SHIRLEY AND JAMILA’S BIG FALL by Gillian Goerz

shirley and jamila's big fall by gillian goerzAfter their summer adventure, friends Shirley Bones (kid detective extraordinaire) and Jamila Waheed (new spunky kid on the block) prepare themselves for the school daze ahead. It turns out to be a busy term, and between all the extracurriculars, the friends find themselves with limited time to hang out together. Jamila in particular struggles to find new friends, being the new kid, until she meets Seena while trying out for the local basketball team. Like her, Seena is of Pakistani descent, and the pair form an instant connection over their shared cultural quirks. Jamila worries that her budding friendship with Seena will affect her relationship with Shirley, since the two couldn’t be any more different. Add to that the fact that Seena seems to be hiding a checkered past….

Seasoned sleuth Shirley Bones has no time for interpersonal drama, though — not when there’s a case to crack. A loathsome sixth-grader by the name of Chuck is known throughout the school as a notorious blackmailer. Possessing a veritable hoard of incriminating pictures, videos, and text messages, he lords over his  classmates, extorting favors in exchange for his presumed silence, lest he ruin their elementary school careers. Bones and Waheed soon make it their mission to take down the crooked character’s coercive enterprise.

○○○

I had an absolute blast reading Shirley and Jamila Save Their Summer, the first book of this seasonal series, last year. It helped that I picked it up knowing next to nothing about it, other than it involved kid detectives. So I was pleasantly surprised when I realized, halfway through the book, that the series was a Sherlock Holmes reimagining! It’s not overt from the outset (in fact, I don’t think even the blurb mentions it) so I had a lot of fun going back through the story and picking up all the references and homages, most of which seemed obvious in retrospect (the assonance of their names, for one). In a world saturated with interpretations of this world and its characters, this one in particular felt like such a fresh and clever take. I finished it eager to get back into this story.

I’m happy to report that I also had a blast reading the sequel, Shirley and Jamila’s Big Fall, and in fact would say that I liked it a bit more than the first book, if mostly because of the gorgeous autumn setting, which I am always a sucker for. This one is based on “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” a story famous for featuring a villain that was even more revolting than Sherlock’s traditional nemesis, Moriarty. (Fans of BBC’s Sherlock will no doubt remember Lars Mikkelsen’s brilliantly repulsive portrayal of the character in the show’s third season.) Chuck is a great and outrageous juvenile analogue of the character, who, instead of doing the things he does for power and influence, here he’s just an overly privileged, pretentious child who has never been denied a thing in his life. It was a lot of fun to watch his machinations being undone by Bones and company. 

Goerz’s character work is wonderful. The supporting cast in the first book was a highlight, and although I’m sad to see they don’t play a role in this story, the newcomers are also immediately endearing. Seena is the obvious standout, but her family is also a delightful addition. That familial aspect is another thing I admire about these books. Middle grade stories tend to do away with grown-ups in some form or another, but in Shirley and Jamila’s lives, they are not obstacles to overcome, but integral. It’s a nice and lovely change of pace. 

The artwork remains exceptional. Goerz draws people in a simplistic style that’s very reminiscent of Raina Telgemeier’s work, but her characters are a lot more expressive. They are never static — their faces and postures change constantly throughout the pages and panels, lending the story a dynamic feel. But Goerz in particular excels at scenery: her backgrounds are beautiful and incredibly elaborate, positively bursting with fun little details. They are also super cozy, which is only appropriate, given the autumnal setting (the aesthetics of Seena’s family apartment are goals, as the kids would say). I usually fly through graphic novels, but I consciously slowed down while reading this one, the better to appreciate the art.

All in all, another highly enjoyable adventure featuring two intrepid sleuths that are quickly becoming favorites. And I can’t wait to see what surprises Winter has in store for them.

MASTER OF MURDER by Christopher Pike

master of murder by christopher pikeTeenager Marvin Summer writes bestsellers. His latest series of thrillers, The Mystery of Silver Lake, has taken the country by storm, and the public waits for the final book with fevered anticipation. Marvin is feeling the pressure, although nobody around him would be able to tell: he writes the books under a pseudonym — Mack Slate — so no one, save his younger sister, knows he’s actually rich and famous. Much to his chagrin, at times. If his schoolmates knew, he could surely get with any of the girls he frequently lusts over, and the arrogant jocks and overbearing teachers that look down on him would turn to idolization instead. But that’s a fantasy Marvin must entertain at least until he turns eighteen, lest his abusive, alcoholic father find out about his fortune and exploit it. So Mack Slate remains a secret.

Until one day Marvin finds a letter in his postbox proclaiming to know his secret, words that start a chain reaction that will turn his already complicated life upside down as the intrigue and murder that fill his fictional stories suddenly bleed out into the real world. 

○○○

Master of Murder by Christopher Pike was trash of the highest caliber — and I mean that as a total compliment. An outrageous, but ultimately fun ride. This read like Fear Street by way of Twin Peaks, where the central question was not “who killed Laura Palmer?” but “who hurt Marvin Summer?” instead. (The fact that the book felt Extremely Nineties only added to my enjoyment.)

This was my first Pike book! I tend to read mysteries and thrillers around this time, and seeing as how The Midnight Club adaptation on Netflix was one of my favorite things I saw this past Hallowe’en, I thought one of his books would be the perfect transition between spooky season and murder mystery month. The man wrote a mean and compulsively readable book, although at times it very much read like a first draft affair, partly due to all the unusual names that seemed more like placeholders than anything (Quade, Triad, Sesa, Pella — you know, traditional Pacific Northwest names), but also due to the prose itself, which was sometimes very clunky and decidedly juvenile. (Although maybe that last bit was meant to be intentional, seeing as how this was a story about a teenage author hopped-up on raging hormones.) Also it’s good that not much is known about Pike himself, as he rarely does any press, because Marvin Summer reads like a self-insert if there ever was one — and it’s not a flattering portrayal at all.

Still, I had fun with it. I just hope The Midnight Club gets another season, because Mike Flanagan and company could spin wonders out of this angsty adolescent murder mystery.  

A NIGHT IN THE LONESOME OCTOBER by Roger Zelazny — 🎃

a night in the lonesome october by roger zelaznySomewhere deep beyond the woods you know there stands a house that should not be there. Reality shifts and shimmers around it, surrounding the peculiar structure in a vortex of interdimensional voids and cosmic fissures and other things. The shutters clang against their windows. The house is entirely dark, save for a single flickering light in the topmost room. Inside the house that should not be there, someone is reading.

