ATTACK OF THE JACK-O’-LANTERNS by R.L. Stine โ€” ๐ŸŽƒ

Twelve-year-old Drew Brockman loves Halloweโ€™en. Too bad it keeps getting ruined by local bullies, Tabby and Lee, whose idea of a perfect All Hallowsโ€™ Eve consists of playing mean-spirited pranks on Drew and her friends. Drew vows that this Halloweโ€™en will be different, though, having spent the better part of the year coming up with the perfect trick to play on the tween tormentors โ€” one that involves her friends, twins Shane and Shana, dressing up as particularly ghastly pumpkin-headed figures. The siblings seem to get too into their spooky roles, however, and the joke quickly gets out of hand, threatening to ruin yet another Halloweโ€™en. Only this time Drew fears that it may be for good….

โ—‹

Itโ€™s not a proper spooky season in this house until I pick up a ๐˜Ž๐˜ฐ๐˜ฐ๐˜ด๐˜ฆ๐˜ฃ๐˜ถ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฑ๐˜ด book or two. Itโ€™s one of the traditions I look forward to the most. I never read the books as a kid, but I did watch some of the show, and so I consider these precious, goofy books time capsules, allowing me a brief glimpse back to a time for which I am exceedingly, embarrassingly nostalgic. I am a โ€˜90s kid, what can I tell you?

Iโ€™m still working my way through the series (should read more than a couple a year, maybe), so Iโ€™ve only read a handful of the books. ๐‘จ๐’•๐’•๐’‚๐’„๐’Œ ๐’๐’‡ ๐’•๐’‰๐’† ๐‘ฑ๐’‚๐’„๐’Œ-๐‘ถ’-๐‘ณ๐’‚๐’๐’•๐’†๐’“๐’๐’” did not turn out to be a favorite, but it is a very solid entry. The characters are annoying as anything, sure, but in that charming ha-ha-all-kids-are-maniacs kind of way that I Stine is so good at portraying. Itโ€™s set on Halloweโ€™en. It features pumpkin-headed monsters. I donโ€™t need much to enjoy a ๐˜Ž๐˜ฐ๐˜ฐ๐˜ด๐˜ฆ๐˜ฃ๐˜ถ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฑ๐˜ด.

One of the episodes of the TV show I remember the most was called โ€œAwesome Antsโ€ (curiously not adapted from any book of the original series, but from a later short story instead). It featured a memorable and preposterous ending that had โ€” uhh spoilers I guess โ€” an entire suburban neighborhood enclosed in glass, with gigantic ants towering over the new human vivarium. It stuck with me because it played into some of my more particular anxieties: of being perpetually stuck in a singular space; of being intensely creeped out by North American suburbs consisting of countless identically bland houses. The climax of ๐˜‘๐˜ข๐˜ค๐˜ฌ-๐˜–’-๐˜“๐˜ข๐˜ฏ๐˜ต๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜ฏ๐˜ด involves a similar setting and situation, and I appreciated the skeeved-out feeling it gave me.ย 

I watched the television adaptation of this for the first time last year and it was perfectly terrible.

WHAT LIVES IN THE WOODS by Lindsay Currie โ€” ๐ŸŽƒ

blog - what lives in the woods by lindsay currieAspiring writer and Agatha Christie aficionado Ginny Anderson is looking forward to spending her summer break attending a mystery writing workshop with her best friend. Plans swiftly derailed when her dad, who restores old crumbling buildings to their former glory for a living, is hired to renovate the Woodmoor estate, a sprawling manor in the outskirts of Lake Michigan, and wants to bring the family along. The mansion is the subject of many rumors in the neighboring town: of creatures that stalk the surrounding woods; of inhospitable spirits that still haunt the antique abode. Impressionable Ginny finds herself frightened at the prospect of spending her summer in a house of horrors and she wishes she could just go back home, to her friend and her workshop. Her frustration turns out to be greater than her fear though, and,ย  determined to emulate the heroes written by her personal hero, she sets out to either find enough proof to convince her parents to leave the dreadful place โ€” especially after she encounters a ghastly presence that would very much like the same โ€” or to solve the mystery at Woodmoor once and for all. โ €

โ—‹ โ €

Lindsay Currie’s ๐‘พ๐’‰๐’‚๐’• ๐‘ณ๐’Š๐’—๐’†๐’” ๐’Š๐’ ๐’•๐’‰๐’† ๐‘พ๐’๐’๐’…๐’” was originally going to be a buddy read, chosen because my friend and I were both under the impression that it was going to be a middle grade horror full of forest frights, which was the mood we were after. I began reading it first, though, and quickly found myself frustrated by the fact that this seemed to be very much a haunted house story. Which is fine โ€” love a good haunting โ€” just not what I was expecting. Yes, the back blurb ๐˜ฅ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด mention the haunted house element, but look at that cover! At that title! What else are we supposed to think? Not to mention the fact that creepy beings stalking the woods are frequently mentioned in the opening chapters. They are, sadly, a no-show in this spooky story. Maybe they’re being set up for a sequel? I don’t know!โ €

