Some Scary Stories for Halloween

Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror

As a self-confessed lover of many of the ‘pleb’ genres (hello Andrew Mitchell) I adore ghost stories. One of the most well-thumbed books on my shelf as a child was the Usborne Book of Ghost Stories, and since then I have sought out the humble ghost story wherever possible. It may also be worthwhile to point out that only short stories will do for me (apparently I have always liked my frights bite-sized). I’m talking MR James, WF Harvey and virtually every Victorian writer worth their salt. Even Roald Dahl has a couple of ghost stories in his canon! Supernatural tales that leave the reader haunted by the text for days afterwards. Particularly at night once you are in bed…

You might not think that children’s books contain many good quality, genuinely creepy tales – but like many other assumptions about children’s literature this one is wrong! Neil Gaiman’s Coraline would be an obvious example of a sinister book, but what about my favourite short story genre? What would I recommend as a great read for this Halloween?

If you want to be incredibly freaked out then I suggest you buy Chris Priestley’s Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror. Although ‘aimed at children’ and written by a modern author (pre-1940s ghost stories are generally so much better than more recent ones!) the stories are just as sinister as any aimed at an adult audience. They centre around Edgar, a boy listening to his uncle’s strange tales behind several artefacts in his rather peculiar house.

The stories Uncle Montague tells to the goody-goody Edgar range from the slightly hair-raising to the full on I’m-so-creeped-out-I’m-not-really-sure-if-I-want-to-turn-the-lights-out-yet variety. There are many scenes that I am sure that parents of the overprotective variety would disapprove of, from the reanimated mutilated corpse of a cliff fall victim to a sinister elm tree reminiscent of MR James’ ash tree.

But it is the macabre Offerings that haunts me late at night and makes my skin prickle. I won’t spoil the story for you here, as part of the fun is the skilful build up of suspense and the gaps left for the reader to fill. Oddly, this was not my favourite when I initially read the stories, but it is the one that stayed on my mind. Perhaps the scariest stories are the ones that let the reader’s imagination supply the terror?

These stories will scare you as much as any good adult ghost story and are thus perfect for Halloween. Maybe good fodder for Neil Gaiman’s All Hallow’s Read initiative?

Just don’t, whatever you do, read them on your own…


What do you like to read at Halloween? Have you got any more scary recommendations?


Review: Little Darlings, by Jacqueline Wilson

My little sister has recently discovered the joys of reading. On a recent holiday it was only her new-found habit that gave us respite from ‘can we go crab fishing/to the beach/have an ice cream?’, so I am very grateful for this. It should give her years of pleasure, and help her in school immeasurably. But there is just one problem with this. She refuses to read anything that isn’t by Jacqueline Wilson.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Jacqueline Wilson as much as the next girl. I was at my most Wilson-obsessed at about my sister’s age (nine), reading The Suitcase Kid about five times in a row at one point. But I didn’t read Wilson exclusively. There was some Alice Through the Looking Glass, Goosebumps and Little Women to accompany The Suitcase Kid. Fourteen years later, neither threats nor bribery can convince my sister to read anything else. Not even the promise of crab fishing moved her.

So I am understandably concerned that my little sister is getting an incredibly limited literary diet. Some of Wilson’s books are brilliant, but as with any prolific author, some of the themes and characters tend to blur into one another somewhat. Unfortunately, Little Darlings falls into the latter category. A standard Wilson tale in which the children are more mature than the parents, and are either neglected or function as the parent themselves.