The man closes the book with, he believes, a flourish. Outside, the winds appear to have subsided. The house has, at the very least, stopped shaking. The man sighs and gets up from the bed. He puts the book he has just finished on a side table already full of books and loose papers and empty mugs. He looks at the rest of the chaotic clutter that makes up his room with a slight look of shame. He catches his reflection in the mirror above the dresser. His hair has grown longer and wilder in the month that he has been here, not to mention his beard. He resolves to tidy up his appearance before leaving later on in the night. But, before he gets to that, he spots a book on one of the shelves that line the walls of the room — a book he has been meaning to read for the longest while. He grabs it, thinking that it would be nice to pick up something with no relation to arcane rites or rituals. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he cracks the book open and begins to read.

Calcifer, his wing all but healed, flies back into the house just as the man makes his way down the stairs. He has cleaned up somewhat, the crow notes, although to him he still looks like something you’d find out in the woods. Something dead and ravaged. He doesn’t voice this thought, however.

“I was just making the rounds outside,” he says instead, alighting on a pile of books on top of a table in the entryway. “All clear now. No weird things shambling about or cracks in reality or nothing.”

“You sound disappointed about that,” the man says, taking his jacket from the coat tree near the front door. 

“No, it’s just,” Calcifer struggles to find the words. “That’s it? It’s over? We… we won?”

“Again,” says the man. “You sound disappointed.” 

“No,” the crow says, glaring. “No, it’s just that it feels slightly anticlimactic.”

“Yeah, I get what you mean,” says the man. “A few of the books I read this season were like that. Ah, well. They can’t all be hits.”

“That’s not what I mean at all and you damn well know it.”

“Alas.”

“No, not— Nevermind.”

Osseous walks into the foyer then, a small stack of books in their skeletal hands. 

“Thank you, Oz,” the man says, receiving the pile. He begins the complicated puzzle that is shoving a bunch of books into an already overstuffed bag. “Our feathered friend here was just complaining about how abrupt the conclusion to this whole thing was.”

“The Hallowed Ritual can feel like that, at times,” says the skeletal librarian. “It is a good thing. It means the other players played their parts well and without much trouble.”

Calcifer caws. “It’s not that I’m complaining or anything,” he says. “It’s just that, you know, it’s the Maleficent Monarchs we were talking about. Just thought it would, I dunno, involve more. Some epic battle or whatever.”

“I think he’s been reading too many of these books, Oz,” the man says with a grin.

The crow stares daggers at the man.

“Look,” the man says, while working on his storage conundrum. “You have to realize that despite the fact that Those That Dwell in the Dark are nigh omnipotent otherworldly beings, they also just happen to be a colossal bunch of losers.” 

Osseous nods their skull in agreement. “The Ritual has been going on for a long time. The other side has yet to win.” 

“That’s comforting, I suppose.” 

“Yes, well, maybe you’ll get your fight to the death next time, Calcifer.”

The crow starts to preen his feathers, ignoring the man.

The man shoulders his bulky rucksack. “Friends, the lonesome October has finally come to a close. Now we get to relax and enjoy the fact that the world has not yet come to an end thanks in part to our humble efforts.”

The man opens the front door. Outside the house that should not be there, moonlight shines on the fall foliage of the surrounding forest, making it gleam in the night. “It’s been surreal, guys,” he says with a frivolous bow. “Until next time.” 

The door closes and he is gone.

“Huh,” Calcifer says. “So that’s that, then.” 

A knock on one of the sidelights flanking the door. “Oh and happy Hallowe’en and all that!” The man’s declaration sounds muffled through the glass. He gives a thumbs up and disappears once more, into the night.

The librarian and the crow stand quietly for a moment.

“Hey, speaking of which, Oz. We get any trick-or-treaters out here?”

“Sadly, no.”

“I guessed. Shame.”

“Yes.”

“At least things should be quiet for a while,” Calcifer says, after a beat.

“Yes,” Osseous says.  “Well, the ghosts do tend to get restless come Yuletide.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“The ghosts.”

Calcifer sighs as a myriad of questions quickly come to mind. He knows better now, though. Knows that any answer he seeks he can find without much difficulty, here in this house full of secrets and stories. At the moment, however, there is only one question he wants answered.

“We got anything to eat?” the crow asks. 

The librarian nods. 

Inside the house that should not be there, somewhere beyond the woods you know, the two friends make their way towards the kitchens.

○ 

A Night in the Lonesome October was a re-read for me, although it had been so long that I had forgotten most of the particulars. It certainly made an impression, though, since the little framing story that I had been writing throughout the season turned out to be my own humble riff on this wonderfully playful and spooky story about a group of occultists trying to impede — or invoke — the End of Days through the closing — or opening — of a gateway for the Great Old Ones. (“Humble,” he says, shamelessly.)

The influence shouldn’t have come as a surprise, though, since Zelazny was a writer after my own heart. The book is full of clever, whimsical wordplay (there’s a romantic subplot that exists solely as a means to a pun) and droll dialogue riddled with amusing arcane-babble (techno-babble’s mystical equivalent).

Lonesome October is also very much a love letter to classic horror, not only of the filmic and literary persuasion, but the historical as well (our narrator is, after all, Jack the Ripper’s canine companion). References and easter eggs abound, focusing mainly on the monster movies of Universal Studios and the lurid yarns of the Victorian era. Some Lovecraftian lore is thrown in for good measure. (And also Sherlock Holmes, because of course he would stick his pipe in at some point.) 

Each chapter corresponds to one night in October, and I had a tremendous amount of fun picking up this book every evening throughout the month. It turned out to be a grounding ritual as well — a reminder  that, despite my tendency to stress out over wanting to watch all of the things and read all of the books and write all of the stories, this ludicrous holiday should be, above all, an enjoyable time. This book made my October even more fun than it already was (and, indeed, much less lonesome). 

And it has been a good one. I watched some decent movies. Read some fine books, of course. Even wrote a mad bit of a short story!  So I think we can jot this month down as a success. Surely we’ve managed to keep the darkness at bay for a little while longer. 

Happy Hallowe’en, you lovely weirdos!

