Here comes another one, just like the other one. I’m not sure how many books there are in this series. There are collections of “Ghost Stories” and “Vampire Stories” so I might recap those next, although after this book, I’m not sure I want to. Pull up a chair, get yourself a hot drink, check under your bed for intruders, it’s time for more delights from Anthony Masters.
Just like the previous book, this one opens with kids telling scary stories, except this time they’re staying at a stately home on Christmas Eve. They’re sleeping in one room together while their parents party downstairs, which is totally unfair if you ask me. These kids are about twelve; they’re not little children. And you couldn’t let them stay up just once? At Christmas? Lucy, whose parents own the house, suggests telling horror stories. True ones! And she has an amazing tale to share!
Lucy’s assets-rich cash-poor parents hire nannies to take care of her while they work. She talks about last year when Nanny Morris arrived. Before we start, let’s get the most obvious nanny jokes out of the way:
Have we got all that out of our systems? Good.
Lucy watches out of the window for her new nanny’s arrival, but somehow Nanny Morris appears in the driveway without Lucy noticing her get there. Nanny looks up, and Lucy describes her thus: “I honestly thought I could see the wind in her eyes; they were all wild and milky and stary.” Pretty sure those are cataracts, Lucy. Nanny speaks briefly to Lucy’s mother, and insists on being left alone with her new charge. She asks if Lucy is a “good girl”, and promises to “teach her things.” This is disturbing, but probably not in the way the author intended.
Nanny likes to tell bedtime stories about fantasy creatures like pixies and trolls. Lucy begins to have disturbing dreams that read like the written version of that Charlie the Unicorn video: “birds with crowns and beards and goblin-eating fish and fish-eating goblins and a desert full of trolls and mountain slopes running with honey and dark things on the peaks.” I’ll have what she’s having. Or, better still, what the author was having when he wrote this.
One night, Lucy’s parents leave her alone in the house with Nanny Morris. Nanny prepares a sumptuous afternoon tea, and announces that this is to celebrate her finishing the book she has been writing. It’s called Nanny’s Dark Directory. She takes Lucy into the library to read the book together. When Nanny reads aloud, it causes all sorts of freaky creatures to pop up out of the pages. She declares that she is a witch from “a coven that’s able to penetrate the dark lands.” She has been imprisoning creatures from these lands inside her book, but they can’t haunt anyone who doesn’t believe in them. Nanny needed a child with a strong enough imagination to unleash these horrors upon the world. She couldn’t find one until she met Lucy.
Lucy goes to bed, but more goblins and ghouls and a banshee and stuff appear. She realises that her fear is summoning more and more of them. Finally, she decides that destroying the book might take care of the problem. She goes into the library, where she sees that Nanny Morris’s head has turned into that of a goblin. So was Nanny a witch or a goblin all this time? Lucy snatches the book out of Nanny’s hands and throws it on the fire. All the creatures shrivel into dust. Nanny swears that Lucy will pay for this, then melts into an oily puddle on the floor. But unlike the kids in “Horror Stories to Tell in the Dark”, Lucy can prove that her story is true. In the present day, she goes to a drawer and shows her friends the charred cover of a book. Its title is still legible – Nanny’s Dark Directory.
This story is so convoluted I had to read it a couple of times through. It becomes a lot more logical if viewed as Lucy’s drug-induced hallucinations that led her to bash the innocent nanny’s head in and stash the corpse under the library floor. The whole thing seems a little too young for the target audience; the book’s aimed at readers of about 10-12. Are children of that age really going to be terrified of reading about fairytale creatures?
Derek tells us how his dad’s friend George went missing off Shetland. The only clue as to his disappearance is a message in George’s handwriting, saying “It’s started. God help me.” George’s daughter Becky, who is Derek’s age, went to live with Derek’s family. Of course the authorities let her live with these random people, rather than looking for her own family, or putting her in a foster home.
Derek’s dad decides to go to Shetland and investigate. Derek takes this very seriously; his dad is a farmer, whose instincts are always right, because the wind and the trees tell him things apparently. He even predicted a quarry collapse that would have killed some children. Anyway, Derek and Becky both want to go on the trip. The three head out to an island called Sula, where George had been researching for a TV documentary he was making. The only other inhabitant of the island is an old hermit called Macleish. They visit him and ask for permission to pitch their tent. Becky keeps asking about George’s disappearance. Macleish says that “the sea took (George.)” There is ancient magic at work on the island, and George’s documentary was to be about kelpies – “the seal people.” Macleish tells them to hurry and put their tent up, because there’s a storm coming, with a “kelpie wind.” Then he slams the door in their faces.
There’s a slight problem here. In Scottish mythology, kelpies are water spirits that look like horses. Seal spirits are called selkies and tend to appear in myths about them seducing humans. Maybe the author thought that was a bit inappropriate for a children’s story, or more likely (as we saw from the last review) research wasn’t his strong point.
