The Poison Diaries. By Maryrose Wood with The Duchess of Northumberland. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Alex Van Helsing: Vampire Rising. By Jason Henderson. HarperTeen. $16.99.
The Zombie Chasers. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by Steve Wolfhard. Harper. $15.99.
We are a bit past the formulaic madman or madwoman in the attic or cellar, rattling chains, setting fires and instilling the fear of supposedly inheritable madness in the darkly brooding protagonist while mysterious strangers roam the aristocratic grounds and mysteries abound. But we are not much past all those 19th-century Gothic trappings, and sometimes have not even gotten to the 19th century yet in modern Gothics – such as The Poison Garden, which is set in the 18th century. This first book of a planned trilogy is inspired in part by the Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland; hence the coauthor (or at least “with”) credit for the mistress of the castle, wife of the 12th Duke of Northumberland. Taken at face value rather than in connection with a real-world garden of poisonous plants, The Poison Diaries is a fairly standard Gothic tale, focusing on 16-year-old Jessamine Luxton, daughter of a respected apothecary named Thomas – who is an expert on poisons and maintains a Poison Garden that Jessamine is forbidden to enter. Also in the novel is a prototypical mysterious stranger, who becomes known as Weed, who falls in love with Jessamine – and she with him. But the course of true love cannot run smoothly, of course, and there are all sorts of complications involving what Thomas is really doing and why – and, more interestingly, involving a sort of spirit from the Poison Garden called Oleander, the Prince of Poisons. The book’s title refers to diaries that Jessamine keeps until she becomes too ill to do so, after which Weed continues them (“I would give my life to save Jessamine. I may have to”). There is much scene-setting and character development in this book, which proceeds at a more leisurely pace than do many recent novels for teenagers – but a pace quite in line with those of the old Gothics. Maryrose Wood does a good job of entangling the characters and producing an effective (and faster-paced) climax that leaves the book at a point from which it absolutely must move on. Teens interested in an atmospheric tale with Georgian rather than Victorian trappings will enjoy the book, especially if they are unfamiliar with the many Gothics on which it draws.
Alex Van Helsing: Vampire Rising draws on Gothics, too – on one particular Gothic, that is. The predecessor book is, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and 14-year-old Alex in Jason Henderson’s novel is descended (unknowingly, of course) from Stoker’s famous vampire hunter. Alex needs to learn about his lineage quickly, though: he shows up at the typically ominously named Glenarvon Academy and runs into two vampires within three days. Why? Well, it seems that beneath Lake Geneva – on whose shores Glenarvon rests – is a vampire academy called the Scholomance. The plot gets sillier from there: an evil vampire called Icemaker (what sort of vampire name is that?) is hatching evil plans, which include kidnaping two of Alex’s friends, so Alex must somehow infiltrate the Scholomance and get them back, while avoiding not only vampires but also zombies (zombies?) and thwarting evil Icemaker’s evil designs. There is good material here for a comedy, especially when you throw in a vampire-hunting group called the Polidorium, but Henderson asks young teens (the book’s intended audience) to take this whole story seriously and wait with bated breath for the planned sequel. Yes, even the scene in which Alex loses one of the special contact lenses he needs to move through the Scholomance is played straight. Yes, it is supposed to be serious when Icemaker says, “Now you will witness destiny.” And yes, there are references to Lord Byron, John Polidori and Mary Shelley (whose Frankenstein may contain an important clue to what Icemaker is doing), and there is an Egyptian god in there somewhere, too. There are, in truth, glimmers of humor here and there, but Henderson’s insistence on trying to have readers take Vampire Rising seriously (on the whole) does the book no favors, because it is really not very effectively plotted as an adventure story, much less a horror tale – not even for 12-year-olds.
For readers a little younger – ages 8-12 – there can be overt humor in novels that contain remnants of the Gothics, such as The Zombie Chasers. A quick look at the overdone cover and frequently silly interior illustrations by Steve Wolfhard should be enough to show readers that John Kloepfer’s debut novel – which is also, yes, the start of a series – is not to be taken wholly at ripped-off-face value. The preteen protagonists here are Zack (whose sister is one of the zombies), Rice (a supposed zombie-fighting expert, having studied The Zombie Survival Guide), and Madison (a self-involved sort-of-bubblehead who doesn’t think much of either Zack or Rice). The book features a zombie rabbit, zombie twin, and this warning from Rice to Zack: “If you get bitten, you die and, like, your body is reanimated, but your skin starts to rot and your eyeballs fall out and sometimes you have to pick them up and put them back in your face.” There is also conflict among the heroic protagonists, much of it traceable to the fact that Madison is a vegan. There are the usual “lurching half-stumbles” of zombies, and at one point “the zombie hit the floor and crunched its face into the rug, which sounded a lot like squashing a beetle with the bottom of your shoe.” This and similar descriptive passages make up what passes for “style” here, which is to say there isn’t any. And Kloepfer isn’t looking for any. What he likes is oddball discoveries (ginkgo biloba as possible zombie repellent), little bits of disgustingness (Rice “scratching around a swollen chicken pock bubbling up on his cheek”), a commercial for BurgerDog (“the burger that tastes like a dog”), and similar intellectual pursuits. The good guys eventually do discover a zombie antidote, but whether it will do them much good won’t be known until the next book, Undead Ahead. This is good unclean (in fact, rather filthy) fun of a certain type, just overdone enough so that it may appeal to some preteens who wouldn’t know a Gothic if it, well, bit them.