SLEWFOOT by Brom — 🎃

slewfoot by bromr̵̢̲̟̦͔͂͠í̷͖́͊f̵̧̧̮͖͖̩̠̎̉͜͜t̶̜̊͛̃͝s̵̖̥̖͆́̒̀́̎͊̈͘͝ ̸̩̞̣̣̺͚̇̔͊͛̈́̃̌ͅi̸̡̢̨̛̺͍̬̰̹͈̮͌̑̑́̊̚n̸̰̥̞̍̈́̒ ̸̧̛̟̝̟͖̺̓ͅt̷̹̬͈̉͊̄ḩ̴̦͈͚̞͎̃͗̏̔́̕̕͠ę̶̀͆̐͐̈́̿̀ ̴̢̡̡̲̟̘̏̐̚f̴̨͈̳̼̣͉̱̫̬̏́̑̊̈́̚͜͝a̷̙͖͒̊̿͗̇b̴̧̙̥͍̪̦̟̟͖̈͝ͅr̸̨̭̹̦͔̙̪̬̦̐̅̿̾̅͌͑̉i̵͎͉̪̲̭̣͈͍̼͚̔̄̀̌̔͗̾c̵͕̦̼͎͗͑̅͒ ̴̫̟̼̗͓͗̂̈́̂̕͝o̵̝͖͗͐̓̾̽̀f̸̊͆̾̀͊́ͅ ̴̨̡͈͎̙̤̝͈͓̖̃̈̈́̓́̒̆̈̆r̴̡̤̞̻̘̯̈́͆͛̅́̽̋͆͘ę̷̟̥̪͖̞̣̮̒͗͛̆̃̿͐͘̚ă̶̢̢͙̲͉̯̫͈̭̊̾͐̍͒͝ͅl̴̢̠̲͉̤͇͍̫̀̚ị̶̗̻͓̪̮͙͔͒t̴̗̣͛͒̒͌̈́̎͂͑͝͝y̸͎͍̔̋̌̃̊́̓̈̓̈́

ċ̵̨̪͇̝̮͓̞͉͙̒̏͋̀ä̵͔̲̦́̒̿͆̆͂̽̓n̸̢͈̪̬̮̩͕̹̭͍͐͂̋̍̃̍̈́ ̵̢̨̘̺̭̙͙͚̬̤̍͑̓ỷ̷̡̙͓̤̖͖̊͛̅̐͋̂͠o̶͍͚̹̫͙͐̉̈͂u̶̮͙̠͚̯̭̥̘͌͗̔̏͝͝ ̷̢̢̱̖̞͙̿̃́̈́̓̀͆̊͘ͅs̷̢̨̱̯̙͖̳͒ë̷̟̤͕́́́̍͒̇ę̵̡̞̱͓̫͎̬̺̻̔́̓̓̅̓͌͂͝ ̶̹̪͖̼̹́͒̎̈́͒͠ṱ̴̰͙̏͌͂͒͒͗̌͑͝h̸̜̣̏̃̽͊̄̃̌͊̐͠ḛ̸̥̟̥̖̯͚̋m̶̨̧͙͕͂͐

t̸͈̟̪̠̹̏̇̑̉̽̚̚h̶̺̱̖͛͗̿e̷̱͊̐ỵ̸̳̺̺͈̘͍͈͋ ̶͓̬͎͇̙̠̯̙͆ä̶̢̞̟͇̾̕r̶̺̙͔͙͖̀͑͋́͆̚e̷̢̡͎̠̻̞͉̝̋̿̄͛ ̴̨̢̡̦̪͔̗̥̞̀͂͂͋̆͌̃͑͝c̶̡̨̬̝͕̯͖̲̻̚ơ̴̡̡̙͛͆̈́̑̇̉̄m̵̫̺͖̻͓̓i̸̡̜͕̙͖̫̦̗͙̋͂͜ņ̷̡̙̫͑̑́͂̌͗͌͝͝g̷̛̦̹̠̬̦̺̃͂͛̃̒̇ 

 

Slewfoot is one hell of a slow burn. Author Brom takes his time crafting this Pagan and Puritan mashup, dedicating the larger part of the book to its construction. Both seemingly incompatible worlds come crashing together with the meeting and burgeoning friendship between Samson, an old beast of the forest, and Abitha, a widow — making this story a lot less like the film The VVitch (which I was expecting) and more like a strange combination of Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth (which I was decidedly not expecting). (This also meant that I kept picturing the titular creature as played by Doug Jones, which only helped this tale.) 

Although Brom’s writing is clear and serviceable — and the passion he has for this peculiar story is evident — this first half is somewhat of a slog to get through, the narrative insistent on pushing us through the muck and mire of convoluted lore and mythology before getting us to the action proper. The story doesn’t truly pick up until its third act, which begins with a heartrending and infuriating (and, from what I can gather, fairly accurate) depiction of a witch trial, and ends with a massacre. After spending so much time focusing on the ill treatment of Agitha, its main character, witnessing the struggle and slander being piled on top of her to an almost oppressive, stifling degree, the euphoric release she is ultimately afforded in the final few chapters feels entirely and utterly satisfying, and we can’t help but revel along with her.

A dark, undoubtedly bewitching tale. Slewfoot is full of haunting imagery* and harrowing historical horror. I enjoyed it quite a bit.

* Literally, in this case, as Brom is an accomplished artist and illustrator and as such fills his novel with stunning artwork. I only wish more pieces had been included.

HORSEMAN by Christina Henry — 🎃

horseman by christina henryOutside the house that should not be there, there is pandemonium. A vortex of vexations engulfs it, utterly. In furious desperation, Unspeakable Things try to get in and quickly find that they cannot. The Keeper’s wards hold. The darkness remains, for the moment, without.

Inside the house, in the eye of this peculiar storm, there is relative calm. The librarian, the man, and the crow are in the study. They form a lazy triangle: Osseous on the armchair, holding a cup to their skull; the man on the carpeted floor, resting against a bookcase, paging through a book; Calcifer on the windowsill, looking at the chaos outside.

Keeper. Reader. Seeker. 

Calcifer is thinking of the conversation they had earlier in the night. Between Osseous talking in their esoteric, poetic style and the man just prattling on about how everything is a story and they were all just characters with roles to play, it turned out to be a rather vague and muddy affair.

“Roles in the Ritual are often nebulous, mercurial things,” Osseous had said. “By which I mean they are neither rigid nor rigorous rigid. Take mine, for instance. I am Keeper. As a librarian, I keep books. As householder, I keep this house. As caretaker, I keep my companions safe.” 

“It’s wordplay, more than anything,” the man had  said. “You are Seeker.  It’s what you’ve been doing all along. Exploring the house. Asking questions. You want to know. You seek answers. Specifically, considering our persuasion, you seek out stories.”

