Monday, June 7, 2010

The Kids are Alright.... or Are They?

Monster Tales: Vampires, Werewolves, & Things
edited by Roger Elwood

New York: Rand McNally & Company, 1973

One of the creepier horror anthologies I read during my elementary school years was Monster Tales: Vampires, Werewolves, and Things. Assembled by horror/fantasy author Roger Elwood (who would edit numerous anthologies featuring tons of up-and-coming authors of the '70s), with bizarre and haunting illustrations by Franz Altschuler, this collection provided me many a sleepless night.

The introduction is written by Robert Bloch (known for writing Psycho, among other prolific contributions to the horror genre), who vividly describes the true horror of what lies in the dark, behind the shadows, and in our imaginations. There are six stories in this book highlighting encounters with supernatural forces drawn from folklore. As noted in the title, the book is divided into three categories: Vampires ("Precious Bodily Fluids"), Werewolves ("Werewolf Boy") and Things ("Wendigo's Child", "Torchbearer", "The Call of the Grave" and "The Vrkolak").

The uniting concept of this anthology is the fact that each story has a young main character whose parental figures are powerless to protect them from the forces of darkness, be they human or supernatural. "Wendigo's Child" details the horrible events begun by a curious boy who disrupts an Indian burial ground by stealing a mummified creature; "Torchbearer" follows a young man who is sold by his father to a sinister Count who practices witchcraft; "The Call of the Grave" recalls the narrator's childhood in Wales where calling on the dead after a mining accident yields horrible repercussions; in "Werewolf Boy" the title character makes a pact with a witch who will transform him into a wolf to avenge the death of his puppy at the teeth of a local Baron's dogs; "Precious Bodily Fluids" involves a strain of vampirism that haunts a boy and his father in a crumbling ancestral home; and "The Vrkolak" ends things on a more humorous note with a disgruntled summer camper who turns himself into a giant frog-like creature to get back at bullies.

What I like about the stories in this collection is that most of them drive home the fear of the unknown without implying that everything has returned to normal at the end.
Each tale has a cadence in the writing style that evokes a sense of unease. Franz Altschuler's illustrations have a jarring peculiarity to them that complements the narrative similar to Stephen Gammell's work for the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. While each story is effective in its own way, the ones that stuck out for me were "Torchbearer" and "Precious Bodily Fluids."

"Around the man at the stake were perhaps forty or fifty hideous, loathsome figures. Human Beings? Men? Women? Ghosts? Creatures of the netherworld?" - Arthur Tofte, Torchbearer
"Torchbearer" is particularly interesting because it deals with the question of evil without adhering to the immediate assumptions readers might have. Rolfe is sold to the Count Monterrant, a sinister nobleman whose castle is a sanctuary to the deformed outcasts of France. His job is to carry the torch to light the passages and help out the witch who lives in the underground rooms. Rolfe witnesses a graphic ritual where a Magistrate responsible for the torture and deaths of innocents accused of witchcraft is condemned to a hellish inferno for his misdeeds. This scene plays out with chilling drama that hints of Poe's narratives. Mayhem ensues and Rolfe is left to ponder which is more blasphemous, a group of outcasts who use witchcraft as a cloak of protection against an ignorant political structure or the banal cruelty practiced by the church against anyone who stood in their way.

"As the old caretaker quietly left Michael's room, the young boy couldn't help but notice how much the old man looked like a skeleton, withered and almost dead, yet still alive." - Mario Martin, Jr., Precious Bodily Fluids

"Precious Bodily Fluids" brings the vampire of legend into a more modern setting. Michael and his father go to a rural English village to move into the ancestral estate previously owned by his uncle. They are greeted by Mr. Gaskell, the creepy caretaker of the crumbling castle. The discovery of his Uncle's morbid scientific research coupled with the fact that his father grows weaker by the day (as Mr. Gaskell appears younger) tips Michael off to the danger that he is in. The power of this tale lies in the unsettling feeling Michael is left with when he realizes that he is alone against a
Lamia (a creature who lives off the bodily fluids of humans and animals), and his father is powerless to help him.

I would recommend this book to young readers who enjoy scary stories rooted in folklore. Like the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Short and Shivery collections, each tale feels as though it is being read to you near a campfire or fireplace on a dark and stormy night.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Tick Tock, Tick Tock

The House With a Clock in Its Walls
John Bellairs
The Dial Press, 1973
Puffin Books, 1993

The House With a Clock in Its Walls is the first in a glorious and mysterious series by John Bellairs. Having read this book as a child and then recently again as an adult I have to say the gothic bones of this story have allowed it to stand the test of the decades that have passed since it was first published.

The story, along with the whole series, follows the adventures of Lewis Barnavelt. In House the book opens with Lewis moving to the fictional town of New Zebedee, Michigan, more specifically into a sprawling Victorian mansion with his odd yet loveable uncle Jonathan. Overtime, Lewis comes to realize his uncle and his uncle’s friend Florence Zimmerman dabble in the dark arts; Jonathan a fledgling wizard and Florence a powerful yet cautious witch. As if being bathed in the spectacle of magic mirrors, light-hearted displays of illusion, and wizardry wasn’t fascinating enough, Lewis is quickly confronted with the evil side of such powers when he learns about the previous owners of the house, the cunning and sinister Isaac and Selenna Izard. Before his death, the power hungry (criminally insane?) Isaac constructed a hidden enchanted clock within the walls of the New Zebedee home. The device, meant to align the cosmos in such a way to allow Izard’s magic to obliterate the world, eternally ticks in an attempt to carry out Izard’s evil plan, even from beyond the grave. The story builds and an escalating series of ghostly encounters climaxes into a stunning finish which will encourage readers on to the next book in the series.

The glory of this story rests not only in the wonderful writing and the supernatural/magical elements of the plot, but also in the quiet and relatable nature of the characters. Lewis Barnavelt, who is perhaps like his maker John Bellairs and countless others, is a self-conscious yet curious boy, eager to find friends, but more comfortable reading and crunching cookies. Oft being the last boy picked for the baseball team, if picked at all, can lead to an overpowering sense of desperation which is all too human. Unfortunately, it is such desperation which often leads to horrifying results, particularly in a supernatural type book. One of the threads of the story follows Lewis as he befriends, struggles to keep, and ultimately loses his friend Tarby. When we see Lewis try to raise the dead in the cemetery to impress Tarby we feel his overwhelming sense of loneliness, knowing that whether or not his incantation works, he’s probably lost Tarby anyway. I think seeing Lewis vulnerable and exposed, stripped bare spiritually, allows us to really see Lewis. Being so close to him makes this story even greater than it already is.

As if I couldn’t love this book enough, the illustrations are masterfully created by the late Edward Gorey. In true Gorey style, the character of his illustrations, which he self-described as literary nonsense (the class of such as Lewis Carroll), fit perfectly with the tone of the story. Dark, mysterious, subtle yet awful (in imagery, not construct) the pictures in this book are so breathtakingly beautiful that it further accentuates what a wonderful literary gift this book, and series, is to readers of all ages. I highly recommend this book for middle grade readers, and even teens and adults who want another chance to solve the mysteries of their youth and visit the haunts of their childhood. We all have them, I’m quite sure.