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.

DARK WATERS by Katherine Arden — 🎃

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 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.

DEAD VOICES by Katherine Arden

dead voicesI’ve read enough middle grade horror to know that a lot of the books within the genre are mostly harmless, spooky fun. There are a lot of conspicuous exceptions, of course, but for every Coraline there are at least a hundred Goosebumps (and, look, I love Goosebumps as much as the next reader, but let’s be real — it’s mostly goofy and schlocky fun).

Katherine Arden’s books fall more towards the Gaiman-end of the spectrum. There’s still no “real” horror here, but what Arden does deliver — and in abundance — is atmosphere. Which is fine by me: the spooky stories I find most effective are those defined by ambiance rather than terror — and Dead Voices, the second book in the Small Spaces series, has ambiance to spare. Arden’s language is beautiful, her descriptions chilling and commanding. There are passages here so vivid that I could almost feel the New England cold down in my bones (which is — as I mentioned in my previous review for Pumpkinheads — quite the feat when you consider I live on a Caribbean island in the midst of one of its hottest years on record).

A follow-up to last year’s excellent Small SpacesDead Voices sees our trio — principal protagonist Olivia, stoic and reliable Brian, and bubbly-but-insecure Coco — and their respective parents on their way to a skiing trip to a local Vermont mountain. They are soon overwhelmed by a particularly strong snowstorm however, and find themselves stuck inside the vast and newly renovated lodge in which the are making their stay.

Arden has mentioned in interviews that one of the main inspirations for this story is The Shining, which should give you some idea of what is to come.

As I mentioned above, mood and setting are what sets this story apart, but it also features charming, believable, and resourceful characters, and it’s very easy to root and feel for them. Particularly great is Ollie’s father, Roger, who had a small part in Small Spaces but a much expanded role in this book. A widower trying his best to raise a daughter as a single parent. A cook and lover of puns. Someone trying to kindle a relationship with someone new while still grieving an old flame. His is a realistic, rounded, and sympathetic portrayal, and a welcome breath of fresh air in a genre where parents are mostly absent or absent-minded.

Lyrical and atmospheric, Dead Voices is much more than a worthy sequel, and a great Hallowe’en read.