A confusing, cryptic clutter. But it was that last thing the man said that made the crow reflect. Because, in a weird way it was true. Calcifer had left his murder behind because, while perfectly nurturing and comfortable, he wanted more out of his life than to sleep and eat and mess around with his many relatives. He wanted to light out into the unknown. He wanted some semblance of adventure. And what were adventures if not stories?

Calcifer fluffs up his feathers, shaking himself out of reverie.  He had been around books and bookish people for too long now. He was also finding out that he did not mind that much. 

“It’s best not to think about these things too deeply,” the man had also said. “Otherwise it will just seem like someone is making it up as they go along.”

So Calcifer doesn’t dwell on it for much longer. He figures, you figure out life as you live it. He figures, you figure out the story as you write it. He figures he is getting rather hungry.

Outside, headless horsemen charge into the night. Hooded executioners garbed in black sit on stumps and sharpen their axes. Fearsome flattened figures ooze out from behind the trees. Cruel clowns swing chainsaws through the mist. They can feel it, the waning of the month, the withering of the Veil. They can feel their dark, cruel masters reaching out from the Vicious Void. The house shall fall, they tell them. The walls will crumble. We will come out of the Dark and it will all be over.

Christina Henry’s Horseman turned out to be the epitome of the three star read for me. I didn’t hate it. It didn’t blow me away. It was fine. 

I do think it’s a little long, and would have benefitted from some more editing. Particularly, there’s a weird repetition thing going on that actually starts with the very first chapter, which is essentially an ode to Brom Bones, the bombastic “baddie” of Washington Irving’s original short story. Brom, the protagonist’s grandfather, is big and strong and imposing, you see. Not only that, but he’s also imposing, big, and strong, as well as, it is known, strong, imposing, and big. The tautological tendency was more conspicuous in the paragraphs that would literally say the same thing as the ones preceding it, only with slightly different wording. It’s an odd quirk that feels less like a motif than it does an oversight, and the fact that it runs throughout the length of the book is baffling.

Aside from that, I enjoyed most of Henry’s writing. The story is very atmospheric, which I am always into. It’s full of deliciously creepy imagery, and it even gets surprisingly gory at times. I also thought the characters were great. Brom Bones is a blast, being such a larger-than-life figure (further augmented by his grandson’s unbridled adoration and idolization). But Ben is the real standout, making for a layered and dynamic protagonist. Curiously, the Horseman gets the short shrift here, relegated mostly to the background. But then again, this is more Ben’s tale than it is the famed goblin’s. 

I do want to focus on one of this story’s most interesting aspects, which is that a fair bit of it revolves around Ben’s identity as a transgender man. Folks from the trans community can, of course, better speak as to how well Henry portrays Ben’s journey, but, narratively speaking at least, it seems slightly superficial here. At the beginning, his identity is mostly incidental: Ben considers himself a boy and that is that — the opinion of others be damned. And I really dug that. People from underrepresented communities can and should appear in more stories that don’t solely revolve around their marginalization. But then the book tries, especially towards the end, to tie Ben’s identity to the story’s larger theme of belonging. It makes narrative sense: What better way to illustrate that theme than by having a character figure out and accept who they truly are? Only that’s not really Ben’s story for much of the novel. He starts knowing fully well who he is and is in fact comfortable in his identity. And although the story at times tries to sell us this notion that Ben is somewhat shunned by the people of Sleepy Hollow, the text only ever shows support and acceptance from most people around him. For the most part, the other characters don’t react to Ben’s identity much at all, other than maybe thinking the child a little odd (tame, considering the time period). The rare moments of true ire and disdain against him are ultimately blamed on the supernatural influence of the antagonist. And in fact the only real pushback Ben gets comes from his grandmother, who wants her grandson to fit into a more traditional, socially acceptable mold — but even then that conflict is resolved not even halfway through the novel. 

Which is fine! Again, stories about marginalized folk don’t have to be only about their strife and struggle. I just thought it was peculiar that Horseman tries, at the literal homestretch, to restructure itself into this story of a trans man’s search for acceptance and identity featuring a protagonist who had already found these things. It would have made for a more dramatic story, to be sure, but that particular journey was seemingly already over and done with before the first chapter even began. It ends up making that particular angle of the story ring a little, well, hollow.

What’s left is still a fun, supernatural romp, though. Spooky and strange enough to make for a decent Hallowe’en read.

A NIGHT IN TERROR TOWER by R.L. Stine — 🎃

a night in terror tower by r.l. stineSomewhere far beyond the woods you know, in a house that should not be there, a crow hops along the hallways. One of his wings rests inside a sling. The bird has been through a lot recently, and very much wants to know more about his present situation. And so he seeks knowledge. And also food. He is still on the mend, after all.

Up above, in the chambers of the house, a man rests on a bed. Books and clothes are strewn about everywhere, along with countless empty cups. Despite his supine position, the man looks tired and slightly anxious. He holds a book in his hands and reads into the night.

Outside, a skeletal figure circles cautiously around the old house. Sometimes a sudden blazing flash of light can be seen. It is often accompanied by sharp screams, although these are quickly cut short.

Let us leave them here to enjoy this moment of respite.

Out of the forest, back in the world you think you know. 

In the city of witches, Count Orlok, who does not usually exist, leads a group of tourists through his gallery of nightmares, regaling them with stories of silver screens and the monsters within. The sightseers are not aware they are taking part in a ritual — are instead delighted by creatures of wax and resin and tales of human folly and triumph. Things from the Void occasionally wander into the Chronicler’s museum, although they leave just as quickly, dazed and confused.

All across the New World people sit before stages and screens. Witnesses to tales of macabre misdeeds, they become Watchers, and play their part.

Dancers everywhere gather in celebration and delight. In a bacchanalian storm of sweat and lights and music, they Dance in defiance of the dark.

Haunters set up their labyrinthine houses of horror and diversion. Things wander in, lured by the sound of laughter and screams, but they don’t come out.

Young Revelers decide on costumes and plan out their routes. They dream of treats and think up tricks. Things steer clear of them, frightened by their boundless energy and minds full of mischief.

Other Readers enact their own rituals. They light up candles and pour drinks and sit on favorite chairs. They read books of mystery and terror in their shelters full of light and warmth. And the darkness cannot get in.

Back in the house that should not be there, somewhere far beyond the woods you know, the Keeper does their rounds, casting wards of protection and banishment. Inside, the Reader browses through endless hallways full of books, looking for his next read. Perched on his shoulder is Seeker, who seems to have a knack for finding things in this strange, unfathomable house.