I said SELKIES.
Derek and the others shelter inside their tent. The wind becomes very fierce. Becky suddenly says she can hear something, then Derek starts to hear it too; a haunting, unearthly cry. Becky starts making the same noise, and gets a strange, unnatural look in her eyes. She spouts some gibberish-sounding words. Macleish bursts into the tent and announces that she is making “the call of the kelpie.” Becky calls him “Master”, and instantly calms down. He leaves, but not before Derek notices that Macleish’s hands were completely covered in fur (insert your own dirty joke here.) Please tell me that werewolves aren’t going to be dragged into this, because I’ve had about as much mixed mythology as I can take.
Derek dozes for a while then wakes up in a panic, sensing that something’s wrong. He looks at Becky and sees that her hands are now covered in fur too. He calls out to her, but she smacks him and knocks him out. When he regains consciousness, she’s gone. Derek and his dad go outside to look for her. They come across something lying in the grass, and see that it’s a seal – with Macleish’s head. Macleish says that his transformation began too early this time. His human head changes into a seal’s head, and he tells them he’ll die if he can’t get to the beach. Then he makes the same cry as Becky did.
Derek looks out to sea, where a big and little seal are frolicking together. He works out that both George and Becky were turned into kelpies. Anyone who comes to the island at the wrong time will be affected and transform. Derek’s dad notices fur beginning to grow on Derek’s hands. They hurry to throw Macleish into the sea, then they escape from the island. In the present, Derek shows his friends his hands, which thankfully are still fur-free. Liz announces her intention to tell a story about something that happened to her and her brother Jake when they went skiing.
My recap doesn’t really do justice to how bad the story is. It’s ridiculous. It’s inane. It makes zero sense. It contains plot holes and leaves other things hanging: Why was Derek’s dad never affected? Why did Becky call Macleish “Master” if this was never going to be explained or lead to anything? Why can Macleish alternate between human and seal forms, but George is stuck as a seal? I hope and pray that this is the nadir of the book. I can’t wade through eight more stories like this.
The title makes it sound like a sale in a camping supplies store.
Liz and Jake are skiing in Bulgaria. They’re experienced skiers so their parents let them go out on their own. Just as it’s getting dark, they head into a valley they’ve never been to before. They see a grand old castle and hear music playing from inside. The two decide to investigate. They approach the castle, where there is a grand ball going on. But the kids panic when a large wolf in a tuxedo passes by the window. So that’s where the werewolves in the book are. Liz and Jake realise that everyone at the party is a wolf. Liz thinks that this might be an elaborate costume party, but Jake’s not so sure.
The kids notice an old lady at the window of one of the towers. She holds a baby up to the window for them to see. Liz thinks the old lady is being held prisoner. The kids sense they are in danger, so they leave at this point. They agree to tell their parents about the castle, but not the wolves or the baby. The following day they lead their parents to the valley but there is no castle. Their dad thinks Liz and Jake are suffering from “mountain madness” that’s causing them to hallucinate. They try to tell him about the dancing wolves after all. Of course, their parents don’t believe a word of this.
For a couple of days, Liz and Jake aren’t allowed out skiing again. Eventually they get permission to go. That night they head straight back to the valley, where the castle has appeared again. It is lit up but there are no wolves to be seen. The old woman is at the tower window, holding up the baby again. The door swings open all by itself, and the kids go inside, even though they’re aware that this is a blatantly obvious trap. They climb up to the tower, where the old lady is waiting for them. Liz asks what the baby’s name is, and the old lady says “Wolf.”
Not that one!
The baby and the old woman both turn into wolves. Liz and Jake run for it. The orchestra music starts up, and Jake turns into a wolf too. They try to find a way out, but end up back in the main hallway, which is now full of dressed-up wolves. The wolves start clapping, and Liz realises they are welcoming Jake as one of them. He begins dancing with one of the wolves and disappears into the crowd. Liz panics because now she’ll never be able to find him. The old lady laughs at Liz from the staircase. Another wolf grabs Liz and dances with her, ignoring the old lady’s protests to stop. The wolf becomes human and tells Liz that his name is Peter.
In a hefty infodump, Peter explains that the old woman is a witch who hates the townspeople for burning her mother at the stake or something. So she lures people and turns them into wolves. Most of them have been wolves for too long to become human again, but Jake has been a wolf for about five minutes, so he can still be saved. Peter drags Liz through the crowd and they find Jake. Liz dances with Jake and that makes him human again. The orchestra music stops. Peter yells at the kids to get out of there quick, the old lady’s coming. They make it out of the doorway just as she reaches the bottom of the stairs.
Behind them, the castle begins to fade away. Liz looks back and sees the old lady standing in the now-empty hall, with a dead Peter at her feet. The kids get out of Dodge but they know the old lady is still there, waiting for her next victims.