So I was disappointed. Which is tragic because the story taken on its own is actually fairly decent. There’s a historical mystery that’s interesting, even if it’s only really explored during the last few chapters when it could have been the focus from the outset. Currie is excellent at writing tense scenes with unnerving imagery (there’s a particularly good jump scare, and those are very hard to pull off in written form). But again, this is a supernatural mystery more than it is horror, and so those types of scenes end up feeling a little out of place, as if they’re from a different story.ย 

This may be a classic case of judging a book by its cover. But I come from a design background so I believe that packaging and presentation are important. They provide the context, form the filter through which the content within will be viewed. My expectations were shaped by a display that evokes a certain narrative that is different from the one within, and I just think it only does it a disservice, in the end. Granted this particular criticism is directed more at the publisher, as authors rarely have any say in how their work is marketed. Currie wrote an imminently readable book that I would have enjoyed more under different circumstances.

MEXICAN GOTHIC by Silvia Moreno-Garcia โ€” ๐ŸŽƒ

blog - mexican gothic by silvia moreno-garciaI started Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s ๐‘ด๐’†๐’™๐’Š๐’„๐’‚๐’ ๐‘ฎ๐’๐’•๐’‰๐’Š๐’„ for Hallowe’en last year. I was enjoying it, too, noting how Moreno-Garcia had the Gothic undertones and atmosphere utterly ๐˜ฅ๐˜ฐ๐˜ธ๐˜ฏ. But then I dropped it, and I couldn’t quite tell you why. Well, I could: there was a pandemic going on, sucking the joy out of everything and anything at the drop of a hat. It was โ€” and still is, depressingly โ€” a ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ช๐˜ฏ๐˜จ. So I decided to leave it for this next Hallowe’en season, and as it approached, I found myself excited to pick the book back up again.ย 

You can imagine my disappointment when I found that I did not enjoy it as much as I expected. Which is nothing but a shame as all the elements were still there: Moreno-Garcia’s writing is gorgeous, pitch-perfect in its baroque tone and flowery wordage; the atmosphere โ€” atmos๐˜ง๐˜ฆ๐˜ข๐˜ณ โ€” it evokes is palpable and practically seeps from the page; Noemรญ, our intrepid bon vivant of a heroine with the quick wit and indomitable will, is simply marvelous; its villains are suitably abhorrent, showcasing as they do a grotesque version of white entitlement towards other cultureโ€™s religions and lands and bodies; the story’s central theme of colonialism and its ruinous blight of a legacy is one that quite literally hits close to home as someone who lives in an actual modern day colony.

And yet… it didn’t quite connect with me. Perhaps that was because of the above-mentioned epidemic exhaustion; but more likely it was just that the story felt distant, with too many of its true horrors told rather than shown; evils obscured rather than exposed. Moreno-Garcia keeps her protagonist in the literal dark for much of the novel, and at arm’s length from many of the other characters, a detachment the reader feels by extension. A dense fog envelopes High Place, this storyโ€™s setting. At times it felt like a similar gloom shrouded this novel, and perhaps it just proved too thick for this particular lector to penetrate.

Whatever the case may have been, Moreno-Garciaโ€™s prowess is undeniable, and I donโ€™t regret reading this weird, visceral, phantasmagoric vision of hers.

THE WOODS ARE ALWAYS WATCHING by Stephanie Perkins โ€” ๐ŸŽƒ

blog - the woods are always watching by stephanie perkinsJosie and Neena are best friends about to graduate high school and heading off in different directions โ€” or Neena is, at least. Josie enrolled in a city college and will stay at home, while Neena is bound for glamorous California. Feeling a mix of melancholy and resentment the pair plan a getaway hiking through the local North Carolina mountains, in the hopes the adventure will create meaningful, unforgettable memories before they part ways.

Their plans are quickly unraveled, however, as both environment and emotions seem to be working against them. Neither of them have any worthwhile outdoors experience, and so they are soon overwhelmed by the elements. Adding to that is the pairโ€™s pent up personal drama, which comes to a head on their very first night where bitter words are shared in the dark. Not wanting to abandon what could be their last ever exploit together, they continue their trek through the woods in stubborn, stony silence. On their last day they decide to follow a blaze path, informal trails created by amateur hikers that make guideposts out of trees through marks and other signs. A sudden downpour makes them lose their way, and then tragedy strikes when Josie falls through a sinkhole and suffers a particularly gruesome injury. Neena is reluctant to leave her friend alone, but with no phone service and night quickly falling, she decides to brave the forest in search of help. But the watchful woods seem to have other plans for the pair of friendsโ€ฆ.

