September 03, 2009


The Book of Ghosts. By Michael Hague and Devon Hague. HarperCollins. $19.99.

Magic Tree House #42: A Good Night for Ghosts. By Mary Pope Osborne. Random House. $11.99.

Magic Tree House Research Guide #20: Ghosts. By Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Boyce. Random House. $4.99.

     The fictional hauntings in these books are intended to entertain readers ages 6-11, which means they are rather on the mild side – much milder, in fact, than the authors’ names in The Book of Ghosts would seem to indicate: Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Ambrose Bierce et al. Michael Hague and his son, Devon, have toned down the fearsomeness of some classic horror stories to make them accessible to a younger audience – an approach that works moderately well with tales containing an element of humor (“The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost” by H.G. Wells) but far less well in ones dependent for their effects on the authors’ style (Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and Lovecraft’s “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” neither of which is actually a ghost story). Adults who know W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw,” Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” or Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost” may worry that these retellings will give younger children nightmares, but that is unlikely. The more atmospheric elements of the stories have been stripped from them, and the book’s illustrations – while accurate enough in terms of the tales’ events – are scarcely designed to heighten any frights inherent in the writing. The Hagues do a good job of simplifying the stories while retaining their basic narrative elements, but it is precisely from the atmospheric portions of tales such as Louisa May Alcott’s “The Mummy’s Curse,” Bierce’s “A Diagnosis of Death” and Saki’s “Laura” that readers get a frisson of surprise or terror. None of these nine adaptations provides that, and apparently none of them is intended to. The result is a book more of adventure tales than of ghost stories; even the ones that are about ghosts have little of the unearthly about them here.

     Nor is there anything very frightening or threatening in Magic Tree House #42: A Good Night for Ghosts, which finds brother Jack and sister Annie on a “Merlin Mission” to New Orleans on All Saints’ Day in 1915. The missions in recent Magic Tree House books have tended to be rather thin as this long-running series swings between mythical and real-world locations. The idea this time is to find Louis Armstrong and help him bring his musical gift to the world so that millions of people will be happier. This is not much of a story, and the use of ghosts does not turn it into much more. The ghosts show up toward the end to encourage young Louis, known as Dipper, to pursue a musical career instead of doing the many odd jobs that Jack and Annie find him doing (and with which they help him). There is a little social consciousness here, and a little politics – Dipper talks about enforced separation of whites and blacks, and Jack and Annie promise him that one day a black man will become president of the United States – but by and large, the book is a typical Magic Tree House adventure, with minimal scariness and a foregone conclusion. Fans of the series will, of course, enjoy it.

     They will likely enjoy the latest Magic Tree House Research Guide as well. Here, Mary Pope Osborne and her sister, Natalie Pope Bryce, offer a variety of stories of ghosts that people really have seen, or believe they have seen. There are tales from North Carolina, from Washington, D.C., from England and from other places, including a description of ghost folklore in India, China, Japan and Mexico. Photos of supposedly haunted places are mixed with stories of sightings and drawings of what the ghosts are supposed to look like. There is even a brief look at professional ghost hunters. Like the other books in the Magic Tree House Research Guide series, this one is only tenuously connected to the adventure story to which it is ostensibly linked. But young readers interested in the general subject matter may find this a good starting point for further research – perhaps at some of the locations or using some of the books and Web sites listed at the end of the book.

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