- Pudding Panic
- Tales from the Crypt
- Bible Belt Blues
- Potent Potables
- The Exorcist
Read on for more vampires! Because you can never have enough of those in a kids’ horror book.
A Deadly Experiment
Vic’s father Don mysteriously quits his job at a laboratory. He claims to be afraid for his family because the company is a target of animal rights extremists. Vic catches his dad staring out of the window, and tries to ask what’s wrong. Don denies any problem but Vic notices a dark shape lurking in the branches of a tree. The following morning, Vic wakes up to the news that Don’s co-worker was murdered. Don is tense and shaky, but won’t tell Vic anything. Later that day Don receives a mysterious phone call threatening him with death. Vic asks some more questions, and Don mentions that an experiment at the lab has somehow gone wrong.
Vic decides the logical solution is to break into the lab and investigate. He gets in through a window, and notices that there’s a secure cage attached to the wall that wasn’t there before. It’s covered with steel mesh, so Vic can’t see what’s inside. Then he hears a car approaching; and quickly hides behind a filing cabinet. Along comes Maxted, the owner of the company, and takes the cage away on a trolley. Vic hears a mysterious scratching noise coming from inside the cage. But not just any scratching. This is such a specific scratching that Vic knows there can be only one explanation: the company is performing horrific genetic experimentation with animals.
That night, Vic debates whether to tell his father, but then he hears a groan. He goes downstairs to find Don heavily bleeding from the neck. Don has just enough time to suck any suspense out of the story by telling us what’s going on: that some kind of mutant creature has been bred, and will kill anyone who worked at the laboratory. He is then rushed to hospital. Vic breaks into the lab but runs smack into Maxted. It turns out Maxted’s created a giant vampire bat and trained it to kill anyone who doesn’t like his experiments. The bat attacks Vic, who loses consciousness. When he wakes up, the bat has killed Maxted. Vic and Don both survive and tell the cops everything, but they can’t catch Maxted’s son, who was also in on the experiments and has already escaped.
The story is narrated by Vic’s friend Tom, and when he tells his friends in the present day that the bat and Maxted both got away, everyone looks around in unison FOR FUCK’S SAKE I THINK YOU WOULD KNOW BY NOW IF A GIANT VAMPIRE BAT WERE IN THERE WITH YOU
Brothers Jack and Rob get a summer job fixing up an old fishing boat. The boat needs extensive repairs, and Jack and Rob are happy to have got the gig because “the job was worth a good deal of money, and we had been offered payment at top rates.” Yes, when your boat needs specialist renovation, the obvious thing to do is hire a pair of random kids on their first job. The Michaelsons, who own the boat, are a bit of a local laughing stock but the boys don’t see anything weird about them.
Jack has a slushy romance with the Michaelsons’ daughter Emelia. The boys also get chatting to an old sailor called Frank. He claims that ships’ crews are mysteriously disappearing, but the press is keeping it quiet. OK then. Jack finds some barrels in the hold, full of a mysterious red liquid HERE WE GO AGAIN. He also claims to have found several barrels of the same substance in the Michaelsons’ hut whilst visiting Emelia. The boys decide to spy on the Michaelsons. They peep through a hole in the wall and see the Michaelsons lounging about, drinking something red out of wine glasses. Jack wants to take Emelia away from this den of alcohol abuse. Rob isn’t sure it’s wine at all. I seriously think that some characters in these books need a lesson about not stalking people.
A corpse washes up on the beach, looking (in Jack’s words) “deflated.” Frank pops up. He claims that all the “missing” crews have washed up on the beach as corpses, but he didn’t say anything because the police have asked him to keep it quiet. All the bodies have been drained of their blood, and he wants to know why and how. At this point, Rob tells him what the boys know about the Michaelsons. Jack still thinks they have a drinking problem but Frank’s all “yeah, they have a problem all right.” He tells the boys to go back to work so the Michaelsons don’t suspect anything; then to disappear as soon as the sun goes down. He’ll call the police … eventually.
The boys know that Frank and his friends are plotting mob justice. Jack wants to warn the Michaelsons but Rob tells him not to. Then Frank comes back and says he’s changed his mind, now they have to stay and watch! As the sun sets, Jack goes to find Emelia. Suddenly, a gang of fishermen holding flaming torches approach. Someone grabs Jack and restrains him, then the Michaelsons get forced onto the boat and locked inside while the fishermen set it alight. I’m surprised that did the trick, to be honest. I thought sunlight or a stake was the only way to do it?
Bear in mind that Rob’s narrating this story in the presence of Jack. Jack has to stand there and listen to his brother talking about what an idiot Jack is and how his girlfriend was murdered. Not to mention their summer was wasted as the Michaelsons are now too dead to pay them.