โ—‹

Like most people (at least those who regularly watched Vlogbrothers circa 2009) I first learned of Stephanie Perkins due to ๐˜ˆ๐˜ฏ๐˜ฏ๐˜ข ๐˜ข๐˜ฏ๐˜ฅ ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ๐˜ค๐˜ฉ ๐˜’๐˜ช๐˜ด๐˜ด, a gentle gem of a romance novel that kicked off a series of similarly sentimental stories. Romance became Perkinโ€™s brand, and so โ€” like most people โ€” I was surprised when she suddenly dropped her slasher throwback of a novel ๐˜›๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ’๐˜ด ๐˜š๐˜ฐ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ๐˜ฆ ๐˜๐˜ฏ๐˜ด๐˜ช๐˜ฅ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ ๐˜ฐ๐˜ถ๐˜ณ ๐˜๐˜ฐ๐˜ถ๐˜ด๐˜ฆ (which just got the adaptation treatment over on Netflix) a couple of years ago. It seemed like such a turn. But I was already a fan of her writing, and it came out just around spooky season, so I gave it a shot. I dug it a great deal. I remember Perkins getting a lot of flak for that novel for being derivative and full of stereotypes. I could see where the criticism came from, but I didnโ€™t really mind โ€” thereโ€™s no genre thatโ€™s as cannibalistic as horror, after all, constantly feeding off of its own self. Itโ€™s part of the appeal. So I liked it enough that when ๐‘ป๐’‰๐’† ๐‘พ๐’๐’๐’…๐’” ๐‘จ๐’“๐’† ๐‘จ๐’๐’˜๐’‚๐’š๐’” ๐‘พ๐’‚๐’•๐’„๐’‰๐’Š๐’๐’ˆ, a spiritual sequel of sorts, was announced, I awaited it with anticipation.

It didnโ€™t disappoint, although I suspect it will get a lot of the same kind of criticism as its predecessor did. But once more, I did not mind. I enjoyed this ticking time bomb of a novel, which starts off slow, almost hesitantly, ramping up the tension to almost unbearable levels before finally releasing it in a cannonade of catastrophe and catharsis during the bookโ€™s final half.

I went into ๐˜›๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ž๐˜ฐ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฅ๐˜ด fairly cold, which turned out to both harm and help my reading experience. I knew only that it was a horror story set somewhere in the Appalachians, which is honestly enough description for me to be certain that I will be thoroughly freaked out, as that particular mountain system fascinates me as much as it fills me with dread โ€” blame it on assumptions and stereotypes shaped by years of macabre media consumption. I did not know what form the antagonistic force was going to take: if it was going to be a supernatural specter, or a more realistic, grit-and-grime menace. For the first hundred pages the text made it seem like either one could have been likely.

๐—ฆ๐—ผ๐—บ๐—ฒ ๐˜€๐—ฝ๐—ผ๐—ถ๐—น๐—ฒ๐—ฟ๐˜€ ๐—ฎ๐—ต๐—ฒ๐—ฎ๐—ฑ

So I admit to being initially disappointed when it turned out to be the latter.ย  As the book went on, though, with Perkins packing on the terror and trepidation, I understood the kind of story she was aiming to tell: a heightened version of what far too many women suffer through at the hands of men, the sort of experiences that are the root of very real fears and anxieties they can experience while among us. Josie and Neena are stalked and threatened by men in the woods here, but itโ€™s terrifyingly telling that their story could have been set literally anywhere else โ€” with men in elevators or subway cars or quiet streets โ€” and depressingly little would change in the way of details.ย 

Two girls walk into the woods, Josie thought. But the story wasnโ€™t a fairy tale. They hadnโ€™t dropped a trail of bread crumbs, discovered a gingerbread cottage with sugar-paned windows, or shoved an old witch into a flaming stove. Nor was it a ghost story, traded in whispers around smoky campfires. It wasnโ€™t even an urban legend. Their story was flesh and bone. Urgent and real.

Perkins offers up a tight, tense thriller of survival, with two protagonists who feel real: smart and resourceful but also obnoxious bordering on unlikeable โ€” kids, in other words, a fact that makes their ordeal all the more harrowing, as you canโ€™t help but hope they make it through the dark forest and into the light.

๐—–๐—ผ๐—ป๐˜๐—ฒ๐—ป๐˜ ๐˜„๐—ฎ๐—ฟ๐—ป๐—ถ๐—ป๐—ด ๐—ณ๐—ผ๐—ฟ ๐—บ๐—ฒ๐—ป๐˜๐—ถ๐—ผ๐—ป๐˜€ ๐—ผ๐—ณ ๐—ฟ๐—ฎ๐—ฝ๐—ฒ ๐—ฎ๐—ป๐—ฑ ๐˜๐—ผ๐—ฟ๐˜๐˜‚๐—ฟ๐—ฒ, ๐˜€๐˜๐—ฎ๐—น๐—ธ๐—ถ๐—ป๐—ด, ๐—ฎ๐—ป๐—ฑ ๐˜€๐—ผ๐—บ๐—ฒ ๐—ด๐—ฟ๐—ฎ๐—ฝ๐—ต๐—ถ๐—ฐ ๐—ฑ๐—ฒ๐˜€๐—ฐ๐—ฟ๐—ถ๐—ฝ๐˜๐—ถ๐—ผ๐—ป๐˜€ ๐—ผ๐—ณ ๐—ด๐—ผ๐—ฟ๐—ฒ.

