August 09, 2007


Bone, Book Six: Old Man’s Cave. By Jeff Smith. Graphix/Scholastic. $18.99.

Encyclopedia Horrifica. By Joshua Gee. Scholastic. $14.99.

      The amazing Bone series becomes a full-fledged epic of war and adventure in the sixth of its nine books, and the color work by Steve Hamaker complements Jeff Smith’s story and art to an even greater extent than it has before. The original nine-volume Bone tale was published as comics, in black and white, and the art was highly impressive then, with Smith paying particular attention to light and shadow – neatly complementing his story of good and evil and shifting or uncertain loyalties. In the reprint series from Scholastic’s Graphix division, with Hamaker providing color throughout, the art is less eerily atmospheric but far more striking, and often beautiful. But it is the story that will bring readers to Smith’s work, and that story continues to develop depth and resonance with every new book. The people of the Valley are unwillingly at war in Old Man’s Cave, as Rat Creatures swarm from their mountain lair to overrun human civilization and destroy the townspeople’s homes. Key characters are separated: Thorn, who has been revealed as a princess; Gran’ma Ben, now known to be the former queen of the land; Lucius, long the protector of both but now of questionable loyalty; and the Bones – white, puffy, doughlike characters whose unrealistic appearance contrasts strongly with the realistically drawn Valley people but whose looks matter less and less as they become more enmeshed in the Valley’s fate. And that fate seems increasingly dark: Stick-Eaters, holy knights and fighters, gather to help the old royal family, but a rogue Stick-Eater known as the Hooded One proves to be the chief representative of the Lord of the Locusts, from whom evil is flowing into the Valley. The Hooded One enlists the aid both of Kingdok, leader of the Rat Creatures, and of Roque Ja, the huge, vicious and amoral lionlike being who was the focus of Book Five. Much is revealed or confirmed in this book: the identity of the Hooded One; the reason Phoney Bone, scammer supreme, is tolerated by his cousins Smiley and Fone and is being sought by the Hooded One; and why the Red Dragon can offer Fone Bone help in dreams but not in reality. A tremendous climax – precipitated by an unexpected bit of humor involving Phoney – leads to an up-in-the-air ending that guarantees strong interest in the upcoming Book Seven, Ghost Circles.

      Ghosts are a feature of our world, too – at least many people believe they are – and they are but one of the phenomena explored in the profusely illustrated Encyclopedia Horrifica. There is one story here of ghosthunters visiting a suburban home where the husband has reported a variety of paranormal manifestations. Their exploration is described in detail, and its conclusion is uncertain: the husband acts as if he has seen a ghost, but his wife does not see anything, and many of the symptoms the man describes could be attributable to his body’s reaction to extreme stress. But what caused the stress? Also here is an exploration of the fictional Dracula invented by Bram Stoker and often used by Hollywood as a figure of horror – and the historical Romanian ruler Vlad Tepes, known as Dracula (“son of Dracul”) and famed for impaling his enemies on stakes. There is zombie-related information here, and data on werewolves, mummies, aliens and other creatures – real or imagined – that have stirred human imagination for many years and continue to do so today. Joshua Gee tries to lighten up the subject matter through flippant style (“the Kraken will send ya packin’”); but it is the strange real-world items here, scary or merely extremely interesting, that really make the book worthwhile. Examples: a graph showing that a sperm whale is longer than a school bus; a fossilized shark tooth, shown in its actual (really large) size; explanations of Close Encounters of the first through seventh (!) kinds; the tale of a real-life werewolf in 18th-century France; and much more. An unusual merger of reality and fiction, Encyclopedia Horrifica is fascinating for its stories of horror tales that have been debunked; ones of uncertain provenance; and ones that turn out, on close examination, to contain more than a grain of truth.

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