The Undertaker’s Parlour
Sharon is in dire straits. Her parents are unemployed, and she needs a job, but can’t get one because she is so stupid no one will hire her. It directly says that. Sharon also suffers from social anxiety, so she struggles with job interviews. Sharon has some very real problems and at this point the author should stfu and stop being mean about her.
Sharon finds a job ad requesting a receptionist for Mr Jennings the undertaker. She enthusiastically thinks that she could do this “as long as it doesn’t require any typing or adding up.” See how the system has failed her. The Job Centre advisor tells Sharon that Mr Jennings has a very high staff turnover. All his receptionists leave, but they won’t say why. Still, Jennings likes Sharon, and hires her on the spot. She sits on the reception desk and doesn’t have to go anywhere near the corpses. One day, a girl comes into the shop. She checks that Jennings and his assistant Sam are out, and then warns Sharon to get out of there. The girl says Jennings is “dangerous” and his past receptionists have tried to tell others about him, but no one will believe them because he is “a respected member of society.”
I’m not going to mince words: Sharon thinks the girl is accusing Jennings of sexual offences. That’s pretty steep for a children’s book. She kicks the girl out of the building.
Subsequently, Mr Jennings tells Sharon how pleased he is with her. He offers her a substantial amount of money if she’ll help him with his private project: collecting blood to donate to hospitals. He makes this sound very plausible and government-approved, and poor Sharon doesn’t understand what’s happening. Just as Jennings is about to drag her off and drain her of her blood, Sam arrives with a group of the ex-receptionists. They have evidence that the blood he collects does not go to a hospital.
The receptionists force Jennings to go down to the police station with them. He says he’ll call his solicitor; that’s gonna be a fun court case. Sharon wonders what will happen to the shop if Jennings goes to jail. Sam says he’ll be able to have it transferred into his own name. The proverbial penny finally drops for poor Sharon. She says that no one will want to use the business now, but Sam assures her it’s fine. They’ll rebrand, change the name, and he has plenty of spare coffins because he likes it fresh from the neck. Sharon politely plays dumb even though she knows very well what he’s talking about.
There is not much “bite” to the story, i.e. it isn’t really scary, but Sharon is that rare thing in one of these books: a protagonist who’s vaguely sympathetic. Say it ain’t so!
Narrated by Abby. It’s not clear whether this is the same Abby who survived an encounter with a vampire in the previous book.
Abby and her cousin Fiona have to stay with elderly Aunt Jane. At the last minute, she calls and tells them not to come, because of some suspicious deaths believed to be the work of a wild animal. Abby promises to get a taxi to the house, so Jane agrees to let them stay. Jane says that she’s just adopted a stray cat called Midnight. Three guesses as to the vampire in this story, and the first two don’t count.
Jane warns the girls not to leave sight of the house, and not to talk to her enemy Silas Barnes. This is now three out of three books that have featured a character named Silas. Jane believes that Barnes is trying to get her evicted so he and his family can move into her house. The girls wander into the forest and get lost, where (of course) they meet Barnes. He denies doing anything to Aunt Jane and says that she’s getting a bit old and senile; she needs to be in a home and get rid of the cat. He wants the girls to come back with him and get a taxi back to their parents. But Aunt Jane warned them about him! They know the only sensible course of action is to refuse to go with him, and remain stuck in the forest, with no idea where they are and a dangerous predator on the loose.
The girls try to find their way home, but hear someone chasing them. Abby thinks it’s Barnes. She noticed something rather strange about his teeth, and now she’s worried that he’s coming to kill them. They see something in the bushes, and think it’s Barnes; but instead Midnight jumps out at them. They follow her home. When they get there, Midnight is licking blood off her paws. Aunt Jane tells the girls not to worry, Barnes won’t be bothering them again. So both he and the cat were vampires??
This is the shortest story in any of these books so far, and it could have been even shorter had the author cut a pointless “subplot” about the girls bitching and snarking at each other. Why can’t all these stories be so concise?
The Doll’s House
This play would be so much better with some vampires in it.
Derek’s old Uncle Ernie owns a valuable collection of antique toys that he keeps in his shop. There’s just one item that he doesn’t seem to like: a beautiful wooden dolls’ house from (where else?) Eastern Europe. He bitterly says that he can’t sell it; but never explains why. When Uncle Ernie becomes terminally ill, he gives Derek a copy of the shop key. He states that the shop must never be sold, and Derek must never explore it, because “there’s one (toy) that must never see the light of day again.” Ernie eventually dies, leaving a clause in his will that the shop must never be sold or opened.
