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.
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.