Destiny and Sunset are two girls from very different backgrounds. Whilst Destiny lives on a council estate with her single mother in the North of England, Sunset is the daughter of a rock star and a model whose days are filled with photo shoots for trashy magazines and playing with the nanny. They forge an unlikely friendship, and the book focuses on its development and their attempts to sort out their very different family problems. Destiny is worried as her mum is losing lots of weight and seems very weak all the time, whilst Sunset cannot get either of her parents to behave like adults – especially when her Dad leaves them all for another woman…

The book takes up the themes of most of Wilson’s work – children looking after parents, broken homes, poverty, feeling isolated etc – and adds an OK magazine lifestyle. Its messages are staid and predictable: Destiny’s family is poor but rich in happiness, Sunset’s family is rich and yet fractured. That both girls could have the same father is an interesting plot device, as it not only provides a tangible link between the two girls, but also makes difficult reading for an adult. Destiny’s mother is childlike, believing that Mickey (ostensibly Destiny’s father) will rescue them from the poverty they live in and be a parent to Destiny. At first Destiny buys into the fantasy too; it is heartbreaking to witness her gradual realisation that Mickey will never want anything to do with them, and comfort her mother. And it is this plot device that leads to the most shocking element of the novel.


It is impossible to discuss this novel without mentioning the ending. All through the novel Mickey wants nothing to do with Destiny or her mother. They are swept aside, and Sunset gets in trouble for even mentioning them.  But when Mickey’s agent accidentally learns of Destiny’s talent for singing, she is invited to take part in a reality television show where celebrity parents show off their talented offspring in order to help revive Mickey’s flagging career. The novel ends with Destiny, her mother and Sunset all happily preparing for the show, overjoyed that all their dreams have come true: Sunset has a true friend in Destiny, Destiny’s talent has been realised, and Destiny’s mother has the promise of no longer living in poverty. As an adult reader, however, I found it deeply disturbing. It is painfully obvious that Destiny is being exploited and that Mickey only wants to know her out of self-interest, and yet it is presented as a ‘happy ending’. It is either a rare cynical ending to a Wilson tale, or a startling departure from her usual morality. The child characters – and perhaps child reader – end the book thinking that it is great the family are finally united, which I find problematic considering the evident exploitation of the child. Perhaps I am underestimating the capacity of child readers to recognise this element that is never explicitly stated; I shall have to ask my sister when she finishes the book.

Overall, Little Darlings feels like a hotchpotch of other Wilson novels, with celebrity thrown in. But the ending reveals a rare darkness in Wilson’s work, setting it apart from the rest of the canon.

By Lauren


Review: Stuck, by Oliver Jeffers

Playing on repetition, apparently very dear to child readers,but adding a surrealistic twist to it, Stuck, Oliver Jeffers’s latest picturebook, is 100% efficient. Premise: a little boy gets his kite stuck in a tree. What do you do in this situation? Well, throw lots of other objects into the tree, of course. Lots of objects. Including the most… unexpected.

The pictures are as bright and funny as can be expected from the famous artist, and the matter-of-fact tone of the absurd sentences is guaranteed to make everyone laugh. It is also, importantly, a great read-aloud book, with clever variations in pace and tone which the adult co-reader will pick up on easily.

There is absolutely nothing wrong anyone can possibly say about Stuck; it is a good example of a completely successful picturebook, nothing less and nothing more.

Review: Toby Alone, by Timothée de Fombelle

You know a children’s book in an English bookshop is a small miracle when it’s been translated from another language. Don’t want to sound sarcastic, but the English and the American translate enough books per year to fill a small corner of a bookshelf in a dolls’ house. It is fact. When in France, Italy, Greece and South Korea every bookshop contains pretty much as many homegrown books as translated ones, in England and the US the ratio is laughable – apart from Tintin, Astérix and the Moomins, there aren’t many foreigners in the Anglophonic hegemony.

But not only was Toby Alone translated (Walker Books), it was also extremely well translated, as Sarah Ardizzone won an award for it. I was delighted to hear it, and to see the book at Waterstones’, because Toby Alone is one of these few truly magical children’s novels which make you want to grab the nearest person by the collar and beg them to read it. A truly delightful, beautifully crafted, tender novel, Toby Alone is already, in France, a modern classic.

