September 02, 2010


Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Collected by Alvin Schwartz. Illustrated by Brett Helquist. Harper. $15.99.

Pretty Dead. By Francesca Lia Block. HarperTeen. $8.99.

Poison Apple Book: Miss Fortune. By Brandi Dougherty. Scholastic. $5.99.

     It sometimes seems as if the authors of scary books can’t make up their minds whether they really want to be frightening or not – so they write sort-of-scary stories that end up being significantly short of the horrific. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark – a new edition of a book first published in 1981 – takes old tales and retells them, but Alvin Schwartz tries too hard to tell readers that they ought to be scared, with results that often come across as only a little silly. Most of these stories are very short, only two pages or so, and Schwartz several times suggests that young readers tell the stories to their friends at night and scream “AAAAAAAAAAAH!” at the end instead of actually wrapping things up. The better tales here, though, are often longer and actually have endings. “Cold as Clay,” for example, is about a woman’s night ride with a man she thinks is still alive; “The Haunted House” is about a woman’s vengeful ghost, who tells a preacher how to find the man who killed her; “The Guests” is a travelers-lost-at-night tale about people who unknowingly stay overnight in a ghost house; “High Beams” is a mystery with a clever twist, in which the thing that frightens a young woman driver turns out not to be the real danger to her. These are high points of the book, but there are low points as well, including a chapter of short tales that seem like horror stories but are supposed to be funny (“supposed to” being the operative phrase). There have been two Scary Stories collections published since this one originally came out; all three anthologies contain enough tales (29 in this one) so young readers will find at least a few to enjoy. But Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is even more uneven than most anthologies, and not as scary as it intends to be.

     Nor is Francesca Lia Block’s Pretty Dead pretty scary or pretty much of anything except intermittently involving and generally incoherent. This is a vampire love story in which (as in several other recent vampire novels) there is a strong suggestion that vampirism can somehow be reversed – the authors ignoring the inconvenient issue that vampires are, you know, dead, so reversing their condition would actually mean finding a way to reverse death itself, and wouldn’t that be something? It’s not the thing here, though. Pretty Dead is about a vampire who does not want to be one and who is eventually changed back through some sort of mystical (and never-explained) “trade” process that also involves the vampire who originally “made” her – who maybe is not just a vampire but is actually the Devil, or something like that. There is so little attempt at explanation here that it is impossible to figure out who did what to whom and why. For example, there is a whole section about the tragedies witnessed and experienced by William Eliot, the person (creature?) who made Charlotte Emerson whatever she became. Did William somehow cause the Nazi bombing of London and the atomic destruction of Hiroshima, among other things, or did he know in advance that they would happen so he could bring Charlotte to witness them? How did he know, if he did? Don’t ask Block – she never says. What she tries to do is make Pretty Dead a love story, between immortals on the one hand and mortals on the other, and she does manage to create some bittersweet scenes and an unsurprising but well managed “return of memory” plot point to sort of explain some of what occurs. Of course, she never tells readers the reason for the loss of memory, but hey, coherence is not what she is after. Pretty Dead is more surrealistic than scary, although it does have one genuinely horrible element: the cover of the new paperback edition, which is an extreme close-up of a mouth sucking a red-and-white mint candy whose red stripes are melting in a way suggestive of blood. The picture is ugly and unrelated to the story, but why should it be any clearer than the narrative?

     The relatively modest aims of the Poison Apple series seem positively literate by comparison. The third book in this sequence of standalone novels (after The Dead End and This Totally Bites!) has to do with a carnival, where a mysterious necklace is given to Zoe after she and her best friend, Mia, have their fortunes told. Bad things start happening to Zoe when she wears the necklace (an oven fire when the oven is turned off, for example), and somehow Zoe’s phone is part of all this – she gets threatening texts and calls, and seems to be calling other people even though in fact she has not done so. “This has to be a bad dream,” she thinks, but no such luck. There is a raven involved in the plot, too. And when Zoe and Mia belatedly decide to get rid of the necklace by burying it, Zoe soon gets a text that says, “You shouldn’t have done that.” Let’s see…there is also a mysterious book that seems to disappear and reappear conveniently, and when the girls get their hands on it, Mia says, “‘We need the Zifiri spell to break the curse of the snake eye,’” so that explains everything, right? An overnight bus trip, the gathering of a batch of odd ingredients, some totally clueless parents, a disguise as a boy, and a bit of precise timing later – oh yes, and a hammer – and the curse is lifted: “Zoe’s computer was fixed, all her wounds were healed, her film was restored, and Professor Meyer had loved her new idea for a short film about a girl who’s been cursed.” And the moral is – well, there isn’t one, but there is another Poison Apple book coming soon enough, and fans of the mild frights of this series will surely look forward to it.

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