have chilled audiences of its era,” writes Jeff Stafford, “The Uninvited is not a frightening film by contemporary standards.”

Tsk.

Actually, I should add a disapproving click of the tongue after rereading Stafford’s sentence. And a sneer.

Stafford is wrong. Wholly wrong. Utterly wrong.

The Uninvited is one of the most enjoyable and genuinely frightening ghost stories ever committed to film. It made me jump at least a foot when I first saw it, a number of years ago, and it still conjures pleasant frissons of creepiness when I watch it now . . . which I do, each Halloween season.

The story is simple. A brother and sister, Rick and Pamela Fitzgerald, search England for a home to share while he writes his symphony. They find a beautiful, abandoned house atop the cliffs of Cornwall’s southern shore. On impulse, they buy the house from its owner, a crusty ex-military man, Commander Beech, despite the objections of Beech’s granddaughter, Stella, who cherishes the house as the former home of her deceased mother, Mary Meredith.

The Fitzgeralds move in, and the fun begins. For viewers, anyway.

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Cemetery of the Month: Congressional, Washington, DC

When I was growing up in Washington, DC, Congressional Cemetery was known primarily as a place where one could get mugged, buy drugs, or bust up a few gravestones. The neighborhood had deteriorated, and the owner of the cemetery (Christ Episcopal Church) no longer had the funds to properly maintain the acreage.

On one sad night, in 1973, vandals went on a rampage in the cemetery, and when they were done, five crypts had been broken into and robbed–valuable jewels taken, according to some reports, which means these vandals weren’t afraid of digging around in some serious human goo–and one hundred and fifty tombstones were overturned.

What saved the place?

Volunteers. $$$ from the Feds. Dogs. Also goats.

More on that to come. First, it’s good to know the cemetery has been pretty well spruced up. Congress provided some funding for maintenance, through the Veterans’ Administration, and volunteer groups have done great work raising money and taking care of the place.

Here’s how it looks, in part, today.

Congressional Cemetery fence - Washington DC - 2012

For a long time, Congressional was THE place for national and local politicians to be planted. Some, however, chose to be buried elsewhere, but were remembered nonetheless in Congressional. Hence, various parts of the cemetery boast long lines of cenotaphs bearing the names of men such as Charles Sumner and Henry Clay.

Treat yourself to something chocolate if you are (a) not a cemetery enthusiast, but (b) remembered that a cenotaph is a monument to someone not actually buried in that spot.

CLOSER VIEW OF CENOTAPHS ALONG ROADWAY - Congressional Cemetery, Latrobe Cenotaphs, Eighteenth and E Streets, Southeast, Washington, District of Columbia, DC HABS DC,WASH,255-2

Other famous names here include Matthew Brady, Civil War photographer who, unaccountably, has two gravestones . . . here

Mathew Brady's grave

and here.

Mathew Brady's grave 1

J. Edgar Hoover, fenced-in, perhaps to keep the Commies away.

QR CC J Edgar Hoover

John Philip Sousa provides a nice bench on which one can rest weary feet.

John Philip Sousa (12927944)

There’s also Elbridge Gerry, VP to James Madison and bestower of the scourge that is gerrymandering; Benjamin H. Latrobe, Architect of the U. S. Capitol; and Robert Mill, designer of the Washington Monument, to name just a few.

The real fun in Congressional Cemetery, however, lies in getting to know some of the other inmates, lesser known folk who boast some interesting stories as well.

For example, there is–or was (remember those destroyed tombstones?)–a statue of a young girl, dressed in late Victorian garb, dedicated to Marion Ooletia Kahlert, who died at the age of ten. For many years Marion was reputed to be DC’s first traffic fatality, killed on 25 October 1904 by an errant bread truck.

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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.

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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 Movie of the Month: The Innocents

The Innocents (1961)
Based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw
Screenplay: Truman Capote
Starring: Deborah Kerr

If you’re looking for the perfect babysitter ghost movie, here it is.

Actually, it’s embodiment of a babysitter’s worst nightmare. An isolated house. No power. Polite kids who periodically turn creepy. Ghostly figures. A guardian who doesn’t show up when he says he would. I was mesmerized by this atmospheric tale of child care gone terribly awry.

I was, in fact, babysitting the first time I saw this movie. I was under18—I abandoned the care of strangers’ kids after I started college at 17—and I don’t remember what poor kid had been commended to my care for that evening, but I’m quite sure I didn’t miss any moment of this movie.

In the late nineteenth century, Miss Giddens (played by the great Deborah Kerr) is hired to care for Flora (Pamela Franklin) and her brother, Miles (Martin Stephens). The mansion in which she is sent to work is a bit out of the way, a bit bleak, and inhabited only by Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper (Megs Jenkins), and one or two servants . . . and Flora, a bright, young girl. Mrs. Grose welcomes Miss Giddens warmly, and Flora seems charming, beautifully behaved, a willing student.

Miss Giddens cannot believe her good fortune.

Than, a short time later, Flora’s brother, Miles, is sent home from school for an incident of moral turpitude that is never clearly explained and which both Miss Giddens and the housekeep dismiss as a misunderstanding on the part of the school staff.

And at first this seems to be the case. Miles is as cheerful, well-behaved, and charming as his sister. The children frolic in the house and gardens, attend their lessons, and all seems well.

Of course, occasionally Miles says things that are . . . well, odd. And Miss Giddens begins to believe the siblings are engaged in a giggling, whispered conspiracy to keep secrets from their governess.

Much worse, however, is the appearance of figures who seem to come and go at will. In the garden, birds suddenly fall silent, and a man appears whom, later, when told of the incident by Miss Giddens, the housekeeper identifies as Quint, a valet now dead who was believed to have exercised a corrupting influence on Miles. Quint’s lover, Miss Jessel, dead of suicide, appears on the small island in the ornamental lake, still and observant. In fact, with one exception, these revenants are seen only from a distance. We cannot see them clearly at first, nor do we know where they will turn up next, and the uncertainty heightens the sense of foreboding.

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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.

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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.

Cemetery of the Month: Graceland, Chicago, IL

Founded in 1860, Graceland Cemetery boasts the graves of the well-known (Alan Pinkerton, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marshall Field, Jack Johnson) and the relatively obscure (Augustus Dickens, the younger brother of Charles, and Kate Warn, the national’s first female private detective, employed by Pinkerton).

Sadly, there are no ghosts. None, at least, whose stories are the least credible. Oh, there are rumors of a little girl, Inez Clark, whose statue is said to disappear from its glass case every so often, but the debunking of this story has been discouragingly thorough. For one thing, the body underneath the statue is a young boy named Amos Briggs (although this is disputed), and the statue itself is thought to have been an advertisement, placed in the cemetery by an enterprising sculptor and monument maker, Andrew Gagel.

Advertising in cemeteries . . . an idea whose time will no doubt roll around again. Which is why the body of Ogarita will be tossed into the flames of the nearest crematory, then scattered to the winds or, if possible, in the direction of George Clooney.

In Graceland, one can also visit a delightful statue, Eternal Silence, that stands atop the aptly named and long-deceased Dexter Graves.

Chicago, Illinois Eternal Silence1

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