The premise is catchy: one-and-a-half-millimetre-tall Toby lives, like everyone else, on a great Tree-World outside of which, he is asked to believe, there is nothing. His father is an inventor, and has discovered the awesome properties of the tree sap. Properties which can be used for good… or bad (understand: for profit). And some people want to use it for profit. As a result, the tree is dying. Toby’s quest is, at the same time, to save the tree, to save himself, to save his parents, and to learn the truth about the World he lives in and the foreign people who sometimes invade, and who must come from somewhere…

Throw in a strong-headed young girl, a ruthlessly ambitious enemy, and some hilarious comic relief characters, and you get one of the most colourful and lively books for children in a very long time.

It is also an old-fashioned tale, with a nostalgic feel for a conservative order, a society of artisans, closet scientists and fragrant cooking. A world in which people’s lives follow the slow rhythm of the seasons. A world where everything is made of living matter to be feared and protected. The novel makes no mystery of its ecological dimension.

The main reason, I think, why it was translated into English (apart from the fact that it is a gorgeous book, but we have many other splendid French books that never get translated) is that the socio-cultural background is absolutely universal. Toby Alone will be readable tomorrow and in fifty years’ time, here and in Paris and in Tokyo. I am very glad Walker made this important and beautiful novel available to English children, and the second book in the duology, Toby and the Secrets of the Tree, is almost as good.

by Clémentine

Review: Percy Jackson, by Rick Riordan

Yes, I know: where have I been these past six years?? It is the unforgivable truth, I had not yet read Percy Jackson. But now that I have at last, I thought I’d devote a Sunday review to the first volume, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief.

Percy Jackson is the story of a twelve-year-old troublesome kid who turns out to be the son of sea god Poseidon. In a self-aware americanisation of Greek mythology, the book resolutely plays on the motif of hybridity – hybridity of the hero in a world that is in itself a multicultural hybrid, hybridity of genre, hybridity of time and space – to create an entertaining story that is not actually that simple, and which says a lot about how America perceives itself.

American culture is truly the focus of the book, and the displacement of Greek mythology in its heart allows for an interesting exploration of its current mixed feelings about itself.

It is a culture which, ideally, idolises the power of the individual, as illustrated so often in superhero comics. But it is also a culture which, in practice, fails to recognise ‘true’ power, clinically seeking to stifle it instead. In what is one of Riordan’s smartest inventions, Percy the demigod has been diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia, both of which betray his godly origins. This denunciation of the medicalisation of misfits is a nice symbol of a society which leaves its children’s abilities untapped.

Similarly, the book oscillates between a sometimes tiresome enumeration of bland American clichés (especially food, particularly processed and unhealthy), associated with the necessary road movie sequence, and a return to the wild furiousness of Ancient Greek mythology. This also gives rise, structurally, to a book modelled on the episodic form of the epic narrative, but in which most of the episodes are strangely reminiscent of a Goosebumps opus. The US in Percy Jackson is a sleeping society – one that has to look to the past for thrill.

In short, Percy Jackson is an amusingly ambiguous glorification of the US as the ‘heart of Western civilisation’. As the text patiently explains, Greek gods move Mount Olympus to wherever ‘Western civilisation’ seems to be at its peak; nowadays, obviously, it is the US. Riordan seems to clutch at this unquestioned ‘fact’ like a drowning man – and despite his faith in America the Beautiful, the whole book makes the US sound in fact like a civilisation in decline.

Medicated children, the flavourless reality of everyday life, a society which glorifies the famous individual but, left without true heroism, has to borrow it from ancient myths – this is Riordan’s America, and this is the enduring image of national identity that the reader is left with.

It is a lively, action-packed, fun book. The central trio is as attaching as it can be, and the joy of recognition of the many mythical creatures and characters makes for an entertaining read for the Greek mythology enthusiast. But it is, above all, a disturbing cry for help from an America faced with its own decadence.

by Clementine

Review: Angel, by L.A. Weatherly

If you’re the ‘Oh please not another supernatural romance!’ type, just close this window and go tweet/ play Angry Birds/ do something with your life instead. I’m like that sometimes, too. I think everyone is pretty much fed up to the back molars with supernatural romance.

