October 25, 2007


Now and Forever. By Ray Bradbury. William Morrow. $24.95.

Wicked Dead #1: Lurker. By Stefan Petrucha and Thomas Pendleton. HarperTeen. $7.99.

Nightmare Academy. By Dean Lorey. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      The closer Halloween comes, the more reason there seems to be to contemplate the fearfulness, the frightfulness, and perhaps the gentleness of ghosts. Where does “gentleness” fit in? In the works of Ray Bradbury, for example. Bradbury, who thinks in poetry but writes prose, finds a core of quiet almost everywhere – certainly in the two novellas that together make up Now and Forever. Bradbury is a curious writer stylistically: universally acknowledged for his skill in both fantasy and science fiction, he persists in blurring the distinction between the two. In this book, Somewhere a Band Is Playing is the avowed fantasy, about a mysterious town that few can find, whose inhabitants may be ghosts or something even stranger – but the story has a fascinating if downplayed set of science-fiction underpinnings. The other tale, Leviathan ’99, has all the trappings of science fiction: spaceships, comets, the infinite reaches of the universe and all that. But it is, at heart and in language, entirely a fantasy – a recasting of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick into a future age. Melville’s Captain Ahab is metaphorically blind; Bradbury’s is literally blind, his sight lost to an enigmatic comet called Leviathan (= whale), which he now pursues aboard the ship Cetus 7 (whales are cetaceans). Despite the SF elements – a spiderlike, telepathic being named Quell instead of Melville’s Queequeg, a robot imprinted with the personality of a long-dead preacher – this is essentially Bradbury’s rumination on Melville, with characters talking so poetically that an occasional paragraph slips through that is written in rhyme but formatted as prose. For example, when the mad captain speaks to ghosts he thinks he sees, he says, “You are remembered, though I knew you not. Your ancient plight inspires, your nightmare’s not forgot. I keep it here kindled with my own; your ghost of outrage I give flesh and bone; your spirit war moves my arm to smite; you speak my noon and instruct my night.” An interesting homage, Leviathan ’99 is a less effective and less affecting story than Somewhere a Band Is Playing, in which a journalist named James Cardiff, vaguely dissatisfied with his life, decides to visit a small Arizona town called Summerton before a coming highway destroys it. There he finds peace, contentment, love and, perhaps, a future – likely a long, long future. Despite one discordant note – the sudden appearance and almost-as-sudden removal of a far more cynical journalist – the story dwells in beauty and mystery, flowing with the nostalgia that is one of Bradbury’s trademarks: “Inside the dim hall, Cardiff felt as if he had moved into a summer-cool milk shed that smelled of large canisters of cream hidden away from the sun, and iceboxes dripping their secret liquors, and bread laid out fresh on kitchen tables, and pies cooling on windowsills.” Bradbury’s work is itself a refuge of this sort, filled with beautiful writing that transcends any genre into which people try to pigeonhole it.

      Lesser books with a more distinct focus on fear, Lurker and Nightmare Academy both get (+++) ratings. They are well put together for their target age groups (12-and-up and 10-and-up, respectively), but neither is particularly thoughtful or thought-provoking. Lurker is the first in a series called Wicked Dead, in which four ghost girls tell stories to the rats in the walls of the deserted orphanage they haunt. This Grand Guignol setting leads in Lurker to a fairly straightforward teen terror book: 17-year-old Mandy is horrified after a classmate is murdered, and soon starts having nightmares about a killer known as the Witchman. Despite some updated touches, such as cell phones, E-mail and instant messages, this is essentially the old “when will the killer appear?” plot. His eventual appearance, which is supposed to be a major plot twist, isn’t. Perhaps the second book in this series, Torn, will be inventive as well as shuddery.

      Nightmare Academy is lighter fare, as befits a book for a younger audience, but it too is essentially a variation on a tried-and-true plot – in this case, the loner-finds-a-place-to-fit-in story. The loner here is Charlie Benjamin, and like many such fictional protagonists, he has a compensating power for his loneliness – one that he can’t control and doesn’t want. His dreams – specifically his nightmares – are so strong that they open Netherworld portals and let monsters through. Luckily, it turns out that Charlie is not really alone – there are other loners, and there’s a place for them: the Nightmare Academy of the book’s title, where they are trained to use their abilities to fight the Netherworld monsters. But it turns out that Charlie is really special: so powerful that his Academy entrance exam, designed to determine the extent of his power, creates an opening right into the Netherworld, where the usual assortment of bad beasties is plotting the usual takeover and destruction of Earth. Younger readers will enjoy meeting the Banisher, the Ectobogs, and the huge and evil creature called Barakkas. There are some genuinely amusing scenes, such as one in which Gremlins are distracted by throwing a cell phone at them – they swarm over it to try to get at the electricity captured inside. Dean Lorey does such funny scenes more effectively than scary ones, and the whole idea that Charlie must save not only the world but also his family – a typical element of books of this sort – isn’t particularly suspenseful. Still, Nightmare Academy is a great deal more enjoyable than, say, nightmares.

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