Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Rain Demons

Paige McKenzie, The Haunting of Sunshine Girl

An awkward, introverted teenager thinks her life is over when she relocates to a rainy Washington town. No, seriously, stick with me. Sunshine Griffith doesn’t need much in life, just her quirky antique wardrobe, her best friend, and her youthful, high-spirited mother. But when Mom’s job uproots them to gloomy Ridgemont, Washington, she feels adrift and useless. This feeling only grows when Sunshine realizes a ghost lives upstairs.

Paige McKenzie starred in, and apparently co-created, the Sunshine Girl YouTube channel, producing fifty-seven episodes of Sunshine’s haunted house story between 2010 and 2012. This book, and an upcoming second volume, apparently presage an anticipated big-screen reboot, as McKenzie fleshes out details omitted from the original performance. The result isn’t particularly original, but remains nonetheless engaging.

That first night, a little girl’s laughing voice and prancing footsteps echo throughout Sunshine’s house. But things quickly turn grim. Her ghost has bizarre, almost bipolar swings, wanting to play games and becoming suddenly destructive when Sunshine can’t oblige. A mournful pall hangs over Sunshine’s strangely large and well-appointed high school. Then, one stormy night, the haunting spills over, and dark forces turn her only ally, her mother, against her.

McKenzie gives her young adult audience many traits they’ve come to expect from these stories—then turns them on their heads. She gives Sunshine a handsome suitor whose clever insights penetrate her crushing mysteries, but the young man’s touch makes Sunshine physically nauseous. She gives Sunshine a dark, morally ambiguous mentor, only to reveal that this mentor has ambitions that don’t necessarily require Sunshine to survive.

Paige McKenzie, in a promotional still from
The Haunting of Sunshine Girl on YouTube
This means the story feels both very familiar and strangely new. McKenzie evidently cherry-picks her favorite tropes from recent teen horror romances, then reassembles them in a funhouse mirror. Everything looks familiar, yet distorted: we recognize increments of Bella Swann, Clary Fray, and the Halliwell Sisters from TV’s Charmed. Yet McKenzie revitalizes them with her personal touches, and doesn’t just replay what we’ve already seen elsewhere.

Despite mounting evidence, Sunshine’s mother refuses to accept the ghostly third tenant in their rain-soaked rental. Her Agent Scully-ish reliance on empirical science precludes the possibility of lingering spirits. So Sunshine, aided by her crush Nolan (I love you, don’t touch me!), begins collecting evidence. But they quickly discover that doesn’t refuse to see ghosts, she’s unable. Seems Sunshine’s strange, long-buried heritage might make her insights unique.

I must acknowledge one trait I distinctly appreciate. McKenzie doesn’t force Sunshine into melodramatic “boo” moments or contrived chapter-ending cliffhangers. Despite this story’s filmic origins, McKenzie (with ghostwriter Alyssa Sheinmel) translates events into book parameters without leaving a huge scar. Novelizing a web series could’ve created a disappointing hybrid book, neither fish nor fowl. Instead, McKenzie emphasizes the creeping dread and psychological horror which print does so well.

Dark spirits transfer from Sunshine’s house, into her mother. Their formerly warm relationship quickly sours. Several times, Sunshine, our first-person narrator, reports that this is the first time she’s ever lied to her mother, the first time they’ve ever had a knock-down-drag-out fight, the first time she’s ever cut class. Simultaneously, the intervening miles prove too much for another relationship: her best friend since second grade grows bored with Sunshine’s dramas. Only Sunshine has the power to exorcise the spirits severing her human bonds.

Paging Dr. Freud, stat!

Recently, I read some online hipster grumbling about the number of YA novels featuring sixteen-year-old girls, which present incipient adulthood metaphorically as supernatural or science fictional. Admittedly, the theme is common; yet I have no problem with it. Because many youth in today’s atomized, hyper-individualistic world hit adulthood unprepared, it must surely seem as horrific for them as it did for us.

For generations, authors have used metaphors to describe adulthood. From the X-Men to Ender Wiggin to Bella Swann, artists have described young adulthood as war, dawning superpowers, monsters, and beyond. And while not everybody likes Ender’s Game or Twilight equally, these books’ youthful, struggling audiences have never needed your approval. They see themselves in their heroes, because they know what it means to be a stranger in their own bodies.

How audiences receive this book probably depends on what they hope to find. McKenzie doesn’t tell an original, groundbreaking story, no; it’s difficult to cover two pages without recognizing some familiar trope from today’s busy YA publishing market. But McKenzie owns them, and more than once, she managed to twist something familiar into surprising pretzels, upending my jaded stoicism. No, this book isn’t original. But it sure is good.

1 comment:

  1. This seems like a YA novel I might like to read. Appreciate the review of something a lot of men wouldn't even touch.