Ginger Nuts of Horror
This feature reviews all the novels featured on the YA Section of the 2016 Bram Stoker Awards Final Ballot, in which the winner is announced on 29th April along with all the other categories. We are also reviewing a couple which didn’t make the final selection. The YA category does not usually pick up a lot of attention, but since I’m probably one of a handful of horror enthusiasts to have read all the books Ginger Nuts of Horror casts its critical eye upon them. There are some top notch books here, a couple of mediocre entries and one real cracker which I have saved to the end. Sadly, what this list lacks overall is good old fashioned fear and kids really do enjoy being scared, as adult life long horror fans will all recall from their old childhoods as an ingredient key to a successful horror novel. Although there are some very accomplished books here, there really is nothing to keep your kids awake at night. I’m also always on the lookout for the next big think, or the next book I think the kids are going to love, but I doubt very much it is on this short list.
Another real weakness of this list is that it only features American authors. The Stoker is supposed to be an international award, but you wouldn’t know it from their shortlist. So we will shortly be releasing an international list of great teen horror which has been reviewed on the YA section of the Ginger Nuts of Horror ‘Young Blood’ section in 2016.
Now to the books…..
Jennifer Brozek’s “Last Days of Salton Academy” was previously reviewed on GNoH before Christmas and the first reviewer rated it much higher than I did. Set in an American boarding school, after a zombie apocalypse, the surviving teenagers and a few staff are stranded in the school whilst the rest of the country goes to ruin. I found this a pretty bland read, the first half centres on the dynamics within the school grounds, teen politics, relationships and eventually survival. It really lacked tension and I struggled to get into it, even though it was a pretty short novel. Considering the sheer amount and high quality zombie and apocalyptic novels written for teenagers in recent years I would not recommend this novel to any as it was very dull and uninvolving. How it made this shortlist is only a question the Stoker Committee can answer?
Elle Cosimano’s “Holding Smoke” was an entertaining crossover urban and supernatural thriller, which although a solid enough read, failed to really hit top gear. John ‘Smoke’ Conlan is in a youth detention centre commonly known as the ‘Y’ for the double murder of a teacher and a teenager. The reader quickly realises he has been framed for the murder of the teacher and killed the other boy in self-defence, much of the long term thrust of the book is about ‘Smoke’ trying to prove his innocence. Of course, being banged up in prison this is pretty difficult, but due to an earlier near death experience he has the power to leave his body and watch other people and gather information to help prove his innocence. Because he’s a nice guy he also uses this to help other inmates who have become his friends. Little does he know the true murderer still has his eye on him, even in prison he is far from safe. The ability to leave his body is called ‘threading’ and Smoke does not realise the more he does it, and the longer he does it for, the more likely it is he will get lost and have his soul separated from his body. Whilst out of his body he meets a girl called Pink, who can see him, due to her own supernatural gifts as a medium. Although it was a decent read, having the ability to leave one’s body is nothing new and has been well used in teen fiction in recent years. It did not have anything to make it stand out from the pack except for an engaging main character and whether that would be enough to hook a teenage reader I am not sure.
“Snowed” by Maria Alexander, who won the 2014 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel, was a solid stab at a Christmas themed horror/fantasy, but I’m not sure many kids would swallow this twee tale? Initially the non-horror background to this novel had more intrigue than the supernatural element which is introduced after a murder. Sixteen year old Charity Jones is an engaging heroine, smart, outspoken, very uncool and overweight. She is also of mixed race, in an area of Oak County California, which is predominately white. In the opening stages of the novel Charity sets up a ‘Sceptics Club’ and receives lots of hostility from her mainly Christian schoolmates. Of course, in the UK nobody would bat an eyelid at an Agnostic Society, or something similar. Her parents foster a teenage boy, Aiden, who is a bit weird and Charity develops a crush on him. At the same time her real brother is having problems at school and there is a whole family drama going on which coincides with Charity finding the murdered body of a school mate. At this point the supernatural element of the story begins. Who is Aiden really? Who is the killer? And then we head into the world of the supernatural. I struggled with the supernatural aspects of this book and although it is based upon a myth which raises its head from time to time, and was even featured in a successful horror film a couple of years ago, I struggled to swallow it. However, it’s written in a punchy and entertaining Buffy the Vampire Slayer style I would be interesting in hearing whether kids took to it, or whether they thought it was dumb.
“The Telling” is Alexandra Sirowy’s second horror novel, with a third horror thriller in the pipeline for later in the year. Although I had numerus issues with this book it certainly challenged me enough to seek out her “The Creeping” (2015) debut and “When We Were Four” when it eventually appears. So she is an author to watch. In many ways it was a strange, complex and often dreamy novel, which in the end promised more than it actually delivered. Set on an island near Seattle, teenager Lana is out swimming and sunbathing with her friends and after diving into the pool finds the body of a dead girl, Maggie. They all know Maggie and the police suspect foul play as the autopsy shows that she had not been dead very long. Lana and her friends had been there swimming for hours. Why did they not see anything? The back story is interwoven into this main story thread. Maggie was the on/off girlfriend of Lana’s step-brother Ben, who had recently been murdered in a car-jacking, the crime was still unsolved. The relationship between Ben and Lana is crucial to the story, as Lana constantly flips back to when Ben was alive. They were very close and as Lana is trying to come to terms with his murder becomes a suspect in the murder of Maggie. But are they connected? The plot thickens as other bodies turn up. Although, in many ways it was beautifully written I was not convinced Lana had an authentic voice of a teenager, she came across as way too mature, reflective, and wise for her years. Having said that her relationship with her step-brother and range of bitchy friends certainly had their moments as Lana became more popular at school via her more popular step-brother. For much of the novel it was ambiguous whether there was anything supernatural going on and when all the revelations, and twist were revealed at the end I was unconvinced by the Scoobie Doo ending which was far too neat. But my main issue was that all the teenagers in this book were just so boring and bland they mixed into one. Who was who again? It was more of a dark thriller than anything else, but I certainly wouldn’t call it a horror novel and I’m sure there are teens out there who would enjoy it.
