The Most Frightening Story Ever Told. By Philip Kerr. Knopf. $16.99.
The Library, Book 1: Curse of the Boggin. By D.J. MacHale. Random House. $16.99.
There is something irresistible about making books themselves the subject of books – yes, it is self-referential to have books about books, but given the wealth of information in books and the diversity of places to which books can transport readers, these ink-on-paper volumes provide innumerable gateways through which authors can neatly escort their followers (and incidentally, ebooks would work as well, in the right context). There have been some excellent books about books written recently for young readers, notably Chris Grabenstein’s Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, but there has very rarely been a book about books as clever, twisted, erudite and surprisingly amusing as Philip Kerr’s The Most Frightening Story Ever Told. For one thing, Kerr, like Charles Dickens, knows that naming characters properly conveys a great deal about them and about a book’s atmosphere. So in addition to protagonist Billy Shivers and bookstore proprietor Rexford Rapscallion, Kerr invents characters named Mr. Stoker (as in Bram), Miss Maupassant (as in Guy de), Fedora Dirtbag, Michael Mucus, Wilbur Dogbreath, Lloyd Sputum, Mercedes McBatty, Victor Creap, Loren Gytis, and many others. Even a character with an ordinary name, such as lawyer, financier and shampoo salesman Hugh Crane, is carefully portrayed: Crane dislikes boys because “they laughed at stupid jokes and they kept their hands in their pockets, and they ate potato chips in shops, and they didn’t blow their noses, and they mumbled when they were spoken to,” and also because “any boy worth his salt will usually find ways to avoid having his hair washed more than once a month. If at all.” Oh, and “Billy thought it odd that Mr. Crane wanted to sell shampoo, because he was as bald as an ostrich egg.” Then there is Mr. Rapscallion’s daughter, Altaira, named after a character in the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet, who is estranged from her father and prefers movies of a different sort, having taken to calling herself Redford. And there are other film-industry-named characters here, too, including Miss Bertolucci and Mr. Brando. And the town where most of the action takes place is called Hitchcock, which leads to a newspaper headline, surely intended to be understood only by adults and pulsing with double meaning, which reads, “HITCHCOCK BLONDE GOES PSYCHO IN THE SHOWER.”
But it is literary references that really abound. Kerr’s book is itself a 200th-anniversray tribute to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, although not explicitly presented as such. Indeed, the bookishness of The Most Frightening Story Ever Told, while pervasive, is for the most part wonderfully subtle, as when Mr. Rapscallion offers a Bram Stoker book to Mr. Crane – not Dracula, which would be the obvious pick, but The Lair of the White Worm, which it is a safe bet that very few young readers of Kerr’s book will know. Indeed, one of the delights of this book is how it tempts readers to check out other books and various authors. There is, for example, an extended tale-within-the-tale here, allegedly written by a very young Edgar Allan Poe, all about a 12-year-old boy’s determination to be temporarily buried alive so as to learn what death is really like. Billy, who is preoccupied with books because of the aftereffects of a car accident that he barely remembers but in which he was seriously hurt, becomes increasingly involved with Mr. Rapscallion and The Haunted House of Books, the store that Mr. Rapscallion owns and that is on the verge of bankruptcy – like independent booksellers in general, Kerr notes in one of many nods to the real world. There is nothing unusual about a preteen protagonist encountering a father figure and mentor, as happens here, but Kerr’s cast of characters is so attractive and the form of the book’s presentation is so unusual that the commonplace elements of the novel fade into insignificance – at a couple of points, for example, Mr. Rapscallion sings and plays his own songs on the piano, the first time offering an extended one he has written about how awful it is that modern children eschew books and reading and prefer life in front of screens (phone, computer, TV, what-have-you). Mr. Rapscallion is unusual in many ways: for instance, he needs to have a cash register whose drawer opens with enough force to knock him down, because he sometimes gets caught in an endless loop of numerical calculations and cannot stop himself from doing ever-more-complicated things with numbers unless he gets a physical shock. And his bookstore itself is a marvelous combination, as the owner explains to Billy: “You see, when I was a boy, not much older than you, I loved four things. I loved doing magic tricks, I loved practical jokes, I loved old horror movies and I loved reading. And I couldn’t make up my mind which of these four things I loved more, and to which of those four activities I wanted to devote my life when I was a grown-up. So I decided to do them all, and to combine professional magic and practical jokes with my enjoyment of books and horror movies. Hence this shop.” And what a shop it is – yet it is far from the only setting in which amazing things happen to Billy and, by extension, to readers. Indeed, The Most Frightening Story Ever Told is so good, so varied, so involving, so adeptly written and so daintily touched with real-world elements (such as a Houdini story set in Kansas City, to which Billy and Mr. Rapscallion go for a convention of nearly bankrupt booksellers) that its happy ending is a real shame, because enthralled readers will find they could easily have lived with these characters for hundreds of pages more.