And thus we keep the darkness at bay.

This Hallowe’en season has felt… off. Mostly because real life has been very much getting in the way. It’s very frustrating, the way it tends to do that. A month of pure escapism is not that much to ask, surely. Alas. 

So, in an effort to keep the black flame of the season going, I turned to a Goosebumps book, which is what I’ve been doing every October for the last handful of years now. It doesn’t feel like Hallowe’en in this house, I tend to think, until I read one of these wonderful, silly books. It usually does the trick.

Which brings me A Night in Terror Tower, a book that’s as fun as goofy as any Goosebumps I’ve read so far. Initially picked up because it seemed like it would have all the gothic vibes (which I was planning on being a theme this season before my mood reading tendencies took over), but I soon found out that it was actually more of a time travel story than it was anything else. I was very skeptical of this timey-wimey element, but it ended up lending itself to some enjoyable Scooby-Doo type hijinks and chase sequences, which I am always up for. (“Run, run, run! That’s all we do anymore!” Eddie playfully lampshades at one point during the TV show adaptation.) Stine’s writing was particularly strong for this one, too. His descriptions of London — both past and, uh, nineties — were full of mood and atmosphere, and left me fairly impressed. 

As I’ve done with the last couple of Goosebumps, I paired this one with the TV show adaptation, which I think I liked a bit more than the book. It’s curious because it’s a very faithful adaptation of the story, with most of the dialogue taken pretty much verbatim from the short novel. But the episode is one of the better produced of the series (it was filmed as a special, accounting for the upgraded production), and also every time the villain turned up the melody from the main theme of The Shining would play. Just a blast all around.

Funnily enough, my brother and I had this episode on VHS when we were kids, although I’m pretty certain we never actually sat down to watch it. Still, even back then, I remember appreciating it for its rad design. Like most Goosebumps products, it just looked cool, and, for superficial old me at least, that’s still a huge part of the appeal of the series. Nineties aesthetics, man. They remain undefeated.

THE SMASHED MAN OF DREAD END by J.W. Ocker — 🎃

the smashed man of dread end by j.w. ocker

Somewhere far beyond the galaxies you know, there is a crack in the wall of reality. Within, far past the realms of time and space, Things lie in wait. They have been waiting for a long time. 

The crack is expanding. It is not yet large enough for the Things to pass through, but, by focusing their will, they are still able to send through some small portion of their power. A force sent to aid those who would pave the way for their release.

It is happening already. Something like a dark sludge begins to ooze slowly out of the crack. Once out, it will make its way towards our world, where it will finally take shape. The advance guard from the Void.

The Things in the Dark Beyond wait, patiently. They have been waiting for a long time. Somewhere deep inside, they begin to feel a terrible hope.

Calcifer is awoken from his slumber by a tapping noise. From his vantage point high up on top of the bookcases, he notes that he is alone in the study, and wonders vaguely where Osseous could be. He looks around, trying to find the source of the sound. The crow looks towards the window on the far right side of the room, expecting to see a branch from one of the neighboring trees scratching at the glass. Instead, Calcifer sees a face. It is split in a ghastly grin, full of sharp, pointed teeth. Its eyes are huge and set far apart, glowing crimson in the darkness. Around its mouth and eyes are red markings, haphazardly drawn, looking all the world like a macabre impression of a clown.

“Uh,” the crow says.

Tap tap tap.

It taps against the glass with elongated fingers that end in sharp, cracked fingernails. The figure is so large that it has to bend itself to look through the window. It waves at Calcifer when it realizes it’s finally been noticed. Its appalling grin grows wider.

“Y’all,” the crow croaks. “Oz! Guy!” He recalls Osseous’ affirmation of there being some sort of protection around the house, but still — the crow flaps his wings and readies to take flight.

The figure at the window stops waving at him and starts pointing with eagerness. It gestures at some point beyond the opened sliding doors of the study. Towards the stairs, Calcifer guesses. An assumption soon confirmed when the man suddenly comes flying down them.

The man crashes into the bookcases in the study, books cascading from the shelves, falling on top of him and scattering to the floor. Calcifer flies quickly down to his side. The man is bruised, but breathing.

“You’re okay!” the crow says. “What’s happened‽” Looking up, he notices that the figure is no longer at the window.

The man sits up, holding his sides. “They got in,” he says, through groans. “They got in through gaps in the windows.”

Before Calcifer can ask for elaboration, something comes down the stairs. At first, he can’t understand what he sees: a tall, gaunt figure, looking very much like the one outside the window, but this one’s eyes blaze violet. It is also, the crow observes with added confusion, entirely flattened. It makes its way down the stairs in an undulating gait that would be funny if it wasn’t such a surreal sight. It is being followed by two other such creatures.

“They changed shapes to get in,” the man says, chuckling. “Clever little demon things.”

Calcifer turns towards the man, whose eyes look blurry and unfocused. “Okay, so it’s time to get up,” he says. “Time to fight? I dunno.”

The man flashes him a weary smile. “That’s not my persuasion, little bird. I’m no Fighter. I’m a Reader.”

“Okay,” says the crow. “Okay, but unless you mean to throw some books at them, I don’t think reading them a story is the answer.” The figures were walking slowly, as if they were still getting used to their new, awkward forms. Their perpetual grins, however, made them seem like they knew they had all the time in the world. 

“Salwaystheanswer,” the man says.

“What?” 

“Reading at them. It’s what I’m supposed to do. That’s my role. My function.” The man gets up, still looking very much dazed. “Wheresmbook?”

What?

“I had a book. With me. I was Reading. Must have dropped it when I was dropped. Help me find it.”

The man gets up and, preposterously, begins to look around the mess of fallen books around him, as if otherworldly beings weren’t making their way towards them at the moment.

Fine,” Calcifer says, exasperated, and begins to help the ridiculous man, who probably has a concussion and is going to die, look for his book.

Things happen quickly. 

Calcifer spots the man’s book with little difficulty. He has no time to wonder how he knew which one it was, despite having never seen it at all. He flies over, pointing it out for the man. 

At the same time, the flat, stumbling creatures get a sudden burst of energy. They fly down the stairs, flattened limbs flapping wildly, and lurch into the study. 

The man picks up the book just as a ragged hand reaches over to him. A hand which Calcifer begins to tear into with his talons. 

Another hand smacks the crow away, sending him crashing into a bookcase in an explosion of feathers and dust.