I have no real comment on this one. There are only so many ways you can say “this wasn’t very good.”
The Wrong Bus
Steven’s senile old babysitter puts him on the wrong bus. It goes to a cemetery, and suspiciously dead-looking people start boarding. It’s Halloween, so Steven thinks this is some kind of stunt, but no; they really are all dead. Steven talks to a girl called Ellie, who fills him in on everything. Once a year at Halloween, the dead can return to “warm themselves by the fires of the living.” She wants to be reunited with her parents, who preceded her in death; but she can’t find them.
Another ghost tells Steven where Ellie’s parents are buried. He goes over there and tells them he’s a friend of Ellie’s; using a ring they gave her as proof. But a guardian spirit of the graveyard confronts him. She says he’s “breaking the rules” of life and death or something, and puts her hands on him, causing him to slowly turn into a corpse. Steven breaks free and runs to find Ellie. They go back to her parents’ grave, but now, her mother is there to welcome her. Ellie says that she’ll try to visit Steven on Halloween one day.
This is very similar to a story in one of the Horowitz Horror collections, which I’ll probably cover at some point in the future.
The Ghost Mirrors
Debbie is staying with her crap cousin Ben in a run-down seaside town. He dares her to go out to the old abandoned pier with him and stay the night (rule #458291763 of horror stories: all seaside locations have an old abandoned pier.) The kids look for somewhere to sleep, and come across an abandoned fortune-telling booth. It has a sign advertising a “magic mirror”, and Debbie notices that the sign looks new; it’s not faded or torn like the others. She thinks she sees a hand on the door to the booth, but when she looks again, there’s nothing.
Debbie and Ben argue over whether to go inside the booth. Ben says he can hear something, and Debbie thinks he’s playing a prank on her; but then she hears a thumping noise. They finally go inside, and find themselves in a hall of funhouse mirrors. Then they hear a voice pleading with them to “let me out.” Debbie follows the voice, which leads her to the last mirror in the hall. A hand appears and drags her inside.
Debbie finds herself in a strange misty place. She is surrounded by glass spheres, but they’re not mirrors; they show her at different stages of her life, from a baby to an old woman, and finally a coffin. A man dressed as an old-fashioned policeman tells her that these are crystal balls that predict the future.
“Balls” is a very apt word for it.
In one of the exposition-laden monologues this book loves so much, we learn that the man is PC Rivers. He arrested a woman known as Madame Orion for her fortune-telling con tricks. She died in jail, and he was magically lured here and trapped inside the mirror, just like Debbie. But that was in 1956, and now it’s 1992. PC Rivers has used the crystal balls to speak to Madame Orion at different times of her life and ask her to free him. She always says no, but he thinks she might give Debbie a chance because Debbie is so young.
Debbie tries different time periods and speaks to an elderly Madame Orion in jail. Madame Orion says that she magically wished PC River inside the mirror, and now he’s missing presumed dead; which means Debbie must be dead too. Debbie returns to the mirror world and looks inside the final crystal ball. It shows a ghostly hand rising from Madame Orion’s grave and pointing at PC Rivers. He won’t tell Debbie why, but she knows something’s up. Finally, he admits he hadn’t told the whole truth. Madame Orion never went to jail, because she escaped from the van that was supposed to escort her there. Why did Debbie see her in jail then?
The crystal ball shows that Madame Orion hid out in the hall of mirrors, but PC Rivers found her. Somehow the mirror broke, glass rained down onto Madame Orion, and cut off her hand. She screamed for him to let her go but he couldn’t; he wanted to get her medical help as well as arrest her. She died from her injuries and cursed him, trapping him inside the mirror.
Suddenly the hand appears inside the crystal ball again. It writes a note telling Debbie to leave and take PC Rivers with her. Debbie is able to enter the crystal with him. She’s about to cross through to her own world but PC Rivers hangs back, afraid of something. He would be ninety-six years old by now and isn’t sure he’d even be alive any more. Debbie gets impatient with him, and finally he agrees that whatever awaits him in the real world must be better than being stuck here. The mirror shatters as Debbie steps through it.
Ben is angry with Debbie because he thinks she’s played a trick on him. She has been missing for half an hour and he couldn’t find her anywhere. Debbie looks for PC Rivers only to find he has crumbled away into dust.
Are this book’s fortunes changing? This is the first time we’ve seen something resembling a half-decent story. It’s not great, and there is an obvious issue: Madame Orion never went to jail, so how was Debbie able to see her there? But there’s some genuine creepiness with the ending, especially since PC Rivers did nothing to deserve this! Let’s hope Part 2 brings us something better, because so far, this book’s been pretty dire.
Up next: Haunted houses, environmentalist tracts, a return to Russia, and some vampires.