Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Surpassing the Creepy Standard

As a kid, I always hungered for good ghost stories. Not horror, mind you. I wasn't all that interested in blood and gore and zombies (though I developed an appreciation for that sort of thing later), but I was all about spooky, creepy interactions with the supernatural.

Good ghost stories for kids, though, were surprisingly hard to find. I'd scour the library shelves or I'd order something from Scholastic with a promising name like The Haunting of Sand Hill. The author would then go about setting up passably spooky things like shimmerings in the distance and creaking floorboards. But the final chapters were invariably disappointing, outlining Scooby-doo like explanations that revealed there was nothing supernatural going on at all. The shimmering was always an illusion caused by a heat wave or something. Lame.

The state of supernatural literature for children has markedly broadened in the years since I was a kid and that instinct to provide rational explanations for spooky events has waned. But it's still sometimes hard to find a good ghost story, one with the right amount of creepy that doesn't descend into either a lot of cheap scares or long-winded nonsense about "crossing to the other side."

Holly Black's Doll Bones, though, is the kind of ghost story I was, and still have been, looking for.Zach is a twelve year-old boy whose favorite pasttime is playing a game involving action figures with his two best friends, Poppy and Alice, who happen to be girls. The "game" is actually a rather intricate ongoing fantasy story that the three of them create together, but Zach is quite aware that to everyone else it looks like he's hanging out with girls and playing with dolls, not something he can easily pass off as "cool."

Zach's distant father is deeply concerned about Zach's hobby and one day simply tosses out all of the action figures he uses to play the game. This causes Zach such complex anguish that he refuses to play the game anymore or even discuss it with Poppy and Alice, who are understandably put off. As an act of desperation Poppy steals a doll from her mother's collection of antiques, a bone china girl who plays the part of The Queen in the game, though the kids never actually handle her. After removing The Queen from the cabinet, Poppy explains she's started having creepy dreams. From these dreams she learns that the doll is actually an embodiment of a murdered child and wants to be buried in a cemetery in East Liverpool, Ohio far, but not unreachable from the kids' home in Pennsylvania. Poppy proposes that Alice and Zach join her on a quest to do exactly this.

Black walks the ghost story tight rope perfectly. How much of the Poppy's story is a new "game" that she's playing and how much is actually real remains an open question throughout Doll Bones. The reader is never forced to accept either conclusion, and this only adds to the story's creepiness. Of course it helps that the doll, like all Victorian era china dolls, is plenty creepy on its own.

And as befits a well-told ghost story, the real terror lies somewhere else. To Zach, Poppy and Alice--and any sensitive kid reader--what's more frightening than a possessed doll is the simple prospect of growing up, of abandoning the ease and play of childhood to the mysterious concerns of adulthood, and most of all that, in the process, you could lose your best friends.

This review is from a copy borrowed from the public library.

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