Friday, October 30, 2009

Looking for a Good Halloween Costume?

The Gruesome Guide to World Monsters
by Judy Sierra; illustrated by Henrik Drescher
Cambridge, Mass. : Candlewick Press, 2005

As encyclopedias go, The Gruesome Guide to World Monsters is one of the more interesting ones out there. The creatures in this book are enough to inspire madness in even the most rational of minds. Even more terrible - all of them are real!

This collection of dread fiends is inspired by actual folk-tales from around the world, with helpful pointers on how to avoid them (if you can). Every monster is rated on a scale from one to five skulls, from mere fright to inevitable death, and a description of where it makes its horrible, horrible home (so you can avoid there).

The author of this book, Judy Sierra, grew up in the DC area, and has been a children's librarian, puppeteer and folklorist for most of her life. She is also the author of another great spooky volume, Monster Goose. What's really great about the Gruesome Guide is that Sierra sticks to creatures you've probably never heard of, organized by the region they came from. You won't find vampires, werewolves or goblins in this book. No, instead it's Ahuizotl, Nkanyamba, or Bunyip . Great for that unique Halloween costume you've been trying to find...

The art in this book is equally great. Henrik Drescher's style (somewhere between Clive Barker and Dave McKean) is simultaneously fleshy and free-form; his monsters look like they were picked out of a madman's nightmares (not that this humble blogger would have any idea what a madman's nightmares look like... not at all...). So, if you're in the mood for something unusual to talk about at the party (or just like to look at scary monsters), find this book, and pay close attention. After all, you don't want one of these things to find you...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Classic Halloween

The Halloween Tree
by Ray Bradbury
Random House, 1972

As we approach the last week of October, I'm sure those Halloween preparations are in full swing. Putting finishing touches on scary and silly costumes, buying candy, choosing pumpkins and putting spooky decor around the home are just part of the tradition as we get ready for All Hallows Eve. I would like to personally suggest another activity that should be added to the holiday to-do list: find yourself a copy of The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury.

Ever since I discovered this book in junior hight I have read it each year around Halloween and each time I am never able to put it down. The magic and adventure in this book never cease to electrify my imagination. The book is about eight friends who set out on Halloween night to find some adventure. The ninth friend in the group, Pipkin, promises to meet up with the rest of the boys later on at a sinister looking house in the woods. But when the boys think they see him, the chase begins. From here on out the eight boys are led into the darkest depths of history as a mysterious character, named Moundshroud, guides them through the past to find their friend. The whole while, Moundshroud uses supernatural and mystical tactics to teach the children the meanings behind the celebration of Halloween. After spectacular lessons about history, other cultures, and celebrations are learned in ancient Egypt, the time of the Druids, and Mexico, to name a few, the boys endure the greatest personal journey of the evening as they are asked how far they would truly go to help their friend.

Fans of Bradbury know that his stories, particularly those about children, are typically accompanied by change, growing up, and the ache of loss. The Halloween Tree is no exception to this. Despite this being a children's chapter book, Bradbury still eloquently describes the realities of death's cold touch, and he does so as honestly and simply as a child might describe the misty and haunting twilight that comes after an autumn sunset. The book's lyrical nature and the youthful vibe from the characters make this book not only a moving story to listen to, but also a sheer delight to read for children and adults of all ages. Happy reading and Happy Halloween.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Screaming Out Loud - Halloween Edition

"The Tell-Tale Heart"
by Edgar Allan Poe
read by Nicholas Hirsch

"The Tell-Tale Heart" was one of the first horror stories I ever read. I was in sixth grade, perusing the shelves of my school's library, and there it was - a thick, dusty book, bound all in black, with a picture of a raven on the cover. Inside the cover was a picture of the man himself, Edgar Allan Poe, right out of a Tim Burton movie! (causality and linear time would come later in my education...) I opened to the table of contents, and started flipping through the book to find myself dazzled and thrilled by the illustrations; it was a dark, morbid affair, full of thunderclouds and autumn leaves whipped around by a cold wind. Someday, I will find the edition that had those illustrations, or I will discover that it was all in my mind...