DARK WATERS by Katherine Arden โ€” ๐ŸŽƒ

blog - dark waters by katherine ardenIt’s been months since their last terrifying encounter with Seth the smiling man, and friends Brian, Coco, and Ollie have been hitting the books. The misfortunes they suffered over winter break have left them thoroughly spooked, and they want to better prepare themselves for their next inevitable meaning with the stalking fiend. To that end, they have been reading as much about their town’s history of hauntings and other paranormal phenomena. Their paranoid behavior worries their respective parents, however, and so when Coco’s journalist mother suggests they join her on a tour of Lake Champlain while she’s out on assignment, they think the outing will help improve their moods. Only Brian’s parents are hesitant, thinking their son’s slipping grades and distracted demeanor are due to the influence of his new best friends. They allow Brian to go, but only if he promises to limit their time together for the rest of the school year.

They soon set sail, finding themselves among another classmate who also suffered through their harrowing first encounter with Seth and his scarecrows last fall, and who might remember more of the experience than they initially realized. Before digging deeper into that particular mystery, the voyage meets an abrupt end when a creature who may or may not be Lake Champlain’s famous sea monster sinks the boat, leaving the survivors stranded on a nearby island โ€” one that is not recorded in any known charts. A liminal space that will be the grounds for yet another of the smiling man’s tormenting games, the challenges of which threaten to send the group of friends over the proverbial edge.

โ—‹

I have read and thoroughly enjoyed all three of the books currently out in Katherine Arden’s ๐˜š๐˜ฎ๐˜ข๐˜ญ๐˜ญ ๐˜š๐˜ฑ๐˜ข๐˜ค๐˜ฆ๐˜ด seasonal quartet, but if I’m being totally honest here, I have a hard time remembering any of the plots from the previous entries. Not in any great detail at least. But it took reading ๐‘ซ๐’‚๐’“๐’Œ ๐‘พ๐’‚๐’•๐’†๐’“๐’” for me to realize that what I look for in these stories โ€” and other middle grade horror affairs โ€” are not intricate plots or intense personal drama, but rather ๐˜ข๐˜ต๐˜ฎ๐˜ฐ๐˜ด๐˜ฑ๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ (or as a friend called it, “atmos๐˜ง๐˜ฆ๐˜ข๐˜ณ”). Which really should have been obvious to me in retrospect: the one thing I’ve praised in all of these books so far has been Arden’s aptitude for ambiance, which borders on the astonishing. Consider the following evocative excerpt:

Spring in East Evansburg, and the rain poured down like someone had turned on a hose in the sky. High in the Green Mountains, the rain turned snow into slush and turned earth into mud. It washed ruts into roads and set creeks to roaring. It sluiced down the roof of a small inn perched on a hillside above town.

The rain had begun at dawn, but now it was that long blue springtime twilight, getting close to dark, and the inn looked cozy in the soft light. The walls of the inn were white wooden clapboards, neatly painted. The roof was red metal. The sign said MOOSE LODGE, and it swung, creaking, in the spring wind.

And this is just what ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฑ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ๐˜ด the story.ย 

In addition to the excellent mood-setting, I’ve also come to admire the way she writes her set-pieces: slowly building them up before exploding them into tight, tense โ€” and most importantly, ๐˜ง๐˜ถ๐˜ฏ โ€” scenes. They do a lot in terms of moving the story along at a steady, stirring pace.

All in all, I enjoyed reading ๐˜‹๐˜ข๐˜ณ๐˜ฌ ๐˜ž๐˜ข๐˜ต๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜ด a lot, and would actually put it above the previous two books. I found the writing sharper and more focused than the earlier novels, which I attribute to the isolated setting of the island. Also, this is a creature feature, and those are often just great fun. But I love this series as a whole, and will eagerly anticipate its next and final entry. It’s supposed to be set during the summer, which will give me the perfect excuse to make spooky summer reads a proper tradition.

A SEASON WITH THE WITCH by J.W. Ocker โ€” ๐ŸŽƒ

blog - a season with the witch by j.w. ockerI started J.W. Ocker’s ๐‘จ ๐‘บ๐’†๐’‚๐’”๐’๐’ ๐’˜๐’Š๐’•๐’‰ ๐’•๐’‰๐’† ๐‘พ๐’Š๐’•๐’„๐’‰ late in September, wanting to get into the spirit of the season a little earlier this year. I finished it on a gray, gusty evening a couple of days into October, and honestly I couldn’t have asked for a better atmosphere (marred slightly by the fact that I was getting over a cold). It really is the perfect read to set the stage for Hallowe’en โ€” Ocker’s enthusiasm for the holiday is infectious, and you can’t help but be swept up by the magical pandemonium he chronicles in this spookiest of travelogues. 

This is a book about Salem, naturally. About the charm and chaos and contradictions that constitute the Witch City. To write it, Ocker and his family spent an entire October experiencing the haunted holiday along with Salem and its other guests. It’s an excellent, enviable premise, and Ocker makes the most of it, venturing out into the hustle and bustle of the crowded streets of downtown Salem during the days before retreating back to a rented house or, more often than not, a themed restaurant or bar (wherein he would imbibe concoctions with names like “Candy Corntini” and “Satan’s Cider”) in the evenings to collect and record his thoughts. The result is a loving nocturne to both a city and the holiday that, for better or for worse, it has come to embody.