Calcifer falls to the ground. As his vision begins to blur, he barely sees Osseous as they come into the room, skeletal limbs raised. As the crumbled bookcases right themselves and rush towards the creatures. As the fallen books fly up into the air, forming a wall that starts to push back. As the man kneels beside the librarian, opens his books, and begins to read. As the flat creatures — the man’s book has the word “smashed” in the title, and Calcifer, light-headed, thinks it perfectly describes these weird things — burst through the wall of books and shelves. 

As amber beams pour out of Osseous’s orbits. As Keeper, limbs raised, rises up into the air, their terrible blazing light shining directly on the invaders, causing them to cower and convulse before finally crumbling into clouds of cinder and ash. 

Calcifer witnesses all of this happen in a bewildered haze, and then he blacks out.

Later, when Calcifer wakes up, he finds the man sitting beside him, looking, annoyingly, none worse for wear.

“Hello, little bird,” he says. 

“You know, I don’t like that nickname, either. Think it’s condescending.” 

The man shrugs.

“What happened?” asks the crow, wincing. One of his wings is bent slightly — not broken, miraculously, but tender. “Are those things gone?” 

“They’ve gone,” replies Osseous. They walk into the study carrying a tray with a bowl of soup, which they put in front of Calcifer. The crow is resting on the librarian’s armchair, against a cushion. He dives into the bowl.

“How, though?” the crow asks between mouthfuls. “What was it that you did?”

“I kept them away,” they say, simply. “It’s part of my duties as Keeper.”

“And I read to them a bit,” the man says with a mischievous grin. “It’s part of my duties as—”

“Shut up,” says the crow, grimacing. He feels the mother of all headaches coming on. “You two are just full of surprises, huh?”

“You’re one to talk,” the man says. “The way you helped save my hide back there. Finding the book that quickly. Keeping them busy by having them smack you instead of me.”

“Oh yes, my absolute damn pleasure,” Calcifer says, not even trying to hide the sarcasm.

“No, really,” says the man. “That was good. You did good. Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” says the crow, meaning it. He wants to do nothing but sleep away his aches and pains.

“You were right, though,” the man says, addressing Osseous. “He has the true makings of a Seeker.” The librarian nods at this.

Calcifer feels another set of questions coming on, but he stamps them back down, opting for sleep instead. “So I guess we should get some rest before the next batch of things comes by to visit or whatever,” he says.

“Oh, no, I believe stronger safeguards are in order,” says Osseous. “And, perhaps, some lighter reading fare?” This last directed at the man.

The man shrugs again. “Gotta fight fire with fire, Oz.”

“I’ll get to work,” Osseous says. They pick up the now empty bowl. “You rest, friend Calcifer. Seek out pleasant dreams to replace this brief nightmare.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Calcifer says, already drifting off. The crow’s head swims with questions and doubts and recollections, but he doesn’t dream at all.

The Smashed Man of Dread End by J.W. Ocker may be middle grade horror fiction, but it is, without a doubt, the most unsettling book I’ve read so far this Hallowe’en season. Brimming with chilling, frightful imagery, this novel is decidedly not afraid to go dark. And with it, Ocker joins the ranks of personal favorite authors like Katherine Arden and Neil Gaiman as an excellent purveyor of children’s horror.

The smashed star of the show itself will go down as one of the creepiest monsters I’ve ever come across, in terms of presence and demeanor. Many of the scenes involving the Smashed Man were simply full of dread and suspense — the tension so palpable you could almost cut it with a knife. One of Ocker’s intentions was to create a monster who would, in his own words, “be welcomed at Bobby Pickett’s ‘Monster Mash.’” I think he succeeded. All the great monsters come with their own set of rules, after all. What they can and cannot do. The Smashed Man is no different, and many of the story’s most interesting sequences had to do with the characters trying to find out what those rules were. 

The characters were notably strong here, too. They felt more real and less stylized than the standard fare in a lot of children’s horror. Presumably because Ocker based the main siblings on two of his own daughters. Protagonist Noe in particular was smart and clever without ever veering into precocious, nettlesome territory. Len acted exactly like a toddler, with all the delight and frustration that entails. But I was even more impressed with the rest of the Dread Enders — Crystal, Radiah, and Ruthy — who were portrayed, not as capricious side-characters, always ready with a quip and a wry remark, but as thoroughly terrified, traumatized children. Which is, of course, exactly what they were. Drollery is often so much easier and safer to write than depth, so I appreciate the restraint Ocker showed with the depiction of these characters.

An excellent story for the spooky season.

CLOWN IN A CORNFIELD 2: FRENDO LIVES by Adam Cesare — 🎃

clown in a cornfield 2 - frendo lives by adam cesare

In the kitchen of the house that should not be there, Osseous builds a sandwich. Resting on top of the icebox, picking at a bowl full of grains, Calcifer keeps them company.

The crow considers his companion. “Hey, Oz,” he says, between morsels. “Can I ask you something?”

By all means.”

How do you—” Calcifer pauses, thinking of a polite way to ask. As with most things in his life, he opts for the most direct route. “How do you eat?”

Ah,” says the skeletal librarian, with a tilt of the cranium. “That’s a bit too personal, I fear.”

Calcifer croaks. “Yeah, I guessed.”

The man stumbles in, then. He hasn’t been seen out of his chambers for days now. His beard is longer and wilder and the dark hair on his head sticks out in every which way. He opens a cabinet, taking out a handful of containers and jars before asking Osseous to pass a couple slices of bread. He makes a hasty, haphazard sandwich that he promptly scarfs down.

Clowns,” the man mumbles, mid-bite. “It’s probably going to be clowns. Two tales with them in a row. Can’t be coincidence. Best be on the lookout.”

Calcifer looks up from his bowl with interest, hoping either of them will elaborate, but the man offers nothing further and Osseous simply nods in understanding. Frustratingly, they have yet to take a bite of their sandwich — it sits whole on a plate in front of them. The librarian enjoys their meals in private.

The man makes another hurried sandwich before taking his leave, going back up the stairs, back into the deeper gloom of the house.

What was that all about, then?” Calcifer asks.

The month wanes and the veil withers along with it,” offers the Keeper.

Osseous. Please. Talk prose.”

Those in the Dark Beyond cannot yet pass,” Osseous says. “But the door is ajar enough that some of their appetent power is able to slip through, furiously intent on stopping those who work to prevent their arrival.”

Stop us how, though?” asks the crow. Calcifer isn’t quite sure when he started to consider himself part of us, but he doesn’t particularly care to question it, either.

These forces can take form, often particular to the craft they seek to crush. Those sent to hunt Readers may take the shapes of certain elements from the stories being engaged.”

