Monday, May 23, 2011

What Makes WordBasket Scream?

Owing to circumstances beyond my control, I am unable to present a new review this week.  Until next week, enjoy this 2009 classic from the archives of my newspaper days.


An open letter to youth fantasy publishers.

Dear Editors:
With deep regret I write begging you to resist the artistic bankruptcy of copying successful formulas.  I recognize the temptation, when a form attracts huge audiences, to pluck that fruit while the market is ripe.

Please don’t.

This plea arose when some books crossed my transom showing notable lack of insight on your part.  I’m staggered that you’d publish these books with straight faces.  Staggered and appalled.  Marlene Perez’s Dead Is a State of Mind and Beth Fantaskey’s Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side court Stephanie Meyer’s market.  But they do so in a low-calorie, eat-your-spinach way, mixing lukewarm romance with unscary horror.

Both feature high school girls confronting a world of magic and marvels.  With layers of secrets and generation-spanning conflicts, these books owe glaring debts to Meyer’s Twilight novels.  But Twilight succeeds by externalizing the psychological dread of adolescent love.  These novels fail by blunting such emotions, rendering them trivial.

Both feature entirely predictable romantic arcs.  That’s no problem.  For romance readers, the trip counts more than the destination.  My problem turns on how they handle the supernatural elements.  Or how they don’t handle them.

In Dead is a State of Mind, California girl Daisy Giordano inherits a heritage of psychic wonder.  Her mom helps the police investigate murders.  Ghosts, werewolves, and other bugaboos comprise her city’s council.  These scares supposedly are a closely guarded secret.  But nearly everybody is such a beast, or knows about them.  If a girl takes a ghost to her prom, and watches him dematerialize on the dance floor, that’s not playing it close to the chest.

For author Perez, one tumultuous school year is an afterthought.  She presents nearly seventy pages of knuckle cracking before we get the real conflict.  Then she drops clues so thick and furious that the characters must be truly dim not to realize who is guilty of what well before Spring Break.

No, this author is more interested in her characters.  But she’s not that interested.

In effective teen horror, shocks and terrors usually symbolize the turmoil of adolescence.  Perez takes that turmoil as written.  Her characters only change when the plot demands it.  One girl goes from “kind of” our protagonist’s friend to her “best” friend with no visible change in their relationship.  Likewise, Daisy’s boyfriend grows distant because the author needs him to.  Not what the story needs, mind you, since their relationship is a distracting subplot.

We want emotions!  Emotions like fear and joy!  Give us emotions!  Instead, Perez spends pages lovingly detailing effluvia like Daisy’s steps making dinner.  Pages she could spend on character and plot.  Beth Fantaskey, in Jessica’s Guide, offers copious emotions.  Big heaping piles of raw, jangling emotions.  Just none that use the horror potential persuasively.

Pennsylvania farm girl Jessica just wants to take her hunky neighbor to prom and survive finals.  Unfortunately a dashing Romanian vampire insists she’s a fellow bloodsucker heiress and they’re pledged to marry when she turns eighteen.  Wow, what a great concept.  Imagine the delicious directions such a novel could go.  Go on, imagine.  Are you imagining?

Good job: you’ve tried harder than Fantaskey.

There is absolutely no reason for a vampire in this novel.  No displays of supernatural prowess, no bone-chilling hunt, no blood drinking as family-friendly sexual euphemism.  Oh wait: there is a reason.  Because we’re courting Stephanie Meyer’s market.  Silly me.

The vampire is that romantic ideal, a bad boy with a heart of gold.  Jessica tames his wild side and unhitches his hidebound past.  But those traditions could be anything.  Our inamorato could be a Hell’s Angel, trust fund brat, or Mafia prince without changing the story one bit.  Fantaskey’s cross-genre audience likes horror to open doors for a wide range of emotions.  Completely ignoring that door for bog-standard emotions we could get in real life leaves me feeling ripped off.

Fantaskey and Perez should study Shaun Tan’s Tales From Outer Suburbia.  Though it proffers no bogeymen, this book taps emotions other authors vainly strive after.  These short urban fantasy yarns tingle with tension between deceptively timid prose and stunning illustrations.  That tension creates disquiet more powerful than any BOO a mere vampire could deliver.

And what illustrations!  A neighborhood sparkles with brightly painted tactical nuclear missiles.  A Raphael vision of the Peaceable Kingdom hides behind hanging laundry.  A young couple flees rampaging packs of carnivorous televisions.  My favorite shows two brothers hunting the edge of the map.  They solemnly cross an almost nuclear landscape of chicken shacks, gas stations, discount stores, and mini malls.  Suburbia as a Hieronymus Bosch vision of Hell.

This collection perfectly captures transition and inconstancy which the other authors miss.  This subtlety, so difficult yet so captivating, is what publishers should seek in youth fantasy.

Come on, editors, you want it as much as we do.  Don’t follow formula; hold out for the real thing.  We who love to read are counting on you.

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