There's a lot of horror running around loose on the streets these days. It's a trend. Brainless monsters, mad government scientists, possessed townsfolk and crafty killers lurk in the alleys and infest the woods by the side of the highways. Yep, it's a stimulating time to be a teen reader.
Until fairly recently, horror had been in kind of a slump. Horror had a big day back in, hm, the late 70's, early 80's. Throughout the 80's, the Halloween movies were in theaters and Stephen King was putting out two books a year.
By the 1990's though, we were out of the funhouse, laughing at the cheesy effects and accusing each other: "You were scared!" "No I wasn't, that was stupid!" By 1990, horror had become so familiar that it had devolved into camp (Tremors), or kid stuff (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), or mere eerieness (Edward Scissorhands). By the mid-90's, Danielle Steel and John Grisham had taken over Stephen King's dominance of the best seller lists. As recently as 2007, none of the major publishing houses had horror imprints.
But, like an oily slime seeping up from the depths of a dark bayou, horror is somehow once again everywhere, a foul slick coating the surface of popular culture. Simon & Schuster just started up a horror imprint. American Horror Story and The Walking Dead are killing it on TV. Danny Torrance is back. And I have more and more kids at the library daring me to scare them. Kids that have blazed through Goosebumps, sampled the Weenies, and are looking for something as scary as Horowitz Horror - but longer.
My friend Paula (let's call her PG to avoid confusion) and I have both been thinking about this trend, and we've recently committed ourselves to a yearlong exploration of horror and teens, and what is it about horror that specifically speaks to teens, and why teens are so horrible, etc. J-k on that last one, although PG is the mother of teens, so I should actually defer to her on that.
This is the context in which I read Robin Wasserman's The Waking Dark and Holly Black's The Coldest Girl in Coldtown (aka The Bestest Title in Titleville). PG and I had both seen Holly Black speak at SLJ's Day of Dialog and Wasserman speak at the Enoch Pratt Library's Books for the Beast YA event, and they both talked about their own experiences reading horror as teens. Generally speaking, Holly was into frilled-up Lovecrafty vampire-y stuff, while the authors Robin mentioned write contemporary horror - books about ordinary people doing unimaginable things.
They both also plugged each other's books - with gusto. So ladies, I am reviewing your books together, and since you are obviously pretty good friends, you can gang up together and kick my ass when I'm done.
Let's start with The Waking Dark. And let's start with the setting of The Waking Dark. I always like settings.
Oleander, Kansas is a small town, a really small town, isolated in the middle of the prairie. Inhabiting Oleander are jocks, and irritating Christians, a nasty little family of meth cookers in a trailer park, college-bound babysitters, old people, and the ubiquitous car dealer mayor. It's basically the same town Friday Night Lights is set in, except Tim Riggins is gay, and there's a big ominous fenced facility outside of town. One day, for no reason, a bunch of people kill everyone around them and then kill themselves. A year later, a big tornado wrecks up half the town and everybody gets mean.
So we have a number of things going on here, a number of horror tropes that Wasserman ably explores. There's the bolt-from-the-blue evil - unthinkable violence that even the one surviving perpetrator cannot understand; there's Power of Nature throwing a wrench into the otherwise ordered existence; there's that X-Files-type Facility where they're probably doing human experiments on the criminally insane or manufacturing psychotropic chemical weapons or both. You could call that a spoiler but come on. One mention of that joint and you knew that was what was going on out there.
Where this book really shines - or rather glints dully with the turbid sheen of congealing blood - is inside the characters. The story starts with the bloody massacre and then jumps ahead to the tornado and its aftermath. We inhabit the points of view of about five main characters, each of whom had witnessed one of the initial episodes of ultraviolence. Each is therefore damaged in some way - each has reason to doubt the rational underpinnings of human nature and civil society.
If part of what lets each of us navigate crowds of people every day on the highway and on the sidewalk is our faith that none of those people is likely to shove us in front of a truck just for the hell of it, these characters have been stripped of that faith. Even before the one-day bloodbath, these kids are already living with everyday sorrow or secrets - there's that gay football player, and then Daniel, who is raising his little brother because his dad is an alcoholic Scripture-spouting vagrant, while trailer park Jule has been living under the predatory gaze of her mother's wretched boyfriends for years.
So when the town is quarantined after the tornado, and in the absence of outside information and law gets a little wiggy pretty quickly (and then a lot wiggy pretty quickly after that), our main characters do not immediately snap to a self-righteous What is Going On and Something Must Be Done position. They are not so sure that their friends and neighbors have changed all that much, despite increased aggression and even gunplay.
This is true Stephen King / Peter Straub territory - contemporary fiction set in banal surroundings about ordinary people whose most secret strong feelings, the feelings they can ordinarily control - get rubbed up to frenzy. The book gets compared to Stephen King every time it's mentioned in print, and it's a valid comparison, but in fact it most strongly resembles two books by Straub - Ghost Story, about a snowbound town plagued by a vengeful ghost, and Floating Dragon, about a chemical cloud that causes disease and madness (horror is so hard to synopsize without making it sound ludicrous, just trust me and read those books).
