Ghosts and ghouls, I give you the fifth annual Shelf Life Fun Size Halloween Book Reviews:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
My first exposure to author Shirley Jackson came in high school, when my English class read Jackson’s short story The Lottery, which isn’t this kind of lottery at all, but rather is a about a small town in which residents annually draw names to determine which one of them will be publicly stoned to death. It was one of the most memorable things I read as a student and possibly since, but I for some reason never thought to seek out more of Jackson’s work until now. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is kinda like the Addams Family without the lightheartedness and laugh track in that the Blackwood family (at least those who remain after a suspicious poisoning incident years earlier) live in a large house removed from town and are misunderstood and ostracized by the villagers for being different, and for the whole suspected murder thing. While they are aware of ill-will toward them, and in younger sister Merricat’s case, resent it, they appear largely content in their isolation. Their bubble is eventually infiltrated by a long-absent relative with questionable motives, and tensions rise as Merricat’s distrust of the interloper progresses towards a breaking point. There’s a definite creepy vibe throughout, particularly because our narrator is Merricat, who in the opening line shares she feels she could have been born a werewolf with any luck, and repeatedly makes allusions to and outright statements about poisons, death, and murder. Despite these peculiarities, I found her strangely likeable, and moreover, a sympathetic character. Strip everything away, and she’s a child dealing with the unfair sting of acceptance withheld. The ending is either slightly encouraging or horribly depressing, depending on how you look at it. The story also features a lovable cat companion named Jonas, which scores extra points with me.
Rating: 8 out of 10 death-cup mushrooms
Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
How did the plucky, sleuthing kids from Scooby Doo fair after driving the Mystery Machine off into the sunset of retirement from the crime solving racket? According to author Edgar Cantero in Meddling Kids, the answer is, “Not great, Bob.” Cantero’s story doesn’t feature the original gang of Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, and Scooby, but instead contains (mostly) less cartoony approximations of each character. We join them 13 years after solving their last big case, now in their mid-twenties and wanted by the law (Andy, our Velma), wasting promise and underachieving (Kerri, Daphne), voluntarily institutionalized, (Nate, Shaggy), dead (Peter, Fred), or dead but replaced (Tim, Scooby). Dissatisfied with how their lives have gone and still shaken to various degrees from the traumatic events of their last case, the team reunites (Peter tags along in the form of hallucinations by Nate) and returns to Sleepy Lake, where they seemingly put their last bad guy away as kids. Turns out, for once all the trouble didn’t start and end with a man in a monster mask; legit supernatural, Lovecraftian evil forces are at play in Sleepy Lake, and our band of damaged, world-weary detectives must put the petal to the metal of their meddlin’ in order to stop them. It’s a setup with potential for lots of nostalgia-with-a-twist-style fun, but I have mixed feelings about the execution. Tone-wise, while the book definitely doesn’t take itself too seriously, with well-executed humor that comes both naturally through the storytelling and through repeated intentional fourth wall breaking, personally, I think the concept of former child detectives fighting evil as adults would’ve benefitted from an even lighter, zanier handling. The action sequences, while Hollywood blockbuster caliber in terms of complex, detailed monster fighting, are a bit too abundant and drawn out for my tastes. The writing is densely packed with references to Scooby Doo (e.g., the Zoinx River) and general popular culture, which a reference slingin’ guy like myself can appreciate, and has an inventive (the author regularly drops in made up words and takes great liberties with verbs), playful quality that I enjoyed, even if it bordered on overdone at times. I recommend it to those with fond Scooby memories, Lovecraft fans, and those who don’t mind some unconventional style/structural choices from their authors. General mystery and horror readers may want to pass.
Rating: 35 out of 50 Cthulu tentacles
‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
For those who think I use this October horror reading tradition of mine mostly as an excuse to read more Stephen King novels, you’re sort of right, but you’re way off; I don’t need an excuse and will gleefully read him any time of year, including ostensibly inappropriate times like Valentine’s Day. Actually, Valentine’s Day may not be such an inappropriate time to read ‘Salem’s Lot, which features copious amounts of intimate neck biting and after dark shenanigans. For the unfamiliar, the book isn’t King’s attempt at a bodice ripper, but is rather a superb vampire novel. I’m not talking shiny, brooding Twilight vampires; these are your classic no-nonsense, bloodthirsty creatures of the night. ‘Salem’s Lot is only King’s second novel, but his masterful powers of storytelling, characterization, and compulsive readability are already on display. I’m consistently impressed not just by how well he carefully sets up his stories before kicking things into overdrive with the meat of the plot, but how he makes the “setting the table” portions of his books so engrossing. Specifically in ‘Salem’s Lot, there are several chapters entitles “The Lot,” which initially made me mentally sigh, as I thought, “Man, I have to power through this to get back to the main characters.” I was proven foolish in short order, as I surprisingly found myself invested in the various side characters/stories and in the town itself. The main characters aren’t anything to throw cloves of garlic at, either. My favorite is probably tough, intelligent, and unflappable-beyond-his-years 12-year-old Mark Petrie, who is someone all horror novel and movie good guys could use on their side. Head vampire Barlow is the most terrifying type of villain: one who’s a dangerous, remorseless killer AND a cunning, calculating strategist. ‘Salem’s Lot succeeds massively both as a page-turning read and as the perfect literary potion to get you pumped for the fantastical fun of Halloween while simultaneously giving you a healthy fear of the dark.
Rating: 87 out of 100 pointy wooden stakes