October 18, 2012


Coraline. By Neil Gaiman. Illustrations by Dave McKean. Harper. $6.99.

Gravediggers: Mountain of Bones. By Christopher Krovatin. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Whispering House. By Rebecca Wade. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Vampire Combat Manual: A Guide to Fighting the Bloodthirsty Undead. By Roger Ma. Berkley. $15.

Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained. By Oliver Doyle. Scholastic. $6.99.

      Here, just in time for Halloween, we have one (++++) book and a batch of (+++) ones designed to be scary enough for the season and interesting enough to be read and reread throughout the year…or at least through the dark days of winter. The (++++) book is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, whose 10th-anniversary edition is illustrated by Dave McKean in some genuinely eerie ways – the picture of the “other mother” swallowing the key is truly nightmarish, and that of the “other crazy old man,” with a rat perched on his head, is chilling as well.  But it is Gaiman’s text that continues to cause shivers after a decade of editions, animations and film interpretations.  The heart of the story, which it takes Coraline some time to figure out, is: “I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything. What then?”  Well, “what then” has a great deal to do with the almost-identical house that Coraline finds, complete with a much better mother and father and much better toys and much better neighbors and much more interesting life – and the horror she discovers underlying all of it.  The scariness of the discovery, the way Coraline rescues not only herself but also the souls of three long-dead children, and the overall creepiness of Gaiman’s scene-setting, combine to produce a short novel (just 160 pages) that is far more effective than longer and more-elaborate books for young readers.  Gaiman has a wonderful way of humanizing Coraline and expressing her fears and, after her escape, her sense of wonder at everyday things: “The sky had never seemed so sky, the world had never seemed so world. …Nothing, she thought, had ever been so interesting.” Indeed, this is a book that remains interesting, and more than interesting, after a decade – and many readings.

      Other, newer books strive mightily for effects of this sort without ever quite attaining them.  Gravediggers: Mountain of Bones is the story of three sixth-graders who become separated from their group during a class trip and find themselves confronting zombies and other frights.  The three protagonists are types: Ian is athletic, impulsive and not overly thoughtful; PJ is mostly the opposite, nerdy and easily scared, devoted to his video camera, but with inner strength; and Kendra is smart, analytical and given to the sort of overdone language that some adults imagine smart young people use.  The chapters are narrated by the three in turn, but there is not very much distinctive about the kids’ personalities, although Christopher Krovatin does try to make their styles different – it would have to be Kendra writing, “The forest is a pitch-black labyrinth, and the icy, persistent rain is destroying both our peace of mind and whatever morale is left among us, and so in our panic we almost don’t see our very salvation.”  And Ian gets lines such as, “Please, oh man, let this be real.”  And PJ, busy filming zombies, somehow also manages to be narrating, with such lines as, “Whoa, look at that one. How’s it moaning without a lower jaw?”  All right, the whole setup is absurd, and the eventual explanation of what zombies are and how they are created is more absurd yet, but it doesn’t really matter, because “virus, curse, science, magic – it still means the dead walk the earth. Only two things are certain – one, they’re real hard to kill, and two, you’re a goner if they get you.”  It ends up falling to PJ to figure out how to stop the zombies after Kendra’s intelligence leads to a major mistake (smart narrators tend to make big mistakes in books like this); and eventually the zombies are gone, the protagonists’ parents are enraged, and the three sixth-graders find out that they have now become “gravediggers,” which means zombie killers, which they have no desire to be but which they have to be in order to get to this book’s sequel – which will be coming up quite soon enough.

      The Whispering House is a standalone novel, not the start of a series, and this is a ghost story rather than a zombie tale.  It has the usual trappings: mysterious house, mysterious death, and a call from the past to a modern-day helper.  That would be 14-year-old Hannah Price, who finds herself pulled into the life of Maisie Holt, who died at age 11 in 1877 and apparently wants Hannah to figure out what happened.  Maisie’s book of fairy tales falls into Hannah’s hands when Hannah’s family moves into the house called Cowleigh Lodge, intending to stay for only a short time.  The book unlocks secrets: Hannah draws a portrait of Maisie, the house seems to be moving back in time to what it was in the 19th century, and Hannah is getting messages – from Maisie, it seems – that do not allow her any rest: “I think I’m having her dreams,” Hannah remarks to her best friend, Sam.  Rebecca Wade uses conventional ghost-story elements reasonably well (including a cat that refuses to come into the house as things get stranger, magnetic letters rearranged to spell “help me,” and so forth), and the notion of a house deteriorating into its past “self” is an intriguing one.  But the book’s unsurprising elements outnumber its unusual ones: the bishop who cannot quite believe Hannah or help her, the legend of the magic in an old well, the “struggling to reconcile the opposing forces of fantasy and reality.”  It is inevitable that Hannah and Sam will figure out what happened, and that Maisie will make an appearance at the end, and that everything will be clear thereafter; and that is exactly what happens.  The Whispering House is not especially scary, but its affecting moments make it a pleasantly spooky read.

