November 21, 2012
(+++) ON THE DARK SIDE
Ten. By Gretchen McNeil. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
The Turning. By Francine Prose. HarperTeen. $17.99.
Dark Eden. By Patrick Carman. Illustrated by Patrick Arrasmith. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $8.99.
Dark Eden II: Eve of Destruction. By Patrick Carman. Illustrated by Patrick Arrasmith. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Variant II: Feedback. By Robison Wells. HarperTeen. $17.99.
If wintertime, with its cold weather, short days, dark nights and pervasive chill, does not send enough shivers down your spine, you can always turn to teen-focused horror and suspense novels for an extra dose of the chilling. There is rarely anything especially inventive in these books, just as there is rarely anything new in zombie or slasher movies; but just as people go to those movies knowing what to expect – but not exactly how it is going to happen – so readers can come to any of these books with a pretty good idea of what the plot will involve, but without knowing exactly how it will unfold.
Take 10, for instance. Or, rather, take Ten. This has an old, old plot, dating back to 1939, when Agatha Christie’s still-best-selling novel, Ten Little Ni**ers, was published in England – subsequently retitled Ten Little Indians in the United States and then, still later, renamed And Then There Were None, by which title it is still known. What Gretchen McNeil does with it is shameful on several levels. The worst is that she does not acknowledge her source, crediting her editor as her muse but never mentioning Christie. Shame, shame – the plot isn’t just modeled on Christie’s; it is Christie’s. That means 10 people, killers who have escaped justice, are lured to an isolated island and themselves killed one by one in ways appropriate to their crimes. McNeil gives this a teen twist, of course: Homecoming figures prominently in everyone’s concerns and in the eventual solution to the not-very-mysterious mystery. McNeil makes sure that the 10 teens are not the only victims – she tosses in a couple of older folks as collateral damage – and she leaves no cliché unused, including the one in which a character actually says “the killer is” and is instantly dispatched herself at that exact moment, and another in which a character is described as sitting down to read in “some dullish sunlight” even though there is a storm raging. These sorts of things are so bad that they are funny. But other plot points are simply bad, such as having it turn out that the killer almost dies himself early in the book but is saved by one of the other teens, the only one who knows how to do that – are readers supposed to believe that a super-meticulous murderer puts himself in that level of danger? He does not even know the teen who saves him, so he couldn’t have predicted his own survival. McNeil is of the horror-writing school in which the repeated, italicized word “Creeeeeak” is used to build atmosphere. Come to think of it, maybe it was out of embarrassment that McNeil did not mention Christie as her source.
But wait – there’s more! Francine Prose’s The Turning is about a dark, frightening-looking house on an isolated island where there is no cell-phone service or Internet connection, but where there are some very creepy people. No, not the island of Ten. This is a different creepy, deserted, cut-off island. Jack is there for the summer to take care of two strange children; other than Jack and the kids, the only other person on hand is a housekeeper. Unless, that is, you count the people looking in the windows and staring at the house from the island’s shore. But it happens that only Jack can see those people. And the house has (surprise!) secrets, which somehow involve the children: “If the kids were victims, I feel sorry for them. But I don’t think they are. In fact they almost seem like they have this bizarre kind of power. I think they enjoy their secrets, that it makes them feel special somehow.” Yes, the narration is just that ungrammatical and poorly written (“secrets” goes with “it” and “were” with “are”?). This is an epistolary novel, a form almost extinct nowadays but necessitated here by the absence of electronic communication. Some of the letters contain unintentional howlers: “‘But you’re sick,’ she said. ‘I’m just dead.’ …Since she was dead, I didn’t have to ask her how she’d gotten on the ferry or on the other side of the lake or, for that matter, how she got into my room.” Jack writes to his girlfriend, Sophie, and to his father, recounting his discoveries and activities, not always truthfully…and things get to the point of weirdness at which he tells Sophie that they should probably break up, and she writes back, “You’re breaking up with me because you’ve fallen in love with a woman who was murdered?” Jack’s writing gets more and more bizarre, so it is inevitable that he will write to Sophie, “I’ve never felt so sane. So calm and reasonable and logical.” And it is further inevitable that he will go off the deep end, so to speak, and that there will be a twist ending in which it turns out that maybe Jack wasn’t imagining all the things he described after all. And so, indeed, it goes.
