Sunday, 30 October 2011
Tales Told Under The Covers: Zombie Girl Invasion and Other Stories by De Kenyon
"Ten tales of death, invasions from other realms, bullies, babysitters, liars, and the brave kids who fight back. Zombie girls who have to hide, lest they get eaten by bigger zombies. Food that bites back. Wizards who are scared of their own power. Murdered (and murderous) pets. Secret superpowers. And that last, great voyage into the unknown."
Deanna Knippling writes under a variety of pseudonyms. De Kenyon is her identity when writing children's fiction, so her books for grown-ups don't fall into tiny hands. Her main website promotes her publishing house Wonderland Press, complete with a darkly twisted rabbit hole and whilst reading "Tales Told Under The Covers" I definitely felt that De is the natural successor to Lewis Carroll in terms of imagination, variety, surreal madness and dark wit.
I was raised on classic children's books such as Roald Dahl and Narnia, but when I got to the age of eleven or so and wanted something a bit scarier there seemed to be only "Point Horror" books on the shelves at my local library. Does anyone remember those? The story would feature a "troubled teen": they were an "outsider" because they were new in town, or not a cheerleader, or some such banal tripe. The "Teen" would fall in love with an attractive boy who was unattainable, usually because he was going out with a nasty girl. You'd know she's nasty because she's a cheerleader. Yawn. Something would happen, and then she'd end up being stalked by someone for the rest of the book, before the bad guy dies. And the dull girl gets together with the good looking guy. Extra yawn. (Hang on, doesn't this sound like Twilight? Is Twilight (minus the cheerleaders) the natural successor to Point Horror?) I was nauseated by the relentless drivel, so I skipped straight to Stephen King. And had nightmares. But hey, I wasn't bored.
Whilst reading De's book I found myself (frequently) muttering aloud: "I wish this book had been around when I was young."
De's kids are frequently outsiders. But not because they're new in town. Because their Dad is haunted; because they can't stop breaking things; because everyone else has been eaten by zombies; because they're too old for babysitters. And when the world goes insane they don't run away, they fight back.
These are stories where the kids are in charge. The cohesive family unit is important, but the kids are the ones who are empowered to save the world. The adults are largely helpless. Astra's Dad is physically helpless, he's been injured and can't work, which forces his daughter to take matters into her own hands. Neil's parents don't know the right way to kill zombies. Cat's parents are frozen with horror as the Sushi monster attacks and Marina's parents are eaten by Nibbles the giant rabbit. These children can walk into a world of the unknown and come up with a way to win. probably the best example of this is Connor, who is absorbed into a world of robots and works out how to win their war. De's characters are flawed, vivid and real. They are gutsy, intelligent and brave. I loved every one of them.
Scary stories for children abound in cliches around what makes something scary. I loved the way De turned these cliches on their heads. The zombies aren't scary: Neil isn't afraid of them, he hates them; and the resurrected class pet isn't scary, it tries to help Dawn and Sampson. In "Which is Bigger, the Moon or an Elephant? And Other Stupid Questions" De explores fear, the nature of scary things and what actually makes them scary. The atmosphere of tension as the children create their costumes is palpable. And in "A Picture is Worth 1000 Chomps" digital pictures on a laptop come to life in terrifying fashion, gobbling up everything in sight before being thwarted. De explores and subverts the conventions of fear, with the result that some of her stories are genuinely scary, whilst others are rib-ticklingly funny.
For her themes De pulls on a range of traditions and genre conventions. "Sushi Monster" and "Bunny Attack" are delightfully B-Movie-esque; whilst "Class Pet" tackles urban myths around ghosts and murdered pets, and "Zombie Girl Invasion" batters the Zombie Apocalypse. It is fantastic to see some aspects of adult genre fiction in there, handily bridging the gap between children's fiction and grown-up fiction, whilst leaving room for reinterpretation.
"The Society of Secret Cats" and "the Last Voyage of the Mermaid" touch on more serious themes: the first story deals with the perennial problem of the child, being trapped in nightmares, and the latter is a truly touching tale of an old man recapturing the imagination of his youth. Imagination is a theme that runs through all of the stories: exploring the effect imagination has on resolving problems and the trouble imagination gets you into. In a couple of cases I felt there was a delicious ambiguity about whether the events were "real" or "imaginary", but in true Lewis Carroll style, the two are interchangeable.
This a fast-paced collection of tightly-plotted stories which any child will read with frightened glee.