Joseph 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.⠀
He also doesn’t hold back when writing scary stories for kids. He’s great.
Whisper in the Dark 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 — 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 ɪ ᴀᴍ ʜᴇʀᴇ 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 — and, crucially, the stories she’s shared with them — 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; she’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 — the good girl makes it. But Bruchac did that. To someone’s pet.) 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 wasn’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 — 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.
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.