August 11, 2016
(+++) SPOOKY STUFF
Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom. By David Neilsen. Illustrated by Will Terry. Crown. $16.99.
Shadow House #1: The Gathering. By Dan Poblocki. Scholastic. $12.99.
David Neilsen cleverly opens his debut novel with the 17th-century nursery rhyme about disliking Dr. Fell but not knowing why (“I do not like thee, Dr. Fell….”). That becomes, in effect, the plot of Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom, except that after a while, protagonists Jerry and Gail Bloom and Nancy Pinkblossom know full well why they do not like Dr. Fell. They just do not quite know who, or what, he is. Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom is a self-contained novel (although the ending hints of possible sequels) in which the creepiness is occasionally leavened by humor and the style is engaging, if somewhat uneven, throughout. It starts when an abandoned brick house on Hardscrabble Street, which has stood empty for a generation, is sold to Dr. Fell and thus removed as a play area for neighborhood children, who have been having a grand time in what any self-respecting parent would have forbidden them to visit (it’s long-unused, after all, and who knows what dangers there might be?). Dr. Fell apologizes to the children for buying the house and thus removing their play area, and promises to make amends, which he does by building a genuine playground that is filled with all sorts of marvels and wonders. Dr. Fell is a kind of anti-Willy Wonka: he is elderly, stooped, dressed all in black, and wears a purple top hat. That is, he starts as an elderly man, but as strangeness follows strangeness in Neilsen’s book, he seems to grow – younger. Now, you might think this involves something nefarious, some sort of damage to the children. But not so: all that happens is that as more and more kids play in Dr. Fell’s playground, they inevitably have accidents, and Dr. Fell quickly cures their hurts and returns them to play and everyday life. What could possibly be wrong with that? Well, a lot of things, as it turns out. Dr. Fell does take something from the children when he heals them, but Jerry, Gail and Nancy only gradually come to understand what it is and why he must be stopped. The three central characters have a fair amount of personality. Gail and Nancy are best friends; Jerry is two years younger than his sister and possessed of a quick, facile intelligence. Nancy barely tolerates him – she insults him at every turn – but her courage, especially as things get complicated, makes up for a great deal. As for Gail, she holds the modest middle ground among the three, being quiet and risk-averse, but with a core of solidity that stands her in good stead. The differentiation of the three protagonists helps make their team effort to stop Dr. Fell more exciting, giving readers three different sorts of characters with whom to identify. Certainly young readers will not think much of the feckless parents and other adults here, since they are pretty much useless – with one exception, as Jerry, Gail and Nancy eventually discover. Actually, the parents are worse than useless, because they soon come under whatever spell Dr. Fell is casting and begin acting strangely – to such a degree that in the book’s dénouement, one of them is left to wonder, “Honey, do you have any idea why I’m carrying the turkey baster?” This seems to lay things on a bit too thickly, and that is the primary failing of Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom: it tries a little too hard to be clever. For example, Dr. Fell speaks in elaborate sentences the first time he says anything (“I imagine you are in a great deal of severe pain at this particular moment, my fine young rapscallion”); then he generally translates himself afterwards – and while this is a nice bit of characterization at first, it grows old quickly and very old as it goes on and on. Also, as the plot deepens, or at last thickens, Neilsen tries to have it turn on one of those insatiable-bloated-darkness beings from a world where the geometry is somehow wrong – a distinct touch of H.P. Lovecraft that fits at best uneasily onto what has come before. Preteens will enjoy the three central characters here and some of the initial buildup of the plot, including the specifics of some of the attractions of Dr. Fell’s playground. They may even like to read yet another book in which the ultra-clueless adults must be saved by their quick-thinking kids. But Neilsen simply overdoes the attempt to combine humor with scariness, managing to diminish both in the process. Will Terry’s illustrations do enliven the book, but do not really make it any more atmospheric.
The illustrations are a big part of the effect of The Gathering, the first book in a series called Shadow House, but saying that they “enliven” the proceedings would be stretching things. The vintage-looking photos are genuinely creepy, and neither they nor anything else in this book even tries to be funny. Dan Poblocki goes entirely for the dark side here. Poblocki sets up a series of different story lines involving children who end up together in the house of the series title. Poppy, living in an orphanage, gets a letter inviting her to live in her great-aunt’s mansion. Marcus is invited to a music school. Azumi is invited to a school as well – in her case, a prestigious and academically challenging one. Brothers and sitcom stars Dash and Dylan are invited to film a horror movie. And so all five kids end up in the same house, which of course is not as it has been described to any of them. Kids in old-fashioned outfits pursue them as all the usual horror-book (and horror-movie) effects are trotted out, from moving hallways to disappearing doors. The five kids try to figure out what is going on, and readers will be kept guessing, too, but may end up even more confused than the protagonists are. Unlike Neilsen, Poblocki does not make any real attempt to flesh out the characters – they remain types as he focuses entirely on what sort of scare he can come up with next. And the narrative changes point of view often, sometimes in the middle of a chapter, to a degree that can be confusing. Poppy eventually finds papers that say an ancestor of hers ran an orphanage where he abused children, and somehow Shadow House is tied to that, but readers hoping for even a glimpse of what all this means or who is behind it will be distinctly disappointed, because there is no trace of that in The Gathering. In fact, the ending of the book, which quite explicitly sets up the sequel, is not at all satisfying: nothing is concluded or explained, and while this is to some extent inevitable in the first book of a series, Poblocki takes the arrangement to an extreme that comes across as more a cheap trick than a genuine cliffhanger. The peculiar illustrations – the damaged dolls, the shambling boy in a dog mask, the letter-bearing balls mysteriously spelling out “let’s play” – pull readers into the story more effectively than much of the text. In fact, the book’s very clever cover is quite a come-on: a plastic overlay creates a ghostly effect for the head of a girl who seems to be holding up a mirror – then, opening the cover reveals the girl herself looking completely normal, except that there is the shadow of a mysterious, long-fingered, long-nailed hand on the wall behind her, apparently about to grab her hair or head. Shadow House tries to replicate some of the approaches used so successfully by The 39 Clues: images and sigils in the book tie to a free app that readers are encouraged to download and interact with. That will be fine for anyone wanting additional hauntings, but it does nothing to make the formulaic elements and non-ending of The Gathering any more satisfying.