It’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 meeting 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 — 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.
I have read and thoroughly enjoyed all three of the books currently out in Katherine Arden’s Small Spaces 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 Dark Waters for me to realize that what I look for in these stories — and other middle grade horror affairs — are not intricate plots or intense personal drama, but rather atmosphere (or as a friend called it, “atmosfear“). 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 opens the story.
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 — and most importantly, fun — scenes. They do a lot in terms of moving the story along at a steady, stirring pace.
All in all, I enjoyed reading Dark Waters 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.