I know you’ve been desperate to find out what the rest of the stories in this treasure trove of great literature are going to be like, so let’s get on with it! Previously:
- A Child Called Magog
- The Railway Child
- From Russia With Monks
- Rats: The Musical
- Make Way For Noddy
Day of the Dead
It’s Day of the Dead in Mexico. Carlos is visiting the mausoleum where his father was buried just a few days previously. A stranger passes by, pushing a cart marked TIJUANA DOG SANCTUARY. Carlos is sharp enough to realise that in a story like this, you should be suspicious of such a person. The man dismisses him and leaves, but Carlos is worried.
As Carlos’s family is getting ready for the celebrations, he sneaks away and goes back to the mausoleum. It has been opened and the place is full of starving, emaciated dogs. Carlos sees at once that his father’s coffin is missing. The stranger, who bears more than a passing resemblance to a dog, shows up again. He claims that in a previous life he was a stray who starved to death because of Carlos’s father – the local dog-catcher. Carlos begs the man to return the corpse because otherwise, the spirit of Carlos’s father won’t be able to rejoin his family at Day of the Dead. Carlos guesses, and the man admits, that the man was responsible for some other grave robberies that had happened nearby.
The man drives Carlos out into the middle of nowhere to the “dog sanctuary”. It’s packed to the gills with skeletal dogs that Carlos thinks are looking at him rather longingly. At this point, I feel a duty to remind my readers that you should never, ever get into a car with strangers.
Especially not if they look like this guy.
The man returns the corpse to the mausoleum. He promises to stop robbing graves to feed the dogs, but says he must give them one more “treat.” Later that evening everyone’s partying it up in Tijuana cemetery when Carlos hears howling. The dogs descend on the cemetery and it’s implied the man fed himself to the dogs (ugh – OK, that bit is creepy) to make them want more living meat.
“Day of the Dead” leaves me with several questions. The narrator claims to have heard this story in a letter from Carlos; so how did Carlos survive? Was he dictating the letter from a hospital bed after the dogs chewed his arms off? Isn’t a second story about flesh-eating animals a bit redundant in a book as short as this? But the biggest question of all has to be: The author evidently did some research about Mexico, so why does he write about Tijuana as if it’s a remote rural town?
Sam works in a shabby tea shop whose owner, Lady Poynton, lost everything when her aristocratic husband divorced her. One day his new wife comes into the shop. We’re told that her name is Jocelyn Onions, so I’ll call her that to avoid confusion with the first Lady Poynton (whose name is probably Marjorie Turnips or something.) Jocelyn is deliberately rude and condescending to Lady Poynton, and humiliates her in front of all the customers. She threatens to come back for a “private chat” about their mutual hubby. When the shop closes, Lady Poynton cries about how she’s been reduced to poverty and it’s all Jocelyn’s fault, Jocelyn, that evil witch!
Sam gets flu and can’t go to work for several days. When he returns to the tea shop, everyone’s raving about the new cook who serves up amazing cakes. He goes into the kitchen and is introduced to the cook: Jocelyn. Lady Poynton admits to cutting out Jocelyn’s tongue and imprisoning her in the kitchen. Sam dithers over whether to call the police and, after far too long, decides he should. But he’s interrupted when a health and safety inspector arrives without warning. Lady Poynton plies the inspector with tea and cakes. She locks herself in the kitchen, and tells Sam that there’s only one dish on the menu today.
The story ends with the inspector going down to the kitchen at last and agreeing that, in exchange for a free lunch, he won’t open the oven as it might ruin the lovely “roast lamb.” And you can take your blatant rip-off right back to Amirstan.
Dahl and Ellin crying into their dinner.
I want to say that this was an incredibly poor move on Lady Poynton’s part. She obviously can’t cook, and won’t be able to keep people coming back to the shop for Jocelyn’s wonderful cakes. There was loads of time to stash Jocelyn somewhere the inspector wouldn’t look. Obviously, that wouldn’t be scary; but neither is the story we actually got.
Baiting Mr Benson
In a first for this book, the narrator claims this story didn’t happen to him, but to another kid who just happens to have the same name (Grant Jackson.) Grant and his friend Nathan have just started high school – they’re British, so this makes them around 12 years old. Their teacher, Mr Benson, is infamous for his inability to control his class. Grant plays “hilarious” pranks on Benson, like introducing himself as “Snarnt Snackson”. If I think about that one any longer, I will eventually have to confront the fact that someone thought it was funny; so let’s move on.
Despite this pathetic start to Grant’s career as the class clown, he and Nathan continue to bully Benson. Eventually Benson has a nervous breakdown and takes extended leave from the school. Grant gets Benson’s address from the school secretary and sends him a threatening card. Two days later, the boys hear that Benson “accidentally” fell into a river. Grant knows this was probably a suicide attempt – so he sends Benson a crude drawing of Benson jumping into water. That’s right, Grant is actively trying to drive someone to suicide. Even Nathan calls him out on this, but the demon child cares not.