The book is as much a history primer as it is a travel guide, with the first handful of chapters dedicated to Salem in the Puritan era โ€” particularly focusing, of course, on the infamous Witch Trials. Specifically Ocker tries to figure out just why an event that was, in comparison to other similar inquisitions of the time, relatively inconsequential, and that most of which didn’t even happen in Salem proper but rather in the surrounding vicinities, came to shape the identity and soul of a single place so thoroughly โ€” not to mention latch itself so fervently to our collective unconscious that the mere appearance of the word “witch” makes one think of Salem. It’s as close to a central theme as this book has, and Ocker tries to offer up different conclusions by interviewing, through the lens of this thesis, several individuals with varying ties to the city. We never really get a definitive answer, though, but the point is that maybe there isn’t one. Cities are made of inconsistencies and complexities as much as they are made of brick and mortar.

It’s a duality and discrepancy those who hold up Salem as a haven for Hallowe’en have to contend with, and which constitutes one of my favorite aspects of the book. A real tragedy happened there, minor or not, and viewpoints differ as to whether adding a weighty layer of morbid celebration counts as disgrace, or if it’s yet another example of human resilience against adversity. Of people, as Stephen King once wrote, dancing in defiance of the dark. Ocker favors the latter:

Everything in the entire world is founded on tragedy. Our country, every country. There’s not a society on the planet that doesn’t have ancient tragedies clawing at its back. The past is a giant corpse. But life isn’t a perpetual state of regret and mourning over those tragedies, it’s taking those tragedies, giving them their due in proportion, learning from them (or not), working to prevent them from happening again (or not), and then we all party because we only have to many holidays in our lives.

A bit irreverent, to be sure, but I stand with King and Ocker on this one.

In truth, history is what makes up the bulk of ๐˜š๐˜ฆ๐˜ข๐˜ด๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ, and if there’s one gripe with the book is that at times it seems like too much History and not enough Hallowe’en. Which is funny, because we do actually get quite a bit Hallowe’en. Ocker guides us through the myriad of eerie events, creepy celebrations, and dreadful destinations Salem offers not only during the month of October, but often year-round as well. Everything seems joyous and hokey in equal measure, and it is written in such a fond, earnest manner that it led to the Witch City becoming a personal de rigueur destination. There’s a hell of a lot of Hallowe’en in here. But you still end up expecting more, especially based on the promise of the cover. It’s just as well, though. Hallowe’en always feels like too much and also somehow never enough. It’s part of the ephemeral nature of the holiday.

“You can’t fit a city into a book,” Ocker writes in the epilogue. Which is true: cities are unwieldy by nature, and too full of people (beautiful, frustrating, obfuscating people) to be entirely understood. But you can capture a certain feeling, a certain sense of a season. Ocker let us know back in the introduction: Salem is weird. Salem is absurd. Salem is magic. If the intention was to show us just how weird and absurd and magical the Witch City could get, then ๐˜ˆ ๐˜š๐˜ฆ๐˜ข๐˜ด๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ ๐˜ธ๐˜ช๐˜ต๐˜ฉ ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ž๐˜ช๐˜ต๐˜ค๐˜ฉ most definitely met its goal.

WHISPER IN THE DARK by Joseph Bruchac โ€” ๐ŸŽƒ

blog - whisper in the dark by joseph bruchacJoseph Bruchac is an amazing storyteller. Before picking up his books, I recommend you look up videos of him telling stories before a crowd. Chances are, you’ll end up as captivated as his audience. He’s a genuine teller of tales, and there aren’t many of those around anymore.

They remembered the stories of their people and the history of all that happened to them. They passed it down, not in books but through storytelling.โ €

He also doesn’t hold back when writing scary stories for kids. He’s great.

๐‘พ๐’‰๐’Š๐’”๐’‘๐’†๐’“ ๐’Š๐’ ๐’•๐’‰๐’† ๐‘ซ๐’‚๐’“๐’Œ follows Maddy, a teenager of Narragansett descent, who finds herself being stalked by the Whisperer in the Dark, a vampire-like creature that was the subject of countless tales told by Maddy’s family. The book opens with Maddy picking up a call and hearing nobody on the other end โ€” save for her strangely echoing voice. Having just dreamt of encountering the monster in a cave, she imagines the creature improbably calling her from his underground lair. The image of a voice coming out of a phone and echoing in hollow darkness of cave is a scenario I could have never fathomed but is nonetheless thoroughly creepy.

Strange things begin to happen after that call: for one thing, she finds the words ษช แด€แด สœแด‡ส€แด‡ scratched into a door. For another even more horrifying thing, her dog is found under a shed, bleeding profusely from wounds that looked like they had been made by something with a razor-sharp edge. Maddy soon realizes that the Whisperer in the Dark is real and is coming for her. She’s determined to outrun the blood-thirsty demon, and with the help of her friends and family โ€” and, crucially, the stories she’s shared with them โ€” she might just get away with her life.

We Indians know what century we are living in, but we also know how we got here. And we remember the stories created along the way.

