Ginger Nuts of Horror
By Tony Jones
It’s time for our annual review of the books featured on the short-list for the YA Bram Stoker Award. Last year’s choices were dull and there was little for teenagers to get excited or scared about. Unfortunately, this year we get another dose of the same, except for one blood-filled, unsettlingly creepy title which keeps the YA horror flag flying high. Many school librarians keep a close eye on prize lists, so it is very disappointing to see four middle-of-the-road novels featuring on such a prestigious short-list which are not the best advert for the YA genre.
If the HWA wish to increase the profile of this award within the wider YA community, they need to feature much stronger titles and improve the quality of their judging to select the best from the international horror YA world, not just the USA. Apart from the Amy Lukavics novel “The Ravenous” the other four featured are not going to turn the heads of school librarians, parents, interested book professionally and most importantly, teenagers. For the most part they are perfectly acceptable, but standard-bearers for YA horror? Not a chance.
If you do want a standard-bearer or poster-girl for YA horror then look no further than Amy Lukavics, this lady is the real deal, with three terrific horror novels under her belt, the HWA should be begging the Queen of YA horror to come to their party. I’m already getting excited about her fourth novel “Nightingale” coming later in 2018 which the early whispers say crosses Sylvia Plath with David Lynch! More on Amy later…
Last year Ginger Nuts of Horror featured an ‘alternative’ Stoker list of titles we loved which didn’t feature on (yet another) all-American horror short-list. My personal expertise in lovingly compiling these collections is based in working 24 years as a secondary school librarian as a YA specialist and as a life-long horror enthusiast. We’re delighted that three of the books we previously championed have since been picked up and recommended by major reading agencies. “The Nest” by Kenneth Oppel was given away free to thousands of children in British schools and was hailed as a future classic and both “The Call” by Peadar O’Guilin and “The Wrong Train” by Jeremy de Quidt are currently featured on the influential Book Trust website used by schools all over the country. And what of the novel that won the ‘Official’ Stoker last year? It has undoubtedly disappeared into deserved oblivion and obscurity. Does anyone even remember what it was? And apart from me did anybody even read it? In a couple of weeks, Ginger Nuts of Horror will be publishing our latest ‘alternative’ list and, be rest assured, it will be top loaded with books teenagers might genuinely actually want to read. And are currently reading and enjoying in my own school library.
Now for our reviews of the five nominated books: (and if any take your fancy click on the rating or the cover image to purchase via our universal Amazon purchasing links)
Amy Lukavics: The Ravenous
Amy Lukavics has written the stand-out novel of the five on the short-list which is strong enough to stand tall with the best YA horror has to offer. This is her first nomination, however, both her previous novels “Daughter Unto Devils” and “The Women in the Walls” were also tremendous and the HWA missed a trick by ignoring her previously. Ginger Nuts of Horror has been a fan of Amy for some time and this book deserves to win the YA Stoker. We love this book. We dug the blood, the bone-crunching, the family dynamics, the weirdness of it all.
This terrific horror story has complex family issues beating at its dark heart, much more than twitching goes on beyond the curtains in this broken household. I don’t think there is any better YA writer anywhere in cross-pollinating the issues of everyday life, damaged teenagers with that of the supernatural than Lukavics. It’s also the only book on the short-list which also has a healthy amount of gore, as the eldest sister makes good use of the family hammer, as her unhealthy interest in serial-killers develops and he body-count increases. The Stoker is a horror prize after all, and the gore value on offer here sails pretty close to adult horror, teens will love it.
“The Ravenous” is told from the point of view of Mona, the middle of five teenage sisters. Getting into the head of a teenager, making it convincing, is incredibly hard to do but the author totally nails the isolation felt by the girl. The eldest of the sisters acts as a surrogate parent to the others, as their mother is an alcoholic. However, tragedy strikes when their mother causes a drunken argument and the youngest falls into the deep basement, tumbling to the bottom and dying instantly after breaking her neck. This was one of many brutal sequences, the family staring at their broken sibling, her head twisted at a wrong angle. In her madness, the mother claims she can “Bring Rose back” and then disappears for a few days with the body. When she returns she is not alone and Rose is alive again. But at what cost? Brutal until the unforgiving end.
This exceptional exploration of teenage isolation and loss works equally well as a horror novel and as a dark twisted family drama. Nobody does this sort of stuff better than Amy Lukavics.
Kim Liggett: The Last Harvest
“The Last Harvest” was a decent page-turner which was a slight step-up in quality from the old Point Horror novels many of us will have read in our youth, one other review name-checked it as “Rosemary’s Baby crossed with Friday Night Lights” which I found rather amusing. Clay Tate is the retired high-school star quarter-back for his small town in Oklahoma, not having played football for a year after the mysterious death of his father. Living in a very Christian town Clay struggles to cope with the whispers about the death of his father and the powerful local organisation the Preservation Society which his dad had runs in with after accusing them of being devil worshippers. Along the way we have some teen romance, family drama and of course the Preservation Society has its own secret agenda driving the book.
