September 27, 2007


666: The Number of the Beast. Point/Scholastic. $14.99.

Curses, Inc. By Vivian Vande Velde. Magic Carpet/Harcourt. $6.95.

One Beastly Beast (Two Aliens, Three Inventors, Four Fantastic Tales). By Garth Nix. Illustrated by Brian Biggs. Eos. $15.99.

The Scary States of America. By Michael Teitelbaum. Delacorte Press. $7.99.

      Frightfulness and funniness go together surprisingly well: a lot of scary stories depend on elements that, considered objectively, are silly, so an author who wishes to can emphasize either the fearful or the funny. These collections of stories offer shivers from a variety of different angles.

      666: The Number of the Beast is entirely on the dark side. There are 18 original supernatural stories in this anthology, gathered into three groups of six each (6-6-6, that is), under the headings of “Evil,” “Darkness” and “Beasts.” The book is intended for older teenagers and young adults, and some of the authors apparently decided that that justifies going for pure shock value: Christopher Pike’s “Saving Face,” which includes a horror-movie-inspired (and rather disgusting) torture scene, is the most extreme example. Interestingly, it is followed by the shortest and most subtle story in the book, Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Little Sacrifice,” whose implications are far more frightening and far more a part of the real world than the overt violence in Pike’s tale and others. There’s something for every fright fan here, from the demonic possession of Heather Graham’s “If You Knew Suzie,” to the transformation and possible madness in Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’ “Empire of Dirt,” to the SF dystopia of Joshua Gee’s “Incident Report,” to the Poe-esque madness of Robin Wasserman’s “Scapegoat,” to the ghost entrapping the living in P.D. Cacek’s “La Fleur de Nuit.”

      Vivian Vande Velde also has a story of a ghost seeking a living person to take her place in Curses, Inc. Originally published in 1997 and now available in paperback, this collection shows its age in some ways, as in the title story, whose protagonist connects to the Internet by dialup modem. Vande Velde aims for readers as young as 12 and keeps her frights more modest and laced with occasional humor than do authors seeing older readers: the title tale here has a neatly amusing twist ending, and “To Converse with Dumb Beasts” is out-and-out hilarious. There are 10 stories in all, including “Past Sunset,” the one in which a ghost seeks a replacement. Vande Velde’s end notes are interesting both for background and for showing that an author does not always know which of her tales are most effective: she gives short shrift to “Remember Me,” for example, but this tale of lost (or stolen) identity is both clever and a real chiller.

      There’s nothing chilling at all in One Beastly Beast (Two Aliens, Three Inventors, Four Fantastic Tales), perhaps because Garth Nix intends this book for ages 7-11. But there’s plenty of fun in the four brief fantasy adventures here, including “Blackbread the Pirate,” in which a boy enters a world of swashbuckling rats – real rats; and “The Princess and the Beastly Beast,” in which Princess Rinda has to decide whether to jump into the maw of the beast of the title. Then there’s the tale of the aliens who want to kidnap, or maybe adopt, “Bill the Inventor.” And in “Serena and the Sea Serpent,” the title character befriends a fierce monster and finds herself turned into…a penguin. Brian Biggs’ amusing, cartoonlike illustrations of all these characters add to the book’s considerable charm.

      There’s not much charming in any of The Scary States of America, according to Michael Teitelbaum, who offers “50 Weird and Terrifying Stories Based on True Events.” Teitelbaum creates as his narrator a spook chaser named Jason Specter, who had an experience inside a weird locker in fourth grade and has collected stories of the paranormal from around the United States ever since. Once you get past the gimmick of one story per state, the tales themselves are pretty straightforward, and some are just dull; the book as a whole deserves a (+++) rating. Each tale is introduced with a brief fact about the state – but you’ll be disappointed if you expect a connection between the real-world information and the made-up stories. For South Dakota, for example, the opening statement is about the carving of Mount Rushmore, but the story is about a woman who finds her husband cheating and kills him. The Hawaii fact mentions Pearl Harbor; the story involves the skeletal ghosts of a long-ago battle won by King Kamehameha. The Nevada fact mentions weddings in Las Vegas; the story is about dreaming of a fire before it happens. The chapters are all brief and easy to read, and the book may be an enjoyable accompaniment to a lengthy family drive around the U.S. But it’s really not particularly scary.

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