March 17, 2011


Bones: Terrifying Tales to Haunt Your Dreams. Edited by Lois Metzger. Scholastic. $4.99.

The Vampire’s Promise. By Caroline B. Cooney. Point/Scholastic. $9.99.

     What tingles the spines of readers changes as they do. Quick, simple stories for preteens are not enough for teenagers, whose scares tend to be more fleshed-out. But Bones is fine as a quick and easy read for those looking for mild scariness that, the subtitle notwithstanding, is unlikely to haunt anyone’s dreams. This collection of seven stories includes works by Todd Strasser, David Levithan, Elizabeth C. Bunce, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Richard Peck, R.L. Stine and Margaret Mahy. Mahy’s, which gives the book its title, is the most affecting, about a “dancing midnight skeleton” that belongs to a girl who was terribly unhappy in life and is able to sing and dance only after death – and who is freed for the next stage of existence, whatever it may be, by the young narrator. Stine’s “The Three-Eyed Man” has the best and most amusing twist among these stories, although readers familiar with this author’s penchant for narrative quirks will not be entirely surprised by it. The other stories are primarily about odd things that happen without rhyme or reason: a cell phone with a mind of its own in Strasser’s “YNK (You Never Know),” old bones that somehow communicate in Levithan’s “The Skeleton Keeper,” a hanged thief in search of a missing body part in Bunce’s “In for a Penny,” an enlarging wish that goes awry in Hoffman’s “Growth Spurt,” and a Valentine from beyond the grave in Peck’s “Eyes on Imogene.” None of these tales is especially atmospheric, but each of them offers some mild chills that will satisfy young readers looking for some not-too-threatening sort-of-horror stories.

     The canvas is wider, and designed for older, teenage readers in Caroline B. Cooney’s The Vampire’s Promise, a single-volume collection of Deadly Offer (1991), Evil Returns (1992) and Fatal Bargain (1993). The book has a familiar and rather silly underlying premise: powerful, evil vampire gets involved in the lives of high-school students and grants them things that they want (for instance, to be popular) by insidiously worming himself into their lives, leaving them with such mock-profound questions as, “Does it count if he makes it happen?” That question is raised – to herself – by 10th-grader Althea in Deadly Offer. She is the one who wants to be popular at school, and if that means using a vampire to remake the social pecking order, then so be it. The catch, as Althea soon learns, is that accepting favors from a vampire means returning the favor – and it is impossible to say no. “Althea’s life sparkled and glittered like a tiara at a royal dance,” but of course the evil underpinnings mean the sparkle is of rhinestones, not diamonds. Althea fights back successfully, but the vampire’s house is there even after she moves away, and in Evil Returns it has been bought by the family of a girl named Devnee, whose wish – as shallow as Althea’s for popularity – is to be beautiful: “If you possessed Beauty, the rest came of its own accord. Beautiful girls stayed gracefully in one place, while along came Fame, and Riches, and Friends.” Those girls also have shadows – but Devnee has some trouble with hers, which keeps detaching because it can only stay with a human, and her vampire-inspired beauty makes her into something else. Devnee also keeps making wishes, which the vampire is only too pleased to grant: for intelligence, and then for a different mother (hers is so, well, ordinary). And what is the point of Devnee’s later remorse? “She had meant it; she had made the wish; the wish had been strong. ‘I learned a lesson,’ said Devnee desperately. ‘Human beings always do,’ agreed the vampire. ‘Just a little late, that’s all.’” But Devnee too triumphs, returning her undeserved “gifts,” and setting the stage for Fatal Bargain, which involves a whole group of teens and somewhat resembles the “B” movies in which young people do dumb things and get picked off, one by one, by some supernatural entity or other. Here, the vampire describes himself as “a connoisseur of screams,” so one of the teens promises to give him “nothing…but silence, you dirtbag,” and another says not to call him names because “it’ll make him angry.” The vampire gets to explain that he never kills anyone – just drains their personalities – and then delivers the line that is, more or less, the motto of all three of these collected books: “‘Never wish for anything,’ he whispered. ‘You just might get it!’” That is a pretty dour outlook, to be sure – and it comes only from a vampire, since it turns out that there is not just one. But teens triumph here, too, and no one familiar with tales like this (whether written or filmed) will be surprised that they use fire to do it. Nor will anyone be shocked when Cooney leaves the ending just ambiguous enough to remind readers that maybe, just maybe, there are still vampires out there. Nothing in The Vampire’s Promise is the slightest bit believable or more than a little bit frightening, but for 16-year-olds (the book’s age targeting seems pretty precise), there are a few chills, a reassurance of eventual triumph, and very little to disturb anyone’s sleep – or partying.

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