So,” the crow says, nodding upwards, “because he’s reading about maniac killer clowns we could, at some point, be stalked by maniac killer clowns ourselves.”

That’s a little reductive,” says Osseous. “But yes, in essence.”

Calcifer sighs, covering his head with a wing. “Please tell me you’re joking, Osseous.”

I fear not, friend.”

Yeah, I guessed.”

I retire to my meal,” Osseous says, picking up their plate. “There are mechanisms in place against attacks here,” the Keeper adds, pausing at the threshold. “I wouldn’t dwell on it too deeply.”

Sure, sure,” Calcifer says, distracted. He’s looking out the kitchen window, not sure whether the shapes he now sees are real or the product of a stimulated imagination instead. He fluffs up and shakes his feathers. Bowl in beak, he flies out of the kitchen.

And so when the tall, gaunt figures with red eyes and clawed hands step out from behind the trees and start trudging towards the house, Calcifer doesn’t see.

Thrilling and thought-provoking in equal measure. Clown in a Cornfield 2: Frendo Lives, much like the first novel, is a cultural commentary as much as it is a horror story. That first book was written and released right in the middle of the MAGA era, and its story of prejudice and generational conflict was very much a direct reaction to — and reflection of — that particular point in time. Frendo Lives was released a mere two years later, to a landscape that, for better or for worse, has irrevocably changed. It’s a strange and baffling new world, but one that Cesare once again manages to deftly navigate with a story about the malleability of truth, media manipulation, and the dangers of mob mentality. These are stories where the true horror comes, not from preternatural bogeymen or relentless murderers, but from social conduct instead. That there is also a murderous figure in a crumbling clown costume at the center of them is really just set dressing.⠀

But it’s this vestigial villainous visage from the first book that illustrates one of the more interesting things this novel does, in that it has it become an image and an idea around which a cult is formed. It’s a frightening notion, and the fact that it feels somehow entirely plausible and realistic is nothing if not disturbing and really says a hell of a lot about our current cultural climate. (That this cult is largely composed of ignorant, ill-informed “fake news” fools only adds to the realism.) (Cesare is not subtle, and neither am I.)

Curiously, this cult concept also represents the weakest aspect of the book. While I appreciate its verisimilitude, the odious group only amounts to a couple of lackluster action set pieces — especially when compared to those in the first novel, which was brimming with harrowing spectacle. I also had an issue with the plot seemingly not knowing what to do with its protagonists, who spend much of the story reacting exasperatedly to it instead of driving it forward. It’s very odd. I like their general characterization, and the way they deal with their shared trauma reads true for the most part, but having them be basically blasé towards all the chaos around them took a lot of the edge out. At no point did I feel like the main cast was in any real danger — again in sharp contrast to the first novel, where literally every single character felt up for grabs.

Still though, this was interesting and a lot of fun. Cesare continues to slice at social tensions with gleeful, surgical precision, and I’m more than willing to continue bearing witness to his procedures.

EMPTY SMILES by Katherine Arden — 🎃

empty smiles by katherine arden

Somewhere beyond the woods you know, in a room deep inside a house that should not be there, someone is cackling.

“There’s a noise I wouldn’t want to hear every day,” says Calcifer the crow, his dark, shiny feathers bristling at the noise. He’s settled on a ledge by a window. Heavy raindrops splatter against it, and the glass panes rattle, occasionally, when hit by sudden gusts of wind.

I suppose I wouldn’t want to, either,” says Osseous. The librarian is sitting in a plump, somewhat shabby-looking armchair, reading a book. Their bony hands hold a steaming cup. They look quite comfortable.

What’s he even reading up there?”

The librarian looks at the ceiling, inclining their head to the side as if in contemplation. If the librarian had eyes, their crow companion figures, they would be closed right now. But the librarian has no eyes, not in any biological sense. Has had none for millennia, now. “Currently,” they say, “a passage about a young boy being dragged into the darkness by malevolent forces.”

Calcifer simply stares.

Fret not,” the librarian adds, as if reading his mind. “He should be leaving by the end of the month.”

Should?” asks Calcifer, nettled at the prospect of a longer stay.

These sorts of things take time, sometimes.”

Calcifer picks at his feathers. It realizes that it is getting hungry and resolves to think of what to have for supper soon. “Listen,” he says, before getting too distracted, “what exactly are we doing here?”

I apologize,” Osseous says. “I forget you have not been here long. Have not been present for the Darkening of the Year.” They put their book and beverage on a table by the chair. “I assume you know of The Things in the Vicious Void? Of Those That Dwell in the Dark?”

Of course I know the Maleficent Monarchs, Osseous,” the crow scoffs. “I live in the middle of a forest, not under a rock.” He thinks then of the particularly fat, juicy insects that can often be found under stones and fallen logs in the surrounding woods. He really is getting rather hungry. “Anyway, what do They have to do with anything?”

The librarian stares at the crow for a beat, skeletal fingers steepled. “The Veil thins during the Turning of the Year, Calcifer,” they say. “Passage between worlds is possible. Things can get in. Things can get out. And when the Things come out of the Dark—”

“— it’s all over,” Calcifer completes the refrain. He shudders.

There are rituals, of course,” Osseous continues. “All throughout the hallow month, certain individuals practice their certain crafts, play their certain parts. There are those who, for unknowable reasons, work to pave the way for Their coming. And there are those who work to prevent the way from ever being opened.”

Calcifer casts a suspicious eye towards the ceiling. “So he…”

Strives to keep the way shut,” the librarian assures. “As do I, in point of fact.”

I don’t think I get it,” the crow says, flapping its wings. He’s hungry and thus growing increasingly impatient. “You’re just a librarian, and this is a weird, creepy library in the middle of the woods. And he’s just… just some strange guy.”

I’m Keeper of Tales, Calcifer,” Osseous says. They glance at the ceiling. “He’s Reader. Listener. Devourer. Those are our roles.”

But to do what?”

Tell tales,” says the Keeper, simply. “Share stories to keep the darkness at bay.”

I got a threshold, Osseous,” says Calcifer, through gritted beak, “I got a threshold for the nonsense I’ll take.”

Osseous gets up from their chair and walks over to the nearest bookcase. They run their thin fingers across the spines of the countless books there. “Not nonsense, friend,” they say. “Magic. Old magic. Perhaps the oldest there is. Brought forth in the earlier ages of the world when folk gathered around campfires in the night, telling tales of warning and of warding. Of healing and heeding. What we do is in that same spirit and tradition.” They gesture to the many volumes that surround the room, that indeed cover the entirety of the house — this old, strange, boundless library deep in the woods. “We share stories. We shine the light. We stave off the dark.”