Maddy is an excellent protagonist, and Bruchac gives us enough details to make her feel real and easy to root for: she’s an orphan living with a white aunt who she loves but also feels misunderstood by her; she has a warm relationship with her Indian grandmother, and they share a love of stories; she runs track; sheโ€™s into horror.

She has enough attributes, in fact, that they make the rest of the small cast of characters feel thinly sketched in comparison. But that’s fine. This is Maddy’s story, after all.

Bruchac, as previously mentioned, doesn’t hold back when writing for children. The descriptions of the Whisperer in the Dark are evocative and horrifying (oh he takes the head off the bodies before drinking the blood okay fine). We get a flashback of the car accident that took Maddy’s parents, and it is chilling in its stark, simple brutality. And did I mention the bit with the dog? Don’t worry โ€” the good girl makes it. But Bruchac did ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ข๐˜ต. To someone’s ๐˜ฑ๐˜ฆ๐˜ต. He knows children are a little creepy and are all in for this macabre business and he will make no apologies.

Having two horror nerds as protagonists is fun and refreshing in a spooky middle grade novel. Bruchac has fun with it, cleverly commenting on his own story and calling out tropes and conventions by using the horror stories that made them so ubiquitous as examples. The book’s title is also similar to that of a novella by H.P. Lovecraft, and he is name-dropped a couple of times. It makes sense: the action takes place in Rhode Island (prime Lovecraft Country), and its themes and atmosphere sometimes veers into the eldritch. The man’s influence on horror runs deep, but I’m still surprised that the story didn’t comment on his terrible, racist views at all. But I understand that maybe this wasnโ€™t the place for it. Still, on a personal note: a Lovecraftian story written by a Native American author would have sent the intolerant wretch into hysterics and I just enjoy that image.

Mostly though, this is a story about stories โ€” why they matter and why we need them not just for entertainment, but for survival. And those are my favorite stories of all.

The book has illustrations by Sally Wern Comport, whose work is just delightful.

โ—‹

I read my first Bruchac book last year on October 11, which also happened to be Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I ended that review by acknowledging the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women that has been plaguing their communities in North America for decades and continues to do so still. Once again I’m including some links to relevant charities and organizations on my Linktree page, and encourage you to give them a look and help out if you are able.

JUDGE DEE STORIES by Lavie Tidhar โ€” ๐ŸŽƒ

Iโ€™m a big fan of Red Nose Studio. They often work with Tor Books, producing quirky little masterpieces of paper and wood and string to grace the covers of the publishing houseโ€™s offerings. But their covers for this set of vampiric murder mysteries by author Lavie Tidhar is on another level. The artwork is what initially drew me in. The murder mystery angle of the stories is what hooked me. This should surprise no one whoโ€™s followed my feed this summer. It is my current favorite genre. Vampires are my favorite monsters. It was a no brainer.

๐˜๐˜ข๐˜ฎ๐˜ฑ๐˜ช๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด ๐˜ฎ๐˜ข๐˜บ ๐˜ฃ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ค๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ข๐˜ต๐˜ถ๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด ๐˜ฐ๐˜ง ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ฏ๐˜ช๐˜จ๐˜ฉ๐˜ต, ๐˜ฃ๐˜ถ๐˜ต ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ๐˜บ ๐˜ข๐˜ญ๐˜ด๐˜ฐ ๐˜ฉ๐˜ข๐˜ท๐˜ฆ ๐˜ณ๐˜ถ๐˜ญ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด โ€” ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ๐˜ช๐˜จ๐˜ฎ๐˜ข๐˜ต๐˜ช๐˜ค ๐˜ข๐˜ฏ๐˜ฅ ๐˜ค๐˜ณ๐˜บ๐˜ฑ๐˜ต๐˜ช๐˜ค ๐˜ข๐˜ด ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ๐˜บ ๐˜ฎ๐˜ข๐˜บ ๐˜ฃ๐˜ฆ.  ๐˜‘๐˜ถ๐˜ฅ๐˜จ๐˜ฆ ๐˜‹๐˜ฆ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ช๐˜ด ๐˜ข ๐˜ท๐˜ข๐˜ฎ๐˜ฑ๐˜ช๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ค๐˜ฉ๐˜ข๐˜ณ๐˜จ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฅ ๐˜ธ๐˜ช๐˜ต๐˜ฉ ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ๐˜ง๐˜ฐ๐˜ณ๐˜ค๐˜ช๐˜ฏ๐˜จ ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด๐˜ฆ ๐˜ท๐˜ข๐˜จ๐˜ถ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ณ๐˜ถ๐˜ญ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด. ๐˜‘๐˜ถ๐˜ฅ๐˜จ๐˜ฆ ๐˜‹๐˜ฆ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ฅ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด ๐˜ฆ๐˜น๐˜ข๐˜ค๐˜ต๐˜ญ๐˜บ ๐˜ธ๐˜ฉ๐˜ข๐˜ต ๐˜ฉ๐˜ช๐˜ด ๐˜ฏ๐˜ข๐˜ฎ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ช๐˜ฎ๐˜ฑ๐˜ญ๐˜ช๐˜ฆ๐˜ด.