In any case, the stories gripped me - "The Tell-Tale Heart", "The Pit and the Pendulum", "The Masque of the Red Death". The whole collection spoke to me; whispers of dread delight that appealed to my inner, laughing monster. These were stories to be read under a blanket with a flashlight (or behind your textbooks in class), they spoke a new language, full of brooding, steeple-fingered madmen and bouncing alliteration. They jangled the senses; they carried you into the shadows, just behind the narrator's bloodshot eyes, and pulled your mind into an unfathomable abyss. It was magic. I was in love.

It is with this memory in mind that I present here the first installment of Screaming Out Loud, a series of classic horror tales, read aloud for your enjoyment (and, let's be honest, for mine). To celebrate this, my favorite holiday, my Christmas, New Years and Thanksgiving, all rolled into one, here is my own rendition of that mad old story, "The Tell-Tale Heart", by Edgar Allan Poe:

Download the MP3 here.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Not Your Parents' Monster Mash

Boogie Knights
by Lisa Wheeler; illustrated by Mark Siegel
New York : Atheneum Books for Young Readers, ©2008

Boogie Knights is a delightfully silly book, and more than a little deranged. A young prince wakes to find his castle of full of terrible monsters and creatures of the night... all of whom are dancing! One by one, the seven knights who guard the castle are drawn into the party, only to be swept up in the merriment themselves.

The best part of this book is its visual musicality. The imagery begins in gray scale, but as each knight succumbs to the urge to dance, the pages become splashed over with colors and laughter. In the end, everyone ends up dancing the night away; and the seven knights return to their posts drenched in color, while the little prince sleeps with a smile on his face.

Lisa Wheeler and Mark Siegel (who worked together before in Seadogs: An Epic Ocean Operetta) explain the motivation behind the creation of this book far better than I ever could in this handy little video:

Enjoy the momentary tingle of fear, then go dancing!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Lest That Your Heart's Blood Should Run Cold

Passion and Poison: Tales of Shape-Shifters, Ghosts, and Spirited Women by Janice M. Del Negro
Illustrations by Vince Natale
Marshall Cavendish Children's Books , 2007

Passion and Poison
is a splendid little anthology of original gothic tales and retellings of classic folk stories. This book is unique not only for the fact that it features only female protagonists, but also for the fact that the featured women are strong, logical, and matter of fact in their dealings with the supernatural, gore, and horror. This book is so refreshing for a reader who grew up watching 80’s slasher flicks where the female characters stumbled around, screamed, and mentally wilted or physically perished in the face of fear and danger.

The stories in this book tackle themes of revenge, loss, bravery, and redemption. The female characters, though diverse, share the common threads of strength and keen observation. These women are perceptive. These women are strong. They know how to fend for themselves. They know when to, how to, and who to fight for.

My favorite tale in this book is “The Severed Hand” which is a retelling of the English tale "Mr. Fox." A desirable young woman, hounded by many determined suitors, finally falls for a dashing stranger. They become engaged. However, a solo jaunt into the woods leads to the woman being stranded in the woods near dusk. Knowing her fiancĂ©’s home is near she sees no harm calling upon him unannounced. After all, they are engaged to be wed. Realizing nobody is home she lets herself in to wait and upon entering, notices a strange motto above the door. Each door she enters in the home has an even stranger motto and curiosity gets the best of her as she continues to explore the house. While curiosity doesn’t kill the cat in this case, the young maid stumbles upon a horrifyingly gory scene and realizes a horrific truth. Her fate seems to be certain death until we see our protagonist’s problem solving skills, which were hidden so properly behind her demure nature and stunning beauty. Ah, how I love a young woman who can hold her own amongst a slithering snake, and how!

It is my supreme delight to recommend this book to all readers of short read aloud gothic stories. While the reading level of the book is proper for 5-6 graders, I think all of us can find a character to relate to in one, if not all, of these eight tales. My only complaint is that there were eight short stories in this book and not eighteen.