But now that I’m left with readers who have a slightly higher degree of tolerance for the accursed genre, let’s go on.

Angel is the story of a young girl who is a bit witchy and a bit rebellious, and who might possibly perhaps not be quite exactly human. And she’s in grave danger, because some people who are not human at all have noticed that there’s something strange about her. And the person they send to hunt her down unfortunately finds himself strangely drawn to the way she holds her hair and wears her tracksuit bottoms. A road trip and a final battle ensue, and between the two, a change of allegiances.

Sorry, this has been a bit of a dismissive and cynical review so far. The truth is, this book is so American, and so YA. By that I mean that it is full, firstly, of derelict cars and shabby motels, and secondly, of rebellious behaviour and sexual tension. Neither of which I have a lot of patience for, but you may do, and I’m just so totally cool with that.

However, this is not – no, really – to say that Angel is not worth reading. It is gripping, it is dramatic, it is enjoyable. But most of all, it has a very interesting and original feature – its depiction of ‘angel churches’ inspired from televangelical Christians in the US. This, I think, is truly where the interest of the book lies, and it is L.A. Weatherly’s best idea.

(The following paragraph gives away some information from the book, but nothing crucial past the first half.)

The ‘angels’ in the book are bad angels, but they are beautiful and hypnotic, and they feed on human souls. In order to sustain this diet, they entrance their ‘food’ into creating huge angel churches for the rest of the nation to adhere to and to be, in turn, fed on.

(End of spoilers)

The book truly succeeds at depicting a bureaucratic, impenetrable, mysterious, sectarian organisation which is almost a perfect mirror image of the American evangelical Christian churches with their factory-sized buildings and their governmental lobbies. A daring move, I think, on Weatherly’s part, whether or not she was fully aware of it, and one that, to my knowledge, no angry American evangelist has yet picked up on. Willa and Alex’s struggle against this battalion of beautiful, well-meaning monsters makes for a really quite neat condemnation of corporate and aggressively propagandist organised religion.

In other words, despite the deprecatory tone of the first part of this review, I did enjoy Angel and I would recommend it. There is a real social and political critique lurking in the margins of the clumsy romance, and I am looking forward to reading the next volumes to see whether it delivers.

by Clementine







Review: Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson

When I was a real girl my best friend was called Cassandra…

Novels about eating disorders always disconcert me, as they are so hard to get right.  It is vital that the disease is portrayed sensitively, in order that the book offers the opportunity to understand what can seem an incomprehensible state of mind. Yet it is also important that the book does not act as a trigger to existing or potential sufferers, validating their behaviour or reopening old trap doors in the mind. This could mean that although the writing is responsible, it is not as ‘real’ or authentic as it could be. However, given that incidents of eating disorders are on the rise, both understanding and responsibility are vital when reading texts about eating disorders for young adults. Wintergirls (Scholastic) provides a vivid and sensitive portrayal of a recovering anorexic’s relapse and eventual ‘awakening’ into a healthy life, tracking the damage she causes to those around her on the way.

Lia is not always a likable character. A ‘typical’ selfish teenager anyway, the selfish nature of her affliction cannot be hidden, and it is grating to read of her treatment of her step-sister and parents. She shuts her mother out of her life, lies to her step-mother, and at one point succeeds in giving her little step-sister nightmares.  Through her the disease is not glamorised, she becomes a pathetic, pitiable creature the reader longs to slap. Or at least hurry up and realise what she is doing to both herself and her family. What I found the most convincing aspect of the novel was the depiction of depression. The metaphor Lia uses to describe anorexia sufferers poetically illustrates the disease: it locks the sufferers outside of society, into the cold. They become wintergirls: numb and trapped in a state of suspended animation as their bodies no longer grow and their future is postponed. What this metaphor suggests about mental health and depression is vivid and illustrative, striking a particular chord with me. The theme of isolation is repeated throughout the novel, as Lia describes herself as living on ‘the borderlands’, her memories are ‘ghosts’ and she is in ‘the dark’.

