August 23, 2018
(+++) MORE SILLY THAN SHIVERY
Nightbooks. By J.A. White. Harper. $16.99.
Scream and Scream Again! Edited by R.L. Stine. Harper. $17.99.
Shadow House #4: The Missing. By Dan Poblocki. Scholastic. $12.99.
Pretty much every author wants to believe that stories matter, that they are more than words on paper or on a screen – that they have genuine power to change minds, direct people, make things happen. So what could be more natural than writing a novel about the importance of stories in solving monumental life problems? That is just what J.A. White has done in Nightbooks: he has created a bit of authorial wish fulfillment by combining elements of Scheherazade’s Arabian Nights tales with a modernized version of the Grimm story of Hansel and Gretel – placing the central character’s storytelling ability at the heart of the whole thing. The result is a nice little exercise in fairy-tale updating and a moderately engaging story along the usual lines of “resourceful kids outwit evil adults” books. But as so often happens in novels for preteens, Nightbooks ends up with characters who have little genuine character, and the most interesting creation proves to be not one of the heroic kids but a cat. In the story, a boy named Alex heads to the basement boiler of his New York City apartment building to burn up the books of the title – notebooks in which he writes down scary stories that have landed him in a humiliating position at school (details of which are revealed only at the novel’s end and form part of its climax). But the elevator lets Alex off at the wrong floor, and the sounds of a scary movie that he especially likes – coming from behind the door of an apartment on that floor – lure him to and into the unit, which turns out to be the domain of a witch named Natacha. A girl named Yasmin is already imprisoned by Natacha, used to help grow the plants that Natacha turns into essential oils (potions, it turns out, are so old-fashioned) and then sells. This witchy business proposition is actually the most interesting part of the book’s plot, but it is never explored. Instead, there are the usual can-we-escape-somehow concerns, should-we-be-friends pages, what-about-other-trapped-kids questions, and so forth. Complicating matters is a cat named Lenore that spies for Natacha and has the disconcerting habit of becoming invisible whenever it wishes. Natacha decides to keep Alex around because of his stories, which she has him read aloud to quiet the apartment, which has a disconcerting habit of rumbling and shaking when not fed enough scary words. The examples of Alex’s stories are not especially frightening or original, but they serve the plot well enough and eventually help Alex and Yasmin figure out how to get away – only to encounter a bigger problem than Natacha before everything works out just fine. The interlocked-fairy-tale premise is creaky, and the eventual use of Alex’s stories to save the kids pushes the bounds of believability even within the preteen-fantasy context. But there are a few effective moments in Nightbooks, and even a bit of creativity in White’s creation of a herd of nightmarish-rather-than-dreamy unicorns. Still, Lenore is the only character in the book with any real depth.
Alex and Yasmin, though, have greater solidity than any of the 11-or-12-year-old protagonists of the 20 stories in Scream and Scream Again! This is a collection of short works for preteens by members of the Mystery Writers of America. On the basis of the contributions here, the biggest mystery is what MWA sees in some of these authors. Editor R.L. Stine contributes “The Best Revenge,” a completely ordinary zombie tale that makes no sense whatsoever: Freddy and his sister Teddy are constantly harassed and bullied by the nasty Darrow brothers, but after that happens again and again and again, the Darrow boys unhesitatingly come to Freddy’s and Teddy’s home as soon as they are invited to do so. Then there is “The I Scream Truck” by Beth Fantaskey, in which the evil cannibalism practiced by people in an isolated town is proclaimed to the entire world via a large billboard that the almost-victim protagonists repeatedly see – except that the word “cannibal” is conveniently obscured by bushes until the story’s final sentence. There is also Lisa Morton’s “Summer of Sharks,” in which it turns out that some people can change into coyotes and others into, yes, sharks, but no one is particularly surprised or even very curious about how or why the transformations take place. And there is “Rule Seven” by Ray Daniel, which is clever in enumerating the “rules for making