So I was a little disappointed to find that the mysteries were, unfortunately, mostly trivial and barely mysterious. But I very much got the sense that Tidhar wasnโ€™t aiming to write showy whodunnits as much as he just wanted to have fun with the tropes and conventions of vampire stories โ€” and he very clearly does. (My favorite gag: each and every single vampire prefacing the word โ€œwineโ€ with dramatic ellipses.) 

These stories read very much like experiments in style, eschewing the often august, Gothic sensibilities associated with the elegant ghouls in favor of clever subversions and playful, outrageous scenarios. Which is totally fine โ€” just not exactly what I expected. 

Still, these stories are very much fun, and I particularly recommend it to fans of ๐˜ž๐˜ฉ๐˜ข๐˜ต ๐˜ž๐˜ฆ ๐˜‹๐˜ฐ ๐˜ช๐˜ฏ ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜š๐˜ฉ๐˜ข๐˜ฅ๐˜ฐ๐˜ธ๐˜ด, as Jonathan, Judge Deeโ€™s milquetoast human companion, reads like a cross between Guillermo, that showโ€™s similarly long-suffering familiar, and Morty, the pushover from, you know, that other show. The titular character himself reads like an aloof Benedict Cumberbatch. Like I said: fun. You can read all three stories that have been released on Tor Bookโ€™s website. My favorite is โ€œJudge Dee and the Poisoner of Montmartre,โ€ mostly due to the brazen ludicrousness of its plot. (These stories have excellent grandiloquent titles, which I appreciate, naturally.)

A PSALM FOR THE WILD-BUILT by Becky Chambers

a psalm for the wild-built by becky chambers - blogThere were robots in the communities of Panga once. But, shortly before a total environmental collapse, they gained sentience and chose to go into the wilderness, leaving the humans to their own devices. People, for their part, respected this decision, and resolved instead to pull their home back from the brink. They began to live in harmony with nature, rather than impose their industrial will upon it. This resulted, eventually, inevitably, into a veritable Utopia where people prosper alongside nature.

Humans will still be humans, however, and in a perfect world there will still be sadness and anxiety and dissatisfaction. Which is how we find Sibling Dex, a gardener monk. They live a good, decent life in Panga’s only city. But Dex still feels tired: the city is beautiful but stifling; their work is honorable but unfulfilling. Dex finds themself craving stillness and solitude. And so, like countless humans before them, they pack up their life and hit the road. Settling on becoming a tea monk, Dex will travel through Panga’s communities, offering a service that is considered more therapeutic than indulgent in this society.

And so Sibling Dex soon establishes a routine. Restlessness soon rears its eager head once more, though. Feeling exasperated and balking at the concept of once again changing vocations and rebuilding their life, Dex decides on something a little more drastic and abandons it instead. They go off grid, as it were, heading into the wild towards an abandoned hermitage, ostensibly to find a species of cricket believed to be extinct (an obsession and metaphor Dex holds throughout the story), but in reality looking for some sort of enlightenment. Some path towards happiness.

It’s on this road that they stumble upon Splendid Speckled Mosscap, a wild-built robot that has volunteered to essentially check up on the humans and surmise what they need. To that end, it joins Sibling Dex on their journey, engaging in increasingly philosophical conversations that run the gamut of human (and robot) nature along the way.

โ—‹

I have revisited a lot of books in my life. Like most readers, I have perennial favorites that I return to time and again for comfort and the warmth of familiarity. Even so, I can’t recall a time when I’ve picked a book back up so soon after finishing it. But I couldn’t stop thinking about ๐‘จ ๐‘ท๐’”๐’‚๐’๐’Ž ๐’‡๐’๐’“ ๐’•๐’‰๐’† ๐‘พ๐’Š๐’๐’…-๐‘ฉ๐’–๐’Š๐’๐’•, the latest from Becky Chambers, which is why, barely a day after I first finished it, I found myself starting the story once more. Which should speak volumes as to how much this short novel affected me.

I’m used to having an emotional connection to Chambers’ particularly charming brand of science fiction. Her books have always filled me with warmth and light. The stories may be about alien beings and life in outer space, but they are primarily about capital-F Feelings, written in poetic prose that sings as it burrows itself into my cold, hollow heart. But ๐˜—๐˜ด๐˜ข๐˜ญ๐˜ฎ in particular not only managed to wedge itself into that ramshackle muscle, but proceeded to fill it with enough of its sacred song to restore the damn thing back to beating life.

It’s the timing of it all. Stories have a tendency to find you when you need them most. So it was with ๐˜—๐˜ด๐˜ข๐˜ญ๐˜ฎ, speaking as it did to so many things that have taken up space in my brain this past pandemic year: ecology and environment; stillness and solitude; sorrow and stress; productivity and purpose. I saw myself in this story, and more importantly I felt understood by it. It spoke to me, and its voice, like that of a psalm (or a prayer, or a promise), was one of encouragement and reassurance:

The world may be broken, but it might still be mended. You may be hurting, but you could still be healed. You may be lost, but you can always be found again and again and again.