Difficult to read at times, and yet I was unable to stop, Wintergirls became compulsive and I read it in only one sitting. Part of me was annoyed that Lia was such an aggravating character, but this is clearly part of the depiction of the disease. As I reader I wanted to wholly sympathise with her, and yet this was tempered by my frustration with her attitude towards those around her. It is also fair to mention that there is a mystery involved to hold the reader’s attention – which it does – but anorexia dominates the book as it does the lives of sufferers and their families. There is compulsive calorie counting, suppressed urges and hallucinations. Beautifully and lyrically written, Halse Anderson takes the reader with her to ‘the borderlands’, as the poetic nature of the prose adds to this sense of isolation from reality and everyone else.

Engrossing and powerful, Wintergirls is definitely worth a read. Its depiction of the thought processes of an anorexic is extremely convincing, and helps illuminate the ‘logic’ behind a disease generally misunderstood. But it is a story about anorexia first, and a story second. The disease sets the pace, the tone, the mystery, the action. Everything about the book is surrendered to anorexia. Which, I suppose, is kind of the point.

By Lauren

Review: Immi, by Karin Littlewood

A heartwarming story in a great frozen land…

Yes, I know, that was possibly the corniest sentence I’ve ever written. Still, that is exactly what Karin Littlewood’s delicate little picturebook Immi does to the reader.

Immi is a charmingly old-fashioned story about a young Eskimo girl whose white world is gradually lit up by tiny wooden objects she finds in the water that flows under the ice. But where do they come from? And how can Immi thank their unknown sender? The final twist is just as lovely, simple, and idealistically atemporal as the rest.

Littlewood’s subtle play on colours demonstrates the versatile character of watercolour, from frosty glazes of white and ice blue to the soft, sunny glow of the mysterious objects Immi receives. The traditional, clear line drawing style is perfectly adapted to this story which seems to reject, almost resolutely, the noise and speed of the modern world.

This is truly where the genius of Immi resides: in creating a world where everything is slow, quiet, subdued; where people are linked not artificially and ecstatically, and eager to reveal everything about themselves to each other, but where the mystery of human relationships is celebrated and the slowness, uncertainty of their development is what makes them so precious. The ‘gifts’ Immi exchanges with her friend on the other side of the world are patiently carved tributes to the value of their relationship.

This is also a book about nature, but not of the traditional kind. Nature is neither a caring nor a threatening force – it is there, it is changeable, and it constructs and constrains the human. Water in particular, in all its variety, rules the story. Water brings the gifts, water builds Immi’s frozen world, and water, of course, is the very matter of the illustrations – from its solid reds to its evasive, diluted whites.

Immi is a refreshingly quiet tale, almost Japanese in its contemplative and simple aesthetic. An ode to silence, patience and trust, it offers a welcome contrast to the flashy, energetic style of most modern picturebooks.

by Clementine

Review: ‘Fintan Fedora the World’s Worst Explorer’, by Clive Goddard

Bedbound for a significant portion of the week, I wanted something light to take my mind off things, so I escaped to the jungle with Fintan Fedora the World’s Worst Explorer.  We follow the inept fourteen-year-old Fintan and Gribley, his put-upon butler, as the former decides to go on a quest for the possibly mythical chocoplum in the deepest darkest jungles of Brazil. On his way he manages to pick up a trail of would-be kidnappers eager for a ransom, in addition to a few supposed business rivals…

The blurb promised me a ‘stupidly funny escapade’ and in this it does not fail to deliver, as the humour is almost all derived from the protagonist’s stupidity. Although some jokes miss the mark – and Fintan’s clumsiness does become rather overstated by the seventeenth accident he causes – the book did elicit a few chuckles as I made my way through several boxes of Lemsip. Like Billionaire Boy (David Walliams), much of the plot and many of the jokes in Fintan Fedora the World’s Worst Explorer are very Dahl-esque, revelling in the grotesque and absurd. The obstacles generated by Fintan’s clumsiness provide many of the laughs, such as the image of furious piranha-nibbled Gonzalez with his false ginger beard.