It’s fun, fast paced stuff which might engage with 12-14-year olds, but ultimately it was shallow, and I saw the ‘twist’ ending coming a mile away. It does have some decent emotional pulls which teen readers will tap into and it jogs along at a jolly speed. It’s also going to remind you of lots of other books and films. One wonders how devil worship will sit within some of the southern US states and I’m guessing many school libraries will be giving this book a wide berth! Fair play to the author for taking a stab at a touchy subject. Overall, it’s a solid attempt at spinning a countryside devil-worship yarn in small town America which both boys and girls might get a kick out of. I’m pretty sure a twelve year old version of me would have enjoyed this.
Sarah Porter: When I Cast Your Shadow
“When I Cast You Shadow” initially had a lot going for it, with a cleverly written tale which ran out of steam. Initially it is narrated by Ruby and Everett, twins, struggling to recover from the death of their older brother who died of a drug overdose. Other points of view are gradually added as the novel progresses. Ruby has taken the death particularly badly, but Everett is looking out for her and will do anything to protect her. Here’s where things get a bit confusing, brother Dashiell is most definitely two months dead, but his ghost still lingers around, as he is on the run from another supernatural spirit. His siblings can also feel him close, particularly Ruby, he can also temporarily possess the living for short periods, initially Ruby by entering their bodies. In one sequence he jumps into a body and has sex with his ex-girlfriend. The body jumping becomes the focus of the plot but becomes tiresome.
As the dead brother continues to jump into bodies the narration got over complex and perhaps over ambitious. As it dragged on I found many of the characters irritating, often making dumb decisions and it lacked any real sense of threat which reduced tension. The teenagers also came across way older than their sixteen years and the ghost himself, Dashiell, was a real unlikable arsehole. In parts it read as a dreamy kind of novel which tackled a lot of themes impacting teenagers, from drugs, suicide, family problems, but in the end the characters were bland. Also, the glimpses we had of death (the ‘borderlands’), or what exists beyond life, was undercooked and could have been explored more. The book has lots of very pretty sentences, but was just too long, and lacked any real sense of horror. It’s not paranormal romance, but was probably more aimed at a female audience, I couldn’t see a boy touching it. I did wonder who it was aimed at? Did it have anything close to the hammer scene in the Lukavics novel? No is the simple answer.
Tom Leveen: Hell World
“Hell World” bills itself as an apocalyptic novel, but as apocalypses go this is a pretty dull one. Abby Booth is trying to come to terms with the disappearance and death of her mother five years earlier. She was a co-presenter on a TV show that investigates hauntings and vanished without trace in a deep unexplored cave in Arizona. In the years since the disappearance her father has sunk into a deep depression, and seeking closure she and her friends go to visit the cave seeking answers after discovering clues that indicate they haven’t been told the full story. The novel then splits into two-time sequences ‘now’ and ‘then’ which were both samey and dealt with the goings on in the cave and what they find there. The problem is the creatures they find there are very bland and when they start rampaging around I struggled to keep interested. As the discovery of hell beasts go, this was pedestrian.
The novel also lacked a proper ending, a curse in YA fiction, leaving everything open for a book two I certainly will not be reading. It has snappy enough dialogue, but it really is tame stuff aimed at kids aged around 12-13, any older would probably find it unchallenging. Ultimately, for a horror novel it lacked any real scares or fright and although the connections with Noah’s Arc and that period was interesting enough it failed to ignite. In an apocalypse you fight for your life, these kids sleepwalked through it. If the HWA believe a novel as bland as this worthy of winning a Stoker, then the YA section really should be put out to grass and discontinued.
Gillian French: The Door to January
I seriously struggled to get into and ultimately finish Gillian French’s paranormal thriller “The Door to January” and although two genres were blended together well enough I found myself drifting off whenever central character Natalie had one of her uninvolving dreams. Natalie and her cousin have returned to their old town after a few years away as she feels the nightmares she is plagued by are connected to a violent incident which led her to leaving the town in the first place.
Along the way she stumbles upon another mystery involving an abandoned house which becomes central to the plot. Although there was nothing wrong with the writing I found the book pedestrian and the different fonts to signify the varying time sequences, including the murders in the 1940s, particularly irritating. The mysteries come together well enough, and the characters develop, but once again I wondered who exactly this book was aimed at? I just cannot see teenagers engaging with it at all as there was little to tap into and I think it will struggle to find both a niche and an audience. There wasn’t much on offer here except for some paranormal suspense, which again came across as another book aimed at a female audience. And where was the horror? I must have missed it.
I’m not going to bother going into the voting procedures of the HWA, but as one of the few people likely to have read all five books, there is only one winner, Amy Lukavics with her grisly tale of a family in crisis, with cannibalism, dodgy soup, killer teenagers and life after death. Proper horror. Bring it on.
The YA Stoker Award deserves a real bone-cruncher as its winner and the Ginger Nuts of Horror hope Amy picks up the big one. And what of my own school library? “The Ravenous” is already featured on my recommended list, “The Last Harvest” might find an audience, but I would struggle to know who to recommend the other three books to and recommending books is a crucial part of my job.