THE BOX IN THE WOODS by Maureen Johnson

the box in the woods - maureen johnsonOn summer break from her creepy, cherished school, and after closing the biggest case of her barely begun career, budding detective Stevie Bell is feeling lonely and adrift. Her friends are scattered to the winds, doing their own thing โ€” and after solving probably the greatest mystery she’s ever going to come across, Stevie, despite her youth, is afraid she’s already become burned out.

Which is when she receives an an email from an eccentric entrepreneur explaining that he has recently purchased Sunny Pines, a summer camp that also happens be the site of the notorious Box in the Woods Murders, where, back in the seventies, four camp counselors were killed, their bodies gruesomely stuffed inside an old hunting blind in the surrounding woods. The morbid mogul means to record a true crime podcast about the case, and wants Stevie to help with the investigation. She can even bring her friends. It’ll be fun. So Stevie jumps at the chance.โ €

Stevie, like Pandora before her, will open the box in the woods, out of which will crawl out not only the sinister secrets of a small, sleepy town, but also the malice long suppressed within.

โ€”

As much fun as I had reading the trilogy that preceded it, I enjoyed ๐‘ป๐’‰๐’† ๐‘ฉ๐’๐’™ ๐’Š๐’ ๐’•๐’‰๐’† ๐‘พ๐’๐’๐’…๐’” so much more. I tend to find that mysteries work best with singular, standalone stories, anyway, where, much like the many isolated settings and closed circle plots that populate the genre, the imposed restrictions generally allow for tighter, more focused narratives. And that is exactly what we get here: a mystery that is less intricate, to be sure, when compared to the puzzle that was the Ellingham affair, but which also manages to feel considerably more intimate and immediate.

The elements I loved from the previous books remain present here, with some even getting amplified. The characters are still very much quirky and slightly ridiculous, traits that extend even to recent additions to the cast like the camp’s new owner Carson, an insufferable industrialist who made his wealth selling a subscription box of curated boxes โ€” as in, you get a monthly box full of boxes โ€” called Box Box; and Lucas, an eight-year-old camper who happens to be a fan of Nate’s fantasy novel and whose sole mission seems to be to torture him into writing a sequel. Lucas’ obsession leads to one of my favorite exchanges in the novel:

“I think Lucas is going to ๐˜”๐˜ช๐˜ด๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜บ your ass,” Stevie said. “Sorry about your ankles.”

“I swear to god that kid has been watching me in my sleep,” Nate said, wrapping his arms around himself.

Ridiculous, I tell you. Gotta love it.

Stevie’s pals Janelle and Nate are as delightful as ever. Even David, a character I found to be mostly unbearable, gets a decent showing here, but that’s probably due to the fact that he’s written with an entirely different personality. Nate is a personal favorite, so I was glad to see he got to shine in this book (something which he absolutely hated). Sadly this development does sort of end up sidelining Janelle, one of the few BIPOC characters in the series. A shame and a misstep, since there were a handful of clear ways her role could have been further developed. Alas. Hopefully Janelle gets more of a spotlight in future entries.

Stevie’s anxiety continues to be sensibly explored, which I will always appreciate.

The true crime angle is still, of course, prominent (๐˜ฏ๐˜ฐ๐˜ธ ๐˜ธ๐˜ช๐˜ต๐˜ฉ ๐˜ข ๐˜ฑ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฅ๐˜ค๐˜ข๐˜ด๐˜ต!). Particular attention is given to the actual real world work of Frances Glessner Lee, a criminologist who built incredibly detailed dioramas depicting death scenes that were used to train homicide detectives in the early days of forensic science in the US.

There is also the surprising addition of some summer camp horror tropes. They help lend ๐˜‰๐˜ฐ๐˜น ๐˜ช๐˜ฏ ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ž๐˜ฐ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฅ๐˜ด a more menacing air. And although there’s nothing that’s ever explicit (this is YA, after all) the detail the book goes into with murder is notably chilling.

Another new aspect that left me impressed was the brief exploration of ethical dilemmas in criminal justice work. With the Ellingham case, for instance, Stevie had a benefit of distance that allowed her to deal with the facts in a calculating, clinical, detached manner. The players involved were all long gone, after all. With the Box in the Woods Murders, though, the crime being relatively recent, Stevie has to deal with witnesses who are very much alive, many of whom still carrying the trauma inflicted by the atrocious act. It’s uncharted territory for Stevie, and watching her navigate these moralistic waters was interesting indeed. Character growth! โ €

Finally, thanks to the self-contained, concentrated nature of the stand-alone, I found the central mystery of ๐˜‰๐˜ฐ๐˜น ๐˜ช๐˜ฏ ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ž๐˜ฐ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฅ๐˜ด a lot stronger and significantly more satisfying than the present day puzzle of the main trilogy, the conclusion of which felt somewhat rushed and a little lackluster. This one felt properly wrapped up and, much like Glessner Lee’s dollhouse dioramas, perfectly compact. I was also thrilled to see Stevie finally getting to do a proper, honest-to-goodness Summation Gathering.

Mostly, though, I’m grateful that I didn’t have to wait ๐˜ต๐˜ฐ๐˜ฐ long for another Stevie Bell mystery romp. Here’s hoping for many more to come.