There are already a lot of blogs out there devoted to horror-4-kids (Blogger Beware and Gnarly Book Reviews being two of my faves), so I probably shouldn’t cover too many of them myself. But the fact remains that if I hadn’t cut my teeth on all of that Goosebumps, Chillers, Graveyard School and so on, I would never have got around to the good stuff. Let’s start with this one that I first read when I was about eight – on a camping holiday with the Brownie Guides, as it happens. If you really want to read it for yourself, it’s going cheap on Kindle; the author died not too long ago so a lot of his work has been re-released.
The premise of this book is some kids telling horror stories around a fire, supposedly true ones that have happened to people they know. Are They Afraid of the Dark? The author wrote several collections in this vein, and I think I read a few of them, but this was the only one I remembered well. Not to be confused with the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series by Alvin Schwartz, which I probably won’t review. I just don’t like it very much, classic or no classic.
Onward to the book!
The Death Tree
This story is narrated by a character called Hannah, who insists that this actually happened to her Welsh cousin, actually. The main gimmick of this story is that it is set in Wales and everyone has Welsh names. It doesn’t add anything.
Hannah’s cousin Gwyn is a bit down in the dumps because all his friends have “mysteriously” drowned in the last year. He was prepared to excuse the first drowning or two as accidents, but now that he’s the last one standing, he knows the truth. It’s connected to the death of Magog James, a boy whom Gwyn and his friends had bullied. Magog ran away from the gang, fell off a cliff (!), landed in a reservoir and drowned. Gwyn believes that Magog’s father, Silas, is responsible for all the deaths.
OK, let’s stop there for a moment. Magog? Is this a Welsh thing, or a horrid fundamentalist Christian parents thing? I think I’m going to have to include a “Questionable Parenting” section on this site, like Blogger Beware did. Silas James deserves everything he gets in this story. It is his fault his son got bullied. The least he could have done is send the kid to a Christian school, where Magog’s classmates would still have flushed his head down the toilet, but might have been marginally more sympathetic towards the name.
Gwyn’s friend Alun is the latest one to drown. We’re told that Alun wasn’t sure Silas James was behind all the other deaths – he suspected that the others might have drowned by trying to reach the “Death Tree.” In the past, Gwyn and co. had regularly dared each other to swim in the reservoir (which is incredibly dangerous) to reach a spooky old tree that stood on an island in the middle. No one ever actually managed to get there, because it was too far away. Now, Gwyn can’t bring himself to leave Alun. He sadly looks down at Alun’s body and wonders whether Alun was right and all the deaths really are just tragic accidents.
Well, so much for that theory! Silas James comes out of the trees and says Gwyn is next. He accuses Gwyn of killing Magog. James orders Gwyn to swim out to the “Death Tree” because that’s why Magog was so frightened of the bullies – he was convinced that they would force him to swim to the tree and he’d drown. James believes that Magog’s body is on the island with the tree. The authorities closed off the reservoir after Magog died, so now the water is not cleaned or filtered any more (James says it is now “dead”) and Magog’s body could not be found. James tried to make the other boys swim out to look for Magog, but they all drowned.
James forces Gwyn off the cliff and into the reservoir. Gwyn struggles to swim to the island but, by some miracle, makes it. He rolls over and lands on Magog’s corpse. Gwyn wonders why the police divers never found the body but then remembers that the island had flooded after Magog died. Couldn’t they have just looked underwater? Isn’t that, you know, their job? Gwyn picks white flowers from the tree, covers the body with them, and whispers that he’s sorry. Then somehow he manages to swim all the way back to the shore even though he was collapsing with exhaustion only moments ago. He wants to tell James that Magog’s there, which is noble but extremely foolish. Why not swim to the other side that’s about the same distance away, and get help?
James insists Gwyn has to die; and tries to force him under the water. As they wrestle with each other, James falls in. Gwyn struggles to the shore and then realises James drowned instantly, just like Magog had done. Gwyn goes back to where “Alun rested, quietly waiting for him.” He’s about to kill himself so he can be with Alun? I do like a tragic love story.
Jenny’s mother owns a shitty old car known as “Angel”, which regularly breaks down. It was left to the family by Jenny’s late grandfather, and is as old and decrepit as its former owner; but Jenny’s mother patently refuses to get rid of it. Every day when she takes Jenny to school, they have to drive over an unmanned level crossing. Jenny begins to have a recurring nightmare where “Angel” breaks down on the crossing and they are hit by an Intercity 509 train. She fails to persuade her mother to get rid of Angel, and becomes more and more afraid of the car. One morning the whole family argues about it. Jenny’s mother insists on calling the garage, leaving her husband to drive Jenny to school in his reliable BMW. It breaks down at the level crossing, Jenny can’t escape because of the child locks in the back of the car, and an Intercity 509 mows them down.