Perfectly paced, the plot is tight and fast moving, never allowing the reader to be bored or a moment’s reflection. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read, particularly as there was a nice mix of the predictable and the unanticipated, in humour as well as elements of the plot. I did wish, however, that at least Gribley had noticed their pursuers earlier, as the belated arrival of the moment of discovery stretched the plausibility of the plot somewhat. I could believe that oblivious Fintan would overlook the unlikely yet repeated appearances of the same man with varying colours of false beards in the middle of Brazil, but not the intelligent Gribley who turns out to speak fluent Spanish and have incredible foresight.

For a children’s book lover this romp through the Brazilian jungle was exactly what was promised on the cover and the perfect distraction to summer flu – especially as it doesn’t quite turn out the way you’d expect…

By Lauren

Review: Before I Die, by Jenny Downham

The weekend was spent in a flood of tears. Not because of any personal crisis in my own life, but because I finally read Jenny Downham’s Before I Die – one book on my huge list of things-I-must-read.

Published in 2007 (presumably to cash in on the weepy trend sweeping the adult market in the form of Jodie Picoult novels) Before I Die tells the story of sixteen-year-old Tessa’s quest to complete her list of things to do before she dies of cancer. Yes, I became extremely emotional upon reading it. Yes, I cried so much in the last few chapters it was difficult to read the words. Yes, this was embarrassing because I was on a crowded bus. But did I care about the characters? No. Was it beautiful writing that had me in tears? No. In fact it was barely anything to do with Jenny Downham’s skill in crafting the novel at all. It was the use of a highly emotive subject – cancer in children – that allowed me to be easily manipulated by the content.

Tessa is not particularly likeable at the start; she is cruel to her family and the first item on her list is to lose her virginity – to anyone who will have her (a random boy in a club, as it turns out). This, to me, is a clumsy way of demonstrating the fact that she is angry with the situation, and is typical of the nature of the ‘developments’ that Tessa undergoes through the novel. The intent may have been to show what her illness drove her to, but the effect (on me, anyway) is that the reader is irritated with such an irresposible attitude towards her health – it is explicitly stated she is too ill/weak to go clubbing. Maybe this would have been better placed later on in the novel once the reader has got to know Tessa better, rather than as a ‘shocking opening’. Changes to her character seem clunky and forced, and as the majority of the plot developments revolve around the development of Tessa’s illness, the progression does not come across as natural. The writing itself did not particularly grab me, and given that the novel is focused around Tessa and that it is difficult to warm to her as a character, it is glaringly obvious that Downham uses the character’s illness as a crutch/shortcut to fleshing her out and making her real for the reader.

Many people have recommended this novel to me, but I am still confused as to what exactly they liked about the novel, aside from its ability to incite such strong emotions in the reader due to its subject. Novels like this strike me as manipulative and lazy, as they rely on the power of the tragedy involved, rather than the quality of writing or character development. They are designed primarily to provoke, and leave me as a reader extremely unsatisfied at the end. This is because I cannot reconcile the facts that I was underwhelmed by the novel and yet completely overwhelmed with emotion.

Clearly many readers do not agree with me – the reviews on Amazon are nearly hysterical in their admiration for this book.

‘I needed her to fulfil these desperate requests, because I lived the book like she was me or at least a best friend, which made it so painful to contemplate her death’

I can see why it has sold well, as misery lit has kept appetite for books like My Sister’s Keeper strong since the mid 2000s. Before I Die is no better or worse than any of Jody Picoult’s novels, and has the potential to be a crossover success given the subject matter, nature of the trend, and age of the protagonist. The publisher in me can see all this. But the children’s literature student in me is not convinced.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece

What do Kid You Not listeners think of misery lit? Am I being unnecessarily harsh? Or is it too easy for writers to use tragic subjects as a substitute for poor writing?

By Lauren