      The Vampire Combat Manual handles spookiness in a different way: by trying to tread the line between fantasy and reality.  Roger Ma, author of The Zombie Combat Manual, here turns his attention – in very much the same way – to another batch of supernatural baddies.  “The same way” means that the book is never quite sure whether it is a sendup of vampire lore or is being written in a very serious tone for some other reason.  Supposedly a manual from the “Institute for Undead Combat Studies,” Ma’s book gets into often-excruciating detail about vampires, their powers, the ways to fight them, and so forth.  It is the extent of the writing about small matters that makes the book a rather difficult one to read.  For instance, in an extended section about the stake (“such an ordinary weapon that its subtleties are often lost on the untrained citizen”), Ma gives a table of high-density and low-density woods, then explains that “stakes should be crafted from wood that has already been harvested and seasoned, and not taken directly from living ‘green’ specimens. Using material from a living plant means that your wood will contain a considerable amount of moisture, which can affect its density and resiliency in combat.”  He also warns readers to “avoid any synthetic or engineered wood products.”  He provides and “debunks” several misconceptions about vampires: for example, they cannot fly or shapeshift and are not sexually attracted to human beings.  He analyzes various possible anti-vampire weapons, noting, for instance, that a shotgun has a range of one to five meters with “fire rate: medium” and “skill level: medium,” while a compound bow has a 10-to-20-meter range with “fire rate: slow” and “skill level: extremely high.”  He offers “principles of undead combat,” discusses and illustrates offensive and defensive tactics, and even includes a section on “protecting children from vampire attack.”  The earnestness of the writing, coupled with the underlying ridiculousness of the premise, could combine to make The Vampire Combat Manual amusing, but somehow the elements do not come together very well, and the book turns out to be, for long stretches, simply dull.  The “Combat Report” sections, supposedly detailing real-world vampire encounters, help break up the flow of the book without really adding much to it.  As a whole, the book seems designed for people who really enjoy thinking about vampires but are not particularly interested in modern notions of them as intriguing, even alluring creatures – seeing them simply as evil things to be killed as efficiently as possible.  That seems a rather limited audience.

      The audience for Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained is one that is easily intrigued by once-over-lightly accounts of Bigfoot, aliens, Easter Island statues, Stonehenge, and other real, maybe-real and not-real peculiar things.  With brief paragraphs of text and lots of photos – many of them unrelated to what is being discussed – Oliver Doyle’s book is somewhat too hyped to be taken seriously.  But maybe it is not supposed to be taken that way.  An item about the “Big Gray Man” of the Scottish Highlands includes a picture of a gray-cowled figure that is certainly not the being under discussion.  A piece about the Loch Ness monster features a picture of a plesiosaur, because if there is something in Loch Ness, maybe that is what it is; or maybe not. A discussion of the “Mongolian death worm” includes a picture of a hugely magnified tapeworm, because if the Mongolian creature exists, maybe it looks something like a tapeworm; or, again, maybe not.  There are pieces about crop circles (which the book does not mention have largely been debunked), the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, the Mothman of West Virginia, the Great Pyramid at Giza, the ghost ship Mary Celeste, Atlantis and Lemuria, and other genuine or largely made-up mysteries.  Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained makes no claim to being complete or even particularly scientific – it just throws out some notes about things that may or may not exist, may or may not have happened, may or may not be significant, and leaves it up to readers to decide what it all means. If anything. The book does have serious elements, including scientific speculation about various matters, but as a whole, it is not to be taken seriously and, partly as a result, is not particularly scary or even, despite its title, particularly mysterious.

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