things scary” in Hollywood films but which founders when “the Zombie Lord” turns up and proves not to be the lord of anything – and not even able to shamble after the protagonist. The various stories are united by the use of screams either when they start or when they end – hence the title of the collection – and there are sometimes screams within the tales, too. But most of them are unconvincing, even though some of the authors are well-known and have produced good material elsewhere: Bruce Hale, Emmy Laybourne, Steve Hockensmith, Chris Grabenstein, Wendy Corsi Staub, Heather Graham, Phil Mathews, Carter Wilson, Doug Levin, Jeff Soloway, Joseph S. Walker, Alison McMahan, Daniel Palmer, Tonya Hurley, Stephen Ross and Peter Lerangis are all contributors. The writers who deliberately go over-the-top fare reasonably well here, as in Palmer’s “The Nightmare Express,” about a train with cars that contain different frightening things that must never mix with each other, and Lerangis’ “The Platform,” a terrifying-aliens story whose twist ending is so obviously telegraphed in advance that it ends up being more funny than horrifying. But the best stories are ones that start out as if they will be terror-filled, and do contain some scary elements, but end up being life-affirming and upbeat: Wilson’s “Area Code 666,” in which a frightening vision of a buried doll proves to offer an element of emotional healing, and McMahan’s “Kamikaze Iguanas,” in which lizards cut a middle-school bully down to size, almost but not quite literally. On the whole, there is less that is scareworthy than readers would expect from reviewing the list of contributors to Scream and Scream Again!
There is not much to shriek about in The Missing, either. This is the fourth book of Dan Poblocki’s trilogy, Shadow House. Yes, the fourth book of a three-book series. The first three were The Gathering, You Can’t Hide and No Way Out, and they ended with the kids who had been trapped in Larkspur House, the evil place of the title, getting out, so that was that, yes? Umm, no. The Missing features a dollhouse that was modeled on Larkspur House, a girl named Connie who brings a boy named Jason there to help Jason’s sister, Louise (Lou), who is trapped, and – well, there is no more coherence in The Missing than there was in the three previous books. There are the usual dire and dismal warnings, such as Connie’s to Jason, “If you want to communicate with your sister, you need to play by different rules” from those in the everyday world, the first of them being, “Do not make the creature aware of you.” That of course means Jason will make “the creature” aware of him, which he promptly does. The Missing uses the same stylistic approach as the three prior Shadow House books: Poblocki has the trapped kids do exactly the wrong thing again and again, even while proclaiming that they know it is the wrong thing to do. For instance, one kid stuck in the dollhouse notices movement in an indoor pool, and so: “‘In a horror movie,’ Cal whispered, staring at the spreading ripples in the water, ‘this would be the part where we run.’ He nudged the girls forward, and they took off, racing across the slick tile floor toward the dark archway.” Poblocki’s notion in these books is that the various kids – whose personalities are interchangeable – have a pretty good idea that they are trapped by something evil in some sort of nightmare, and they know that doing certain things will have no effect, so they do them anyway because they can’t think of anything else. Kids are “shocked into silence.” One is “certain that the thing inside the wall was about to burst into the room and devour everyone.” Another cogently observes that “the house changes shape.” One is “frozen with terror.” And one notes that “we’re inside a scary story,” which of course leads another to say, “This is not a story. …This is our lives.” And so on – and on and on, cliché following cliché, as if Poblocki thinks that by having his characters know they are using fluent cliché-speak, that somehow makes The Missing not a mass of clichés after all. As in the first three books, the interior illustrations – here they are by Charice Silverman and Cheung Tai – tend to convey more scariness than the prose parts they portray. The eventual destruction of the dollhouse is inevitable, and of course that ends the curse that temporarily trapped the various kids, and that means everything is wrapped up as neatly as it was at the end of the original Shadow House trilogy – which, it turned out, was not neatly wrapped up at all, so who knows what Poblocki has in mind for the future?