Hello, my name is Snarnt Snackson.
Over time, Grant loses interest in Benson and returns to his old hobby of rock-climbing. He confesses to Nathan that all of the bullying was because Grant’s abusive father reminded him of Benson. The boys plan a climbing trip but are distracted by Benson, who starts showing up everywhere and appears to have had a makeover: he’s wearing cooler clothes and driving a flashy new sports car. He follows them in his car and even lurks outside Grant’s house. When Grant confronts him, Benson says he’s “waiting.”
Grant and Nathan think this is weird, but apparently are not too worried about it, and go on their climbing trip. Benson shows up and rants at them about how they ruined his life. Grant knows he should be terrified but all he can see is his father dressed in Benson’s trendy clothes. He bursts out laughing, which enrages Benson so much that he pushes both boys off the mountain.
In the present day, Grant admits to his friends that the story is true and really happened to him. He spent more than a year in hospital and Nathan died. He bursts into tears, and everyone is scared that the story about Benson is true. None of the previous stories got that kind of reaction from the group – so they’re pretty much admitting that none of those stories were true. Half the shit that the kids claim really happened to them, didn’t happen. Barry was never menaced by rats. Gill never knew an old lady who decapitated someone. Anne certainly didn’t go to Russia and meet any monks. If Hannah’s cousin committed suicide, how could she know what happened to him? There go a couple of hours of my life that I’ll never get back.
The book as a whole:
It’s not a bad collection of horror stories for a child. Some of them were indeed quite disturbing; particularly the one about Billy Baxter’s head. I think “The Death Tree” is the best of the bunch, it is unsettling and leaves the reader with plenty of questions (for instance, what really happened to Magog? Gwyn witnessed him drown instantly, but James insisted that Magog would have swum to the tree, and sure enough that is where he showed up.) My main criticisms are:
– The framing device of kids claiming that all these implausible tales really happened to them. It’s very cliché and the ending really does come across like Grant’s story is the only one that was true.
– “Rats” and “Day of the Dead” are too similar in theme to each other (flesh-eating animals are unleashed upon a town) and so are “Sunday Lunch” and “A Deprived Child” (murderous old ladies serve up an enemy’s corpse as food.) A book as short as this one, with only nine stories, can’t really get away with that.
– In several stories, the author hasn’t checked basic facts, or is writing about countries he seems to know nothing about. At one time authors could get away with that, but by the 1990s, it was too late. There was cheap air travel. There was the internet. There was the Discovery Channel. There were books! It wouldn’t have taken a minute to find out that Tijuana is an important major city rather than a random hick town, or that pollution is the least dangerous thing about a reservoir.
Body Count: Silas and Magog James, Thomas, Danny and Alun – Drowned
Gwyn – Apparent suicide
Jenny and Dad – Hit by train
Igor and a large number of monks – Killed in fire/building collapse
Captain Soames and Tod Marling – Eaten by rats
Billy Baxter – Decapitated
Jocelyn Onions – Somehow murdered (she could’ve been roasted alive, but unless it’s a very big oven, I’m willing to bet she was cut up first …)
Nathan – Pushed off a cliff
It’s hard to know how many people actually died in this book because we don’t know how many monks there were, and “Day of the Dead” cuts away at the last second. Still, that’s at least fourteen. Respectable enough.
Questionable Parenting: We’ve already been over the issue of naming your kid “Magog”. Jenny’s father also merits a mention: her age is not stated, but she’s probably around 10-12, the same as this book’s target audience. She’s old enough to know not to open the door while the car’s moving, so why was the child lock on?
Questionable Inspecting: The health and safety inspector is easily distracted with a plate of Lady Poynton’s cakes, and openly agrees not to do his job if she’ll give him lunch. If you’re gonna be bribed with food, wouldn’t you at least want to make sure it came out of a clean oven?
There’s a Hole In My Bucket: “Buy me some sweets,” he whined.
“Buy your own,” I said sternly.
“Get a job.”
“Run some errands.”
“Like you do for that old git Jackson?”
“She’s not an old git,” I replied clearly and calmly, as if he was very stupid. “Mrs Jackson is a very generous lady.”
A Moment of Bathos: She looked around her miserably, and Sam saw the Nell Gwyn through her eyes: its glass fibre mock Tudor beams, the torn lace curtains, the dusty lattice windows and the fake inglenook where the imitation coal fire flickered dimly yet balefully. She was dead right; the place was a dump.
Most Nonchalant Description of a Disaster: I waited until I heard the roaring sound. Suddenly the whole building was engulfed by fire and smoke as the bell began to toll. The flames leapt and crackled; then the roof fell in.
Next up: I have “Scary Tales to Tell in the Dark” by the same author. It makes this one look a masterpiece by comparison, but if I had to suffer through it, I don’t see why you should escape.