Our narrator this time is “Anne.” We’ve already had a Hannah, so there are two characters with basically the same name, and we’re only three chapters into the book.
Anne and her father are staying in a remote monastery in Russia, where he has been hired to professionally restore some religious icons. Anne gets bored because there’s nothing for her to do all day. Apart from the monks, the only other person there is the caretaker who looks after the building. The monks will sometimes disappear through a mysterious door in the wall that surrounds the monastery. The door is always closed, but one day Anne sees it open and goes to peep through the gap. All she can see is a dim, incredibly forbidding space.
Anne meets Igor, the caretaker’s son. Yep, the author’s being really creative with names here!
Igor warns her never to go through the scary door because everyone that’s tried to go in there has come back mysteriously “changed”. Anne wakes in the night and begins to feel that something’s not right with the world, as if everything good has now been sucked out of it. The next day, she goes to look for Igor, who is ill and in bed. Igor says he felt compelled to go through the door, where he heard a mysterious sucking sound coming from the bell tower. I’m sure there’s some foreshadowing going on here, but I can’t think what it could possibly be. He tried to climb up the steps, but could not go any further because there was a mysterious slimy substance all over the stairs. With all this sucking going on, that’s a bit suspect. Igor starts raving that something is calling him back to the bell tower. Before Anne can ask any more questions, Igor’s mother throws her out of the house.
Anne goes for a walk and climbs a hill that gives her a full view of the monastery below. From there, she witnesses Igor staggering through the forbidden door in the wall. Anne rushes down there and goes through the door to find him, but runs into the abbot. He tells her that it is too late to save Igor. Apparently, a long time ago one of the monks in the order went over to the dark side and began feeding on human souls. He regularly drains all the other monks of their souls, but they will soon have no more left to give him, and so they started leaving the door open for new victims to come in. Anne hears the rustling of wings and sees the faint outline of something up in the bell tower. The abbot warns her that the monks look worse than he does, but she’s not prepared for what she sees: they’ve all turned translucent and their veins, arteries and even brains are visible through their skin.
Igor shows up, looking much the same as the monks, except Anne now describes him as “machinery” because he’s had his soul sucked out and isn’t really a person any more. I think this is a bit unfair on old Igor. He reaches out for her, but the abbot steers him towards the bell tower. The other monks, who are all holding flaming torches, follow the abbot up into the tower. They set the place alight, the roof caves in, and a bizarre half-man half-bat creature flies out with an unearthly shriek.
My only real reaction to this story is “what does the Russian setting have to do with anything?”
Narrated by Barry, another member of the group.
Barry lives in a seaside town and is fishing with his friend, an old sea-captain named Soames. Suddenly, a boat called the “Lady Jane” pulls into the harbour. Soames warns that it’s owned by Tod Marling who is, by all accounts, a bit of a wrong ‘un. He abused his wife and kids, so they all left him and got a restraining order. Marling comes ashore, threatens Soames and Barry, and swears bloody revenge on the whole town. Barry is suspicious of the boat, which looks like its hold is full to burst. Soames thinks it’s just sprung a leak but Barry isn’t so sure.
The next day, Barry is informed that Soames has died suddenly and was apparently bitten to death. What the? Barry thinks of the Lady Jane’s hold and is convinced he heard strange noises coming from the boat. He puts two and two together and works out that Marling brought a massive haul of rats in to shore. Later, he’s hanging out by the harbour and notices that the Lady Jane now looks normal. Then he espies an enormous rat crawling into the local abandoned cinema (of course there is one. Every town needs an abandoned cinema.) Barry breaks in and tries to follow the trail, but Marling grabs him and drags him off to be thrown to the rats. Marling claims to have caught all the rats himself, trained them to eat human flesh, and is planning to unleash them on the town where they’ll spread deadly diseases and eat a lot of people. Awesome!
Marling takes Barry up onto the stage where the cinema screen used to stand. All the rats are packed into the stalls below. He’s about to throw Barry to his doom but Barry, thinking quickly, shoves Marling down the steps that lead up to the stage. Marling’s head cracks open and the rats descend on his bloody remains. Barry must have survived but … this does not explain how the problem of the flesh-eating rat infestation was solved?
A Deprived Child
Narrated by Gill, yet another member of the group. Why do all these children have names that belong on a forty-year-old? Why are they all pretending that these ridiculous stories happened to them?
Elderly Mrs Jackson is a pillar of the community. She volunteers with the poor and homeless and plays organ in church, etc. Every year she organises a wonderful tea party for all the local children; including those who come from the impoverished council estate nearby. Everyone loves Mrs Jackson except for Billy Baxter, a delinquent from the estate. He is constantly rude and abusive towards her. Mrs Jackson ignores this, and just talks about “making allowances” for him. Gill, who is Mrs Jackson’s neighbour, is close to her and sometimes does grocery shopping for her.