Patrick Carman is a stronger writer than either McNeil or Prose, so he manages to pull a few chills and a few interesting ideas together in Dark Eden (originally published last year and now available in paperback) and its sequel, Dark Eden: Eve of Destruction. The first book is about Will Besting and six other teens, all of whom are supposed to be cured of deep, dark fears by spending time at a typically mysterious, gloomy, isolated place called Fort Eden. The book starts rather slowly and does not really pick up until the end, when a paranormal aspect surfaces and the form of the “cure” is finally revealed. Carman makes Will a typical protagonist for a teen novel: nondescript at first, then gradually developing a personality and a modicum of depth as he decides to ferret out the secrets of Fort Eden and begins to take chances to uncover the truth. The other characters never emerge to the same extent, even though Carman gives each a section of the book (two of them double up in one section). One of the other characters is a girl, Marisa, with whom Will falls in love after the two of them exchange only a couple of words – not at all realistic, but in line with the concept of a thriller for teens. What is best about Dark Eden is the atmosphere that Carman creates around the old fort – an atmosphere very much enhanced by Patrick Arrasmith’s genuinely creepy illustrations. By the end of Dark Eden, all the teens have supposedly been cured of their phobias, but Will never emerges as a really likable or believable character – only as one whose heroism is expected and formulaic.
Dark Eden: Eve of Destruction brings the teens back to Fort Eden, using a rather unbelievable device: a letter sent to Will telling him that caretaker Eve Goring is dying and wants to see all the “cured” teens one last time and tell them something important. This is creaky, and since the first book pretty well tied everything up at the end, it is hard to see where the second is going to go. Where it goes is into a not-unexpected mystery: Will rounds everyone up, but when they get to Fort Eden, the place is empty and something mysterious or evil lurks beneath the pond. The novel turns into one of those hour-by-hour “deadly game” stories, in six one-hour sections beginning at 3:00 p.m. and running to 8:00 p.m. and then to “The Final Hour.” The main tie-in to the first book, other than the obvious return to the same setting, is that the teens are now battling the ailments that were part of their cure: Will, for example, can barely hear, making it hard for him to figure out what is going on around him. It turns out that Eve Goring and Dr. Rainsford are engaged in a dangerous revenge game, with the teens as pawns, and the teens themselves end up seeking revenge for what was done to them – while dodging piles of nuclear waste, electrified water, and other dangers. Readers who enjoyed the first book will like this one as well, since Carman uses many of the same suspense techniques and Arrasmith’s illustrations are, once again, excellent. Dark Eden: Eve of Destruction does not so much advance the teens’ story as tell a different one using them once again as the protagonists. Will is not really a strong enough character to sustain his centrality in one book, let alone two, but Carman’s skill at weaving surprises into the narrative helps make up for the fact that the characters have little real depth or personality.
Feedback is a thriller, too; and it too is a successor, in this case to Robison Wells’ Variant. Like Ten, The Turning and both Dark Eden books, Variant used the notion of young people isolated from the world, supposedly in an elite location but in reality somewhere sinister – whose reason for being was the underlying mystery of the story. The protagonist of Variant, Benson Fisher, eventually escapes from Maxfield Academy, only to discover in Feedback that the town outside the school’s walls may be even weirder than the academy itself – containing, for example, people that Benson saw die. Like the first Dark Eden, the first book in this sequence, Variant, was essentially self-contained, so the sequel has to strike out in new directions to justify its existence. It does that, but not entirely convincingly. The reintroduced characters in Feedback are slightly different from the ones of the same names in Variant, which makes sense in light of the fact that so many teens at the school were robots or were humans sent to detention and supposedly killed. It turns out in Feedback that the school’s diabolical experiments are even darker and more wide-ranging than they seemed to be in the first book – which also makes sense, since otherwise it would be hard to ratchet up the suspense beyond that of Variant. The usual themes of an escape-from-isolated-evil-place novel are all here, including Benson’s constant uncertainty about whom, if anyone, to trust; and eventually there is a sort of evil-Wizard-of-Oz confrontation that leads to a rather abrupt and apparently final, if not totally satisfying, ending. Feedback will make no sense to anyone who has not read Variant, and does not measure up to the other book in terms of plot twists and unexpected revelations. But readers who wanted more of the world of Maxfield Academy and Variant will find the extension of the story in Feedback entertaining and fast-paced, if not as highly original or surprising as the previous book.