Derek ignores this and goes to visit the shop. He pokes around the beautiful antique toys for a while and then hears soft scratching/squeaking noises coming from inside the dolls’ house. At first he can’t open it, but then finds that the shop key unlocks it. He sees that one doll appears to be drinking blood from another doll’s throat, and has other “victims” littered about the house. Derek notices that there’s a label written in German, so he copies down the words and gets the local librarian to read them for him. Bear in mind this was published in the mid-1990s, so Google Translate was not an option.
The label says that the dolls’ house belonged to the Munlarst children, whose father built it for them before he went blind. He wants the house to “accompany” him when he dies. As if by magic or plot contrivance, the librarian has heard of the Munlarsts. She explains that they were vampires in 18th-century Romania (there is a sizable community of German-Romanians, so we can let that slide.) The father was an accomplished carpenter, but then he was cursed by a rival and went blind. Derek thinks of the bleeding dolls, and panics.
He goes back to the shop and opens up the doll’s house again, but the dolls are not where he last saw them. He begins to examine the different floors, including a cellar filled with tiny coffins, and then realises that one doll has left the house and got out into the shop. Derek discovers that Mr Munlarst, the blind vampire, is locked inside a shipping crate within the store. He can apparently turn into a doll to drink from the others, and he also has an “assistant” that collects blood to bring to him through a hole in the crate (via a tiny cup that turns normal-sized when it reaches him. I don’t know, all of this is kinda weird and unclear.)
Derek handily points out all the reader’s questions: how long will the blood supplies last? Can they magically replenish? Will the vampire eventually start looking elsewhere for sustenance, or is his “assistant” already escaping from the shop in search of fresh blood? Lest we start to feel perturbed that the narrative has left all this hanging, Derek’s dad interrupts. He gleefully announces that his lawyers have overturned Uncle Ernie’s will, and it’s time to do an inventory so they can sell the shop. Derek’s about to mention the vampires when he decides no one will believe him. He wonders how long they will take to find out – so basically, he’s just leaving everyone to die. Cheers, Derek.
Once again, the book ends abruptly. The warden arrives and tells off the kids for breaking in. But he says there’s no need to leave; and then flashes his fangs at them and apparently kills them all. Best ending ever!
This is somewhere between the other two books in terms of quality. None of the stories are quite as disturbing as some of those found in Horror Stories, but nor are any of them as tedious as the first half of Scary Tales. I’m surprised that the cliché of vampires coming from Eastern Europe was used only twice, and even more surprised that none of the stories involved a protagonist being bitten and turned into a vampire. (Alan becomes a vampire at the end of “Buried Alive”, but apparently he was always one, he just didn’t know about it.) For a children’s horror book based around vampires, it wasn’t as lazy as it could have been.
There are a few glimmers of hope shining through here. Sharon, the first likeable protagonist I’ve seen so far. “The Doll’s House” comes dangerously close to an original premise (unless it’s ripping off something I haven’t heard of yet.) Only two stories are set in random countries that the author hasn’t researched. Best of all, the annoying kids are dispatched at the end. Can the rest of the series keep it up?
Body Count: Susan and Matthew Parker – Killed by vampire son
Nameless priest – Killed by vampire zombies
Maxted – Killed by vampire bat
Mr and Mrs Michaelson and Emelia – Burned alive. Combo breaker!
Silas Barnes – Killed by vampire cat
Questionable Parenting: Alex’s dad is a self-proclaimed “connoisseur” of wine who allows his pre-teen son to drink. Alex now steals wine and encourages his friends, also well below the legal age, to start drinking too. Good job, Dad!
Best Use of Imagery: “He called her name again and again as the flames took a steady hold and the trawler was a roaring roasting death-ship.”
Not in Front of the Kids! “The Undertaker’s Parlour” not only has Sharon thinking that Jennings is being accused of sexual harassment, but Sam basically admits he lured victims into the crypt by pretending to take them somewhere private for sex. That’s pretty strong stuff for a book aimed at 10 to 12-year-olds, especially in the ’90s before the age of internet porn.
Book Within a Book: Carrie gives Joanna and Zak copies of One Hundred Uplifting Examples of Moral Heroism and Pastor Mustard Tells the Good News. We never find out what the good news actually is, as the kids don’t bother to read the books.
Celebrity Guest Star: In “Matron’s Madness”, one of the boys is addressed as Timberlake. This was published in 1995, the year NSYNC made their debut. Was Anthony Masters a fan?
Up next: Probably Ghost Stories to Tell in the Dark unless I take a break and find something else.