One day, Gill goes crying to Mrs Jackson after being bullied again by Billy. Mrs Jackson again tells Gill to be patient, and starts talking about the big cake she’s going to make for this year’s tea party. It’s going to be shaped like Noddy’s head, with his little hat on.
Noddy with his little hat on.
The two go out into town together, but Billy’s there and harasses them again. Mrs Jackson invites Billy home with her to taste the delicious party food she’s preparing. Billy instantly becomes polite and agrees to go back to her place (minds out of the gutter, please.) Gill’s jealous, and isn’t sure she wants to go to the party now. Mrs Jackson says she has a special surprise prepared and Gill must come.
The next day, Gill’s late for the party. When she arrives, the children have already eaten and Mrs Jackson is in the kitchen, supposedly fixing up the cake. She says she has Billy with her, but won’t let Gill into the room. Are alarm bells ringing for you yet? The local vicar is trying to entertain the children who are waiting for their cake, but Mrs Jackson is taking a very long time in the kitchen and he’s starting to worry. Finally, Mrs Jackson brings out the cake – which is not Noddy’s head, or even a cake. It’s Billy’s actual severed head on a tray. Gill simply says “I hadn’t realised how much she hated him.”
So what happened? If Mrs Jackson murdered Billy the day before, his head should have started to rot by now. Did she refrigerate it? I’m guessing that she either imprisoned him in the house and killed him during the party (which is why she was taking so long to bring the “cake”) or, more likely, she used the previous day to gain his trust and then brought him back for the party and killed him when he wasn’t expecting it. That would explain how a woman in her 70s with a limp could overpower a teenage boy. But then how could she guarantee he’d come back for the party, no matter how good her cakes were?
I’m thinking about this one too hard. Next!
A quick foreword: this story isn’t really about voodoo (or vodou, as followers in Haiti prefer to spell it.) It makes about as much sense as if the title were “Buddhism” or “Christianity.” If you’re sick of seeing your religion and culture getting crapped on by white authors, maybe skip over this one.
Marie-Denise is a Haitian girl who lives on a run-down council estate in South London. Her parents had to go back to Haiti for some reason, so Marie-Denise and her younger twin brothers have been left in the care of their grandmother. Granny is a bit old and useless and can’t cope with the two boys, who are running wild and want to be like the older delinquents on the estate. One of these is Terry, a serial joyrider who constantly taunts Marie-Denise in a “pigtail-pulling” kind of way. We’re supposed to see it as him having a huge crush on her, but in reality, he’s being a dickhead. One day, he comes home in a stolen car and drives straight at her brothers to get a reaction out of her. Marie-Denise smacks him and Terry is furious. He invites the twins to go joyriding with him, and humiliates Marie-Denise, who knows very well that she can’t do anything to stop them going.
Marie-Denise tells her grandmother everything. They can’t get the police involved, because no crime has actually taken place yet (apart from the fact that Terry steals cars, which they apparently don’t think worth reporting.) Granny suggests a visit to Madame Simone, a Haitian “wise woman” who lives on the estate. Marie-Denise is drawn into Madame S’s inner sanctum, which looks like “a cross between a witch’s cavern, an alchemist and a laboratory.” She hears some strange noises that Madame S says are just her cats. Marie-Denise explains everything about Terry, and Madame S warns her of how destructive hate is. Marie-Denise doesn’t care so Madame S gives her a bottle of strange dark liquid and tells her to throw it over Terry. Madame S again warns Marie-Denise to beware of the power of hate, and to use the bottle only in an absolute life or death emergency. As Marie-Denise is leaving, she hears more bumping and shuffling noises and thinks there must be hundreds of cats in there.
A couple of days later, Marie-Denise’s brothers disappear and she guesses they’re with Terry. Sure enough, they’re outside, climbing into his car. She hauls the boys out of the car and tips the contents of Madame S’s bottle over Terry; but accidentally splashes some on herself. Instantly, Marie-Denise’s senses become distorted and she has visions of cowering, shambling, fur-covered creatures. She wakes in the night to find that she has turned into such a creature; and looks like “some atavistic throwback to the dawn of time.” She heads for Madame S’s apartment and Terry, who looks even worse than her, follows.
Madame S says that she has been expecting them. She lets them into the apartment, where there are hundreds of creatures that look just like them. She cannot reverse the spell, so the most she can do is protect and feed them; they all come back to her. Marie-Denise realises that the strength of someone’s hate is proportional to the effect of the magic, which is why it’s worked so well on Terry and herself. But she can’t say she wasn’t warned.
The moral of this story: WOW, SCARY BLACK PEOPLE AND THEIR EXOTIC TRIBAL MAGIC. If racism upsets you, pulp horror as a genre isn’t going to be kind to you. Why not write your own that isn’t awful?
Mr Golliwog wants Noddy’s head on a plate.
Up next: More flesh-eating animals! More murderous old ladies! No more original plots!