September 04, 2014
(++++) MONSTROUS AMUSEMENTS
Desmond Pucket 2: Desmond Pucket and the Mountain Full of Monsters. By Mark Tatulli. Andrews McMeel. $13.99.
Case File 13, Volume 1: Zombie Kid. By J. Scott Savage. Harper. $6.99.
Case File 13, Volume 2: Making the Team. By J. Scott Savage. Harper. $14.99.
Case File 13, Volume 3: Evil Twins. By J. Scott Savage. Harper. $14.99.
The ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night can be fun rather than frightening when authors know how to make them, well, funny. And authors who do that in age-appropriate ways can create book series that reach out highly effectively not only to regular readers – especially in the hard-to-reach 8-12 age range – but also to what are euphemistically called “reluctant readers,” which basically means those who would much rather do everything electronically than anything in a form requiring paper, ink and concentration. Mark Tatulli is particularly well-equipped to reach this “reluctant reader” group. He has created two comic strips: the amusing but fairly straightforward Heart of the City and the amusing but decidedly not straightforward Liō, a pantomime strip whose central character spends most of his time interacting with…well, ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. If Liō did speak, and were to write his own amply illustrated book, you would get something like the Desmond Pucket series, which is one small step for Tatulli, one giant leap for those who think frights are and, darn it, ought to be hilarious. Desmond spends most of his time, even in school – especially in school – thinking up monster-themed creations that he hopes to build professionally someday. In the first book of the series, he made a complete wreck of the school show, in a way that was such a success that he helped the school make enough money for a field trip to the Crab Shell Pier amusement park. This is one of those series where everything possible goes wrong until it eventually goes right – with monsters. The Mountain Full of Monsters is a huge attraction at Crab Shell Pier, and one that Desmond has wanted to go on forever – especially if he can go with Tina Schimsky, the cutest girl in school, and doubly especially if he can do so while avoiding his two arch-nemeses, bully Scott Seltzer and nasty disciplinarian Mr. Needles, who became an unwitting and unwilling hero in the first book because of Desmond’s antics. Desmond Pucket and the Mountain Full of Monsters is best enjoyed by readers who already know the “back story” from the first book, Desmond Pucket Makes Monster Magic, although Tatulli does fill in bits of background for those new to the series. The first part of the new book progresses pretty much as you might expect, with Desmond having multiple unfortunate encounters with both Seltzer and Mr. Needles, being embarrassed to within an inch of his life in front of Tina until he finds out that maybe she actually sorta-kinda likes him, and getting to ride the Mountain Full of Monsters roller coaster repeatedly because of some quick thinking he does when Principal Badonkus shows up. That’s the expected stuff – very amply illustrated by Tatulli, in a style that makes it look as if Desmond himself is doing all the drawings. Halfway through the book, though, there is a new wrinkle: an announcement that the Mountain Full of Monsters will close forever. Now Desmond has a CAUSE – and the way he takes it up, maneuvering through a convoluted plot to save the monsters of the mountain by frightening a group of girls during a birthday campout (a group unfortunately including Tina, who is the birthday girl), is a delight to read and watch and laugh at and generally find monstrously enjoyable. The snow-in-July solution alone is worth a lengthy laugh out loud (and makes perfect sense in the context of the book’s characters). Tatulli definitely has a hit series going here, and the fact that he can more or less cross-pollinate some of the weirdness of the silent Liō with the adventures of the highly talkative Desmond certainly doesn’t hurt the long-term prospects of either the books or the comic strip.
The first three entries in the Case File 13 series have plenty of promise, too – for many of the same reasons as the Desmond Pucket sequence. These are more-traditional books, with only a few illustrations, and their emphasis is more strongly on adventure and chills (albeit rather mild ones). But like Tatulli’s books, J. Scott Savage’s offer entertaining characters, offbeat situations, and plenty of humor – the ingredient that, when well mixed with all the adventuring, keeps the books light enough for enjoyable casual consumption while also drawing young readers into the more-serious elements of the plot. Case File 13 focuses on three boys – Nick, Carter and Angelo – who have improbable paranormal adventures and find themselves in various odd forms of competition with a trio of girls. Zombie Kid, originally published last year and now available in paperback, opened the series with a story in which Nick inadvertently puts on a cursed amulet that turns him bit by bit into a zombie (a state of affairs in which he loses himself bit by bit – an ear falling off; that sort of thing). With chapter titles such as “Can You Really Have Too Many Cemetery Chapters in a Scary Story?” and “Where Things Become Clearer, and More Confusing,” the book offers lines such as, “It was so wrong to be standing there with a broken body in an alien landscape, only a mile or two from likely death at the hands of a powerful zombie sorcerer, howling like an idiot.” But the three friends laugh anyway, and so will readers, as absurdity piles on absurdity until, with the help of a relative’s spirit, a talking cat, a worm in a glass of chocolate milk, and a rolled-up Snickers bar, the Zombie King is defeated and the boys need only worry about the girls – Angie, Dana and Tiffany – being determined to watch them closely to find out what monstrous matters they are up to all the time.
What they are up to in the second and third Case File 13 books is more of the same, and mostly in equally amusing form. The second book’s title, Making the Team, is reminiscent of the title of a Tatulli Liō book, Making Friends – which features Liō actually constructing “friends” out of various body parts and such. That is just what is going on in Making the Team: the typical mad scientist doing typically mad-scientific and evil things for the purpose, in this case, of winning football games and eventually extracting souls. The situation here is so dire and troubling that the three boys and three girls actually join forces, which of course does not stop them from constantly bickering. One chapter here – the chapter titles are integral to the amusement – is called “This Is Why You Should Never Judge a Book by Its Cover, Except for This Book, Which Has a Really Amazing Cover,” and that is about as self-referential as things get while the sextet of preteens looks into the doings at a newly opened, suitably mysterious private school with a too-good-to-be-human football squad. The solution to this particular monstrous mystery turns on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the fact that the name of the mysterious school is Sumina (which is animus, Latin for “soul” or “life force,” spelled backwards), and a few other inconsequential coincidences that are of course More Than They Seem To Be. A backup generator, some insane cackling and a plan that is “incredibly stupid but amazing” later, the bad stuff ends with a timely visit from Bartholomew Blackham, the “reference librarian” who narrates these books. And so the stage is set for Evil Twins. This time, Nick, Carter and Angelo go camping (and it is time to note that Savage is surely aware that “Nick Carter” is a long-lasting fictional detective who first appeared in 1886 and was revived as a James-Bond-style secret agent starting in 1964). One of the amusements of the Case File 13 books is the way titles and even page numbers reflect their themes: thus, in Evil Twins, the hands that usually enclose the page numbers are doubled, and the final lines of chapter titles are shown with their reflections. The plot here is a touch weaker than in the first two books, and Evil Twins lacks the excitement of discovering the story basics (Zombie Kid) or working and competing with the girls (Making the Team). This is nevertheless a solid (+++) book that fans already grabbed by the series will enjoy as a well-developed entry in it. Sasquatch footprints and gremlin-like creatures with the ability to copy human appearance are the monstrous attractions this time. The doppelgänger plot is milder than the earlier ones, and the eventual “figure out which are the real kids and which are the evil duplicates” climax is on the obvious side. But there are still plenty of exciting moments here, and enough amusing ones to keep readers – reluctant or not – interested in the series and waiting for the next entry in Case File 13.