I will be very interested to keep reading Robin Wasserman. I think she has done a terrific job on The Waking Dark - in addition to running a crowd of complicated characters, each with his or her own internal progression, she manages to ride herd on a very intricate plot with lots of people moving hither and yon through town, which is not easy stuff.
I think she could trust her reader more - a few plot points were telegraphed unnecessarily, like that ex-power plant on the outskirts of town. A more circumspect mention of that place would allow for creeping suspicion instead of out-and-out certainty that it was full of bad juju. I also think she could relax into her world a little more. Walk-on characters lack that one little engaging detail that hooks you into believing they're real - sometimes it's a hairdo, or a pet, sometimes just a name. There was a character named Bitsy in Ghost Story who I think got in a fistfight at the grocery store over a can of pumpkin pie filling, and there you go. That, you remember.
The Waking Dark epitomizes one type of horror novel - the book that uses an outlandish premise to explore human nature. Stripped of inhibitions, immune to consequences, what would you do? is the question Robin Wasserman asks her characters. Although Holly Black's most recent novel is a different kind of horror novel, a more purely entertaining type, it asks a similar question: Given the option of immortality, would you trade your conscience for it?
In The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, vampires have - to borrow a phrase from True Blood - come out of the coffin. In fact, they are 21st century celebrities, broadcasting "live feeds" (heh) from their all-night parties in the walled cities - Coldtowns - where they have been quarantined. Fearsome but fascinating, people respond to them in a variety of ways - from specialized bounty hunters to humans who long to be "turned". Most vampires are fairly recent, but the main undead characters in this book are quite old - imagine the Borgias with their own YouTube channel.
The spark of life that animates this novel is Tana - a nice kid with an irresponsible ex-boyfriend, a sweet little sis, and bitter firsthand knowledge of what happens to a human when she transforms into a vampire.
This is a kick-ass action romance novel. No ifs, ands, or buts. Tana wakes up in a bathtub trapped in a house full of dead teenagers and live vampires, jumps out a window, bundles her friend and a stray vampire into the trunk of her car, and takes off for the Springfield, MA Coldtown, barely glancing in the rearview mirror. She has every intention of delivering her passengers to Coldtown and getting right the hell back out, but you kind of figure that's not going to happen. Tana's loyalty to her friend Aidan and her growing attraction to the vampire Gavriel send her straight into... well. You're going to read it, so I'll leave you hanging.
Holly Black's most spectacular strength is in describing sensation. Although she has an Anne Rice touch with costume and furnishings, loves her some luscious broken-down architecture, and weaves a bewitching story, holy-bat-moly... a Holly Black kiss is just barely PG-13, not because anybody's naked but because of the spark at the base of the spine, the hands in the hair, the rush of blood to the pertinent capillaries. And if you think a Holly Black kiss is something to write home about, just wait until somebody gets bit. Or drinks blood, or is hungry, or smells something nice. Whoo.
I wish, though, that someone had taken one more editorial pass through this book. In fact, I have found myself thinking that about almost every Holly Black book I've ever read. It's the little things:
1) Tiny, dumb continuity errors are no less distracting because they are irrelevant. "I thought she just said that driveway was gravel - now it's asphalt?" said my son Milo while listening to Doll Bones on audio.
2) Action scenes that can't be visualized will stop some readers in their tracks. Tana punches through the plaster walls of a room, using the lath as a ladder. Huh. How high are the ceilings on the third floor of a rowhouse in Springfield? Then, having leapt to a chandelier, Tana reaches for the edge of a skylight, which opens inward, unlike any skylight ever anywhere.
3) Awkward blocking is awkward. Tana is sitting on the floor in a basement speaking into a video camera. Gavriel comes through the door and walks toward her, turning off the camera on his way. Then he closes the door. Um? Did he go back? Is the basement really small and he was taking baby steps? DOES HE HAVE REED RICHARDS ARMS?!? That would be so wild.
I know this is cheap-shot criticism, easy pickins. But because it's so easy, people are always going to do it, and I hate it when authors leave themselves vulnerable to it.
So that's me, calling it out. Sigh. Holly Black and Robin Wasserman are, by all accounts, two of the most gregarious and engaged women in YA, not to mention two of the most talented - and chances are I just alienated them. That sucks. Because the books are great. Could they be better? Books could almost always be better. That's why I keep reading - the last one was great, will the next one be even better? I love it when that happens.
Readers, I am off to KidLitCon in Austin, TX. I am looking forward to hobbin' and nobbin' with the likes of Leila Roy, Jen Robinson, Sheila Ruth, and Pam Coughlan (all of whose blogs you should be reading).
After that, it's the American Association of School Librarians convention in Hartford, CT. Blogger and school librarian Mary Ann Scheuer is running the author program for that show, and I'm looking forward to hearing Libba Bray, Shane Evans, JJK, Faith Erin Hicks, Lev Grossman, the Holm siblings, Marc Aronson, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Steve Sheinkin, Amy King, Adam Gidwitz, Laurel, Jon, Raina - holy crap, Mary Ann, what a lineup!
So as bad as I've been about posting to Pink Me lately, don't expect me to get any better any time soon! Follow me on Goodreads if you like, though, I'm pretty good about registering brief comments about the books I read there.