No such issues will trouble readers at the end of Curse of the Boggin, because D.J. MacHale clearly identifies this book from the beginning as the first in a series called The Library. Alas, this is a much lesser book than Kerr’s, but its fast pace, obvious scares and two-dimensional characters certainly go down more easily than the complexity of the people and events in The Most Frightening Story Ever Told. And MacHale’s series can very easily be open-ended, because the idea here is that there exists an otherworldly library where people’s unfinished real-world stories stay until they can be finished and properly shelved, and an occasional person from the real world is needed as an interface with the supernatural book repository, to aid in completing all the unfinished business that prevents the words “The End” from appearing in many people’s “life books” (which is what they are, not that there are called that). Once readers finish Curse of the Boggin, which sets up the basic premise of the Library, MacHale can create as many books as he wants in the series, and they will be readable in any order, since each will deal with an unfinished “life book” of some sort that the three preteen protagonists will have to finish.
About those protagonists: the primary one is named Marcus O’Mara, and he is adopted, which is a linchpin of the plot. As for the other two – well, narrator Marcus sketches them quickly and clearly: “We were like three pieces of a very odd puzzle. Between Theo [McLean], a black guy who looked as though he should be rubbing elbows at a yacht club; [Annabella] Lu, with her Asian roller-derby-girl look, black tights, plaid shirts, and bold makeup; and me, a white guy who wore the same jeans and T-shirts every day until they were so stiff, they could stand up in the corner, we looked like the cast of some kids’ show trying to cover all its ethnic bases. It would be a grand slam if we had a Hispanic friend. Or maybe a Tongan.” Those might show up in later books, because actually, this passage is MacHale’s sly notice that he is trying to cover all the required contemporary bases of identifiable multiethnic characters – oh, and Lu is athletic and intense while Theo is highly intellectual and scientific and does not initially believe in the supernatural, while Marcus fits right in the middle, as usual in books like this. In fact, there are a lot of books like Curse of the Boggin, in which the title character is a fear-generating spirit created by the Druids that got out of hand and has roamed the world causing frights of all sorts for thousands of years, except when imprisoned somewhere that is sealed with copper. The Boggin wants to destroy the Library for no particularly good reason, and the intrepid kids need to prevent her (the Boggin usually takes the form of an old woman) from getting the Key that would give her Library access; they must also find a way to get her back in the box from which she escaped in some manner that may be explained in a future book. Ah yes, the Key: Marcus first encounters the Boggin as an old lady demanding that he “surrender the key,” which at that point he does not even know about. Somehow, scaring Marcus out of his wits about something with which he is completely unfamiliar furthers the Boggin’s nefarious aims, although it makes no sense whatsoever – maybe she has scared herself out of her own wits over the centuries. MacHale serves up some pretty good frights from time to time in Curse of the Boggin, most notably one involving a tree growing next to Theo’s house. But this (+++) book never really goes anywhere surprising or varies its straightforward bold-group-of-kids-vs.-a-monster plot in any significant way. MacHale’s skillful pacing and the well-done spacing out of the scares are the main attractions here. Kids attracted by those elements will be looking forward to their next trip to the Library.
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