Calcifer hops from one leg to the other. “So to keep it all from ending,” he says, “some weirdo has to enjoy stories about kids being tormented.”

I wouldn’t put it quite like that,” Osseous says. “I would say that there are fewer things more powerful than stories of children fighting back against wickedness.” They tilt their cranium to the side — the contemplative motion again. “And he’s a Reader. They are intrinsically enthusiastic about stories. They cannot help but revel in the telling.”

Oh ho ho,” again comes the man’s voice from somewhere up in the house. “All these kids are going to get eaten.”

Silence for a spell. “He may just also be an odd, morbid man,” Osseous says, with a shrug of bone shoulders. “I confess I’m not quite sure.”

Later, the man comes down from his chambers. He finds the crow resting on a windowsill, chittering contentedly after having enjoyed a particularly long, drawn-out meal. Their skeletal companion sits, as usual, on the armchair, a large tome in their hands. Both of them look up once he enters the room. The man’s eyes are slightly damp, and there is a satisfied smile etched on his face. He is holding a book against his chest. He walks over to a circular table in the middle of the room, on which many other volumes already rest. Slowly, almost reverently, he places his book on top of a pile. He gives them both a slight nod before retiring back upstairs.

Keeper and crow look at one another. “I believe the children have defeated the darkness,” Osseous says.

Calcifer caws.

Outside, for the moment, the night is quiet and still.

Atmosphere in abundance. It’s the first thing that comes to mind whenever I think of Katherine Arden’s Small Spaces quartet. The overarching story by itself is fun and fittingly frightening, but it’s the exemplary quality of the writing that lifts up these features. I’m glad to see that Empty Smiles, the fourth and final book in the series, is no different in this regard. Indeed, Arden pulled out all the veritable stops for this one, almost overwhelming the reader with a steady stream of spooky set pieces and an incessantly ominous tone throughout, making this the most thrilling entry of the series.

Admittedly, I was worried over having clowns as the main monsters, thinking they were too obvious and cliché (they really are a penny a dozen in the genre), but Arden’s jesters manage to distinguish themselves by being, in equal measure, both alarmingly menacing and overly goofy (which somehow only added to their threat). Many of the scenes in which they were featured were unnerving and chillingly creepy. I thought they shone in all their ghoulish glory. (Also, there’s a giant skeleton in clown makeup crawling over roofs at one point. There are middle grade horror writers and then there is Katherine Arden.)

Again, much like my previous experience with this series, I had a tremendous amount of fun reading Empty Smiles. It has a frenetic pace that rip-roaringly carries you, much like a rollercoaster you would find in a carnival like the one at the center of this story, all the way to the end.

Unfortunately, it’s that ending that prompted my only real gripe: it felt entirely too abrupt. After all the harrowing ordeals we’ve experienced along with Ollie and her friends, it would have been nice and befitting to get a bit more in the way of closure, rather than the “hand-wavey” sort of conclusion that we got. But I guess if there ever were characters desperately in need of a break, it was the ones in this story.

In the end, I can’t help but love these books. They’ve set a standard, becoming what I point to as an example of what horror written for kids should ideally read and — perhaps more importantly — feel like. I look forward to revisiting them in seasons to come.

PUMPKINHEADS by Rainbow Rowell, Faith Erin Hicks — 🎃

pumpkinheads by rainbow rowell, faith erin hicksDeep within the wild, windswept woods, a man is walking. Bearded and bedraggled, his layered clothing ragged and torn in places, all indicative of a long and arduous journey. Still, the man’s pace is steadfast, his steps sure. He is walking towards a certain light.

Back in the house, the librarian searches for a book.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been this far into the house before,” says Calcifer. It is perched on a bony shoulder. They have both traveled a long way.

“The house is as old and vast as tales are in the history of the world and the reckoning of time.”

“What?”

“The house is very large, yes.”

“Right.”

Osseous pulls out a thin volume from a shelf, making a satisfied noise. The book looks somewhat new, an odd thing given the other offerings of the house, which include tomes that may or may not be older than the known universe. It boasts a colorful cover that almost seems to blaze in the dim surroundings. It features two figures — a man and a woman — lying comfortably in a field.

“What’s that one about, then?” asks Calcifer.

“Love and friendship, mostly,” says Osseous, grabbing the lamp on the table and walking once more out of the room. “About missed moments and seized opportunities. The ever-changing seasons of life. About endings and beginnings.”

“Doesn’t sound all that gloom and doom, to be honest,” says Calcifer, taking flight once more.

“No, it’s decidedly not. But it’s never a bad thing to have a little light against the approaching darkness.”

“I guess.”

Lamp held up, the two figures make their way back through the shadows.

At the far end of the house, there is a knock at the door.

The librarian hands the man a cup of something warm. The man has cleaned up somewhat, but still looks tired and threadbare. “Thank you, Oz,” the man says. He nods his head towards the crow resting on its usual spot at the top of the bookcase. “So he’s new.”

“To you, maybe,” mutters the crow.

“What’s your name?”

“Calcifer.”

“Lucifer?”

Calcifer,” corrects Osseous.

“Can I call you Cal?”

“Hell no.”

The man shrugs. An awkward silence ensues.

“Well, I’ve never been one for small talk,” says the man, standing up. “Lead the way, Oz,” he says, gesturing at the librarian. “I want to see Josie and Deja.”

What can I say about this book that I haven’t already said before? This is my fourth year reading Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks, and I love it just as much as I did when I first picked it up back in 2019 — if not more so. ⠀

I decided to take my time with it on this occasion, the better to appreciate the art of illustrator Faith Erin Hicks and colorist Sarah Stern. They each put so much care and effort into depicting this, as Rowell and Hicks describe it, fictional “Disneyland of pumpkin patches,” that it’s the integral part of the story’s charm. The tacky signage. The whimsical food stands. The characters running around the background who, instead of being vaguely depicted stand-ins, as is the norm in comics, are drawn to look like actual, authentic people. It all helps to make this world feel lived-in and real. Like a place with stories that continue long after the final pages of this book.⠀

Which of course leads me, inevitably, to once again voice my deep and abiding desire for the Christmas sequel hinted at the end of this graphic novel to become an actual, proper thing. I need it. You need it. The world certainly needs it. Give us more Deja and Josie.