“Lily” by Michael Thomas Ford was a delightfully well crafted dark fantasy which read like a warped fairy-tale. It was on the long-list for the Stoker, but has since been cut which is a shame. Although it is a kid’s book anyone could read it and because of its strangeness is quite difficult to know who it is aimed at. I loved the weirdness of it. I get the feeling it is also a tale which would be very good to read out loud, although it would probably scare younger children, but anyone aged between 10 and 14 might find much to enjoy in this odd read. When Lily turns 13 she seems to develop a strange ability she thinks is a curse. The ability to tell when someone is going to die, just by touching them. Upon realising this, and the imminent death of her father, but unable to prevent it, Lily becomes depressed and feels that her ability, her curse, is another person living within her. Along the way Lily attracts the attention of an ancient witch, Baba Yaga, every fairy-tale needs a witch and Baba Yaga is a terrific character as she stalks Lily as she feels her power but is unsure of its meaning. Magic seems to exist in this world, but much remains fuzzy and vague, this is one of the great strengths of the novel, fairy-tales don’t need to provide all the answers and explain themselves. As the reader accompanies Lily on her rather strange odyssey she stumbles upon a travelling evangelical revival tent where the Preacher Reverend Silas Everyman discovers her gift and wants to exploit it. It’s such a strange and beguiling book I think kids may well see it as a strange little fantasy novel. It is just as smart and as good as Sally Gardner’s “Tinder” or Patrick Ness’s “A Monster Calls” which are amongst the best examples of dark fantasy with strong fairy-tale elements popular in the UK at the moment.
Michael Brent Kelley’s “Keep Away From Psycho Joe” was also chopped from the final list and was an entertaining novel set in a small American town where not much ever happens. Ruby is pretty new to the town and having found himself in trouble at the local high school begins to explore his new neighbourhood. Much of the first half of the novel concerns the banter between Ruby and his new best friend Cludes and Cludes’s cousin, Justine, who Ruby has a big crush on. The ‘Psycho Joe’ of the title is one of Ruby’s neighbours, who has a very bad reputation, but nobody really seems to know what for. At a certain point Ruby and Joe cross paths, and eventually, swords. For much of the novel you are supposed to think Joe is some kind of nutter, and he might be, but the reader is also aware that Joe is much more than he seems and this is where the novel heads into the supernatural realms. The novel is littered with film references that most teen readers will not understand or find remotely funny, quotes from films like “Goodfellas” and so on. Ruby is a decent enough lead character and some of his observations through his ‘Encyclopedia Stupidica’ are funny if you get the author’s sense of humour, otherwise they might grate after a while. Overall there just wasn’t enough going on with the plot for a full novel. The book finishes on a cliff-hanger and there is another ‘Psycho Joe’ book in the pipeline. These days novels set in small towns with supernatural goings on always seem to have ‘Stranger Things’ as a point of reference, but this reminded me more of the early 1990s series ‘Indiana Eerie’ which pretty neat.
The Jeyn Roberts novel “When They Fade” was my favourite of all the books, so if I was on the HWA panel this is the book which would get my vote. Jeyn Roberts is probably the best known of this bunch of authors in the UK also, with the first two books in her excellent “Dark Inside” trilogy being published in this country and she previously featured in Ginger Nut’s “Festive Top Fifty YA Horror Novels” last Christmas. Incredibly I picked up a second-hand copy on Amazon withdrawn from The New York Public Library, a disgrace when you consider it was only published in 2016! In any event, I would be surprised is this excellent supernatural thriller which meshes a very realistic teenage story does not pick up an official UK publisher. It’s a complex and gripping story told through two convincing and distinct voices, firstly, Tatum, who is having serious problems at school. Her ex-best friend Claudette was having an affair with a teacher and having concerns for her friend Tatum tells their Guidance Councillor. When confronted Claudette and her boyfriend teacher turn the tables on Tatum and nobody believes her. Her life becomes a misery and much of this back story is told via flashback. The second character is Molly who is a ghost. Molly was murdered in 1970 by a serial killer not long after the Woodstock Music Festival and she reappears as a hitchhiker on the stretch of road close to where she originally disappeared. The rest of the time she lives in a kind of Purgatory with other spirits/ghosts. One evening Tatum is out driving and she picks up Molly and when Molly touches Claudette’s hand she forsees a horrible death for Claudette. From that moment on the two girls are interconnected, Claudette begins to research into the ghost and Molly believes she can find a way of changing the other girl’s future. The rest of the plot is too complex to go into, but it is a superb fusion of painful and realistic high school bullying, ghost story, thriller and even a believable romance as Claudette tries to confront her demons. In many ways this was the most mainstream of the novels on the list and the author does an excellent job of creating a gripping ghost story in a high school setting. New York Public Library… How could you? Throwing out such a good novel, only published in 2016, is both stupid and an idiotic selection policy So well done Jeyn Roberts, who knows how many folks have read these seven long listed books except for me, but yours was my winner.
Overall we should applaud the HWA for having a YA horror section at all as it is usually neglected and rarely feature on mainstream prize lists. Although this is a solid enough list having a short list made entirely of American authors is hardly representative of the horror world. So stay tuned for the Ginger Nuts of Horror ‘alternative’ YA horror selection featuring six international YA horror/dark fiction novels reviewed on our site in 2016.