Originally appearing at: Eclectica Magazine
I became aware a few months ago that books I was requesting for a future piece on fantasy or adventure titles seem to have another thing in common: mysterious old houses. The haunted house is a stalwart in horror fiction, everybody knows that, but these houses were not necessarily ghost-haunted and these books were not at all horror. They were just big and full of secrets and it was going to take many young protagonists to unlock all the mysteries they presented. So five books left the stacks I had them in and formed a new category for review. Here are the mysterious house books, perfect reading for long lazy summer days but not at all recommended for dark and stormy nights. That horror thing isn't so far removed from the stories after all, not when you're standing on one side of a door and you have no idea what's waiting for you on the other.
Bright summer day reading is really best for this sort of thing, when you think about it.
Flora Segunda is a girl living in a world that is sort of like ours, but not really. Her world is at war and her mother is a very important general. There are some creepy bird things and all sorts of bad guys--actually it's almost a bit too complicated figuring out just who is doing what when you start reading Ysabeau Wilce's new fantasy Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. Yeah, you know the author was getting some kind of message across with a title like that.
The story is mostly about a girl and her house and her butler. In Flora's world the butlers are human-like manifestations of the house's spirits--as long as vthe house exists, then so do they, and they have an enormous amount of power when it comes to their living space. In the case of Crackpot Hall, Flora's life is more than a bit hard because her mother has banished their butler for unknown reasons. With Mom off running the military and Dad upstairs in his inner sanctum fighting personal demons left over from his time as a POW, Flora finds herself primarily responsible for keeping the house running. That means dealing with the many loveable but messy dogs, her occasionally raving and destructively drunken father (This is so not her job!) and somehow trying to fit in a ton of necessary washing, wiping and dusting. (You remember the part about 11,000 rooms, right?) What sets the narrative running out of the ordinary day-to-day struggle is Flora's decision to take the elevator up to her room one day to fetch a forgotten library book before being late for school. The elevator rebels, as her mother has warned her it might, and Flora winds up in the Bibliotheca, which is a pretty amazing library (reminiscent of the cartoon version in Beauty and the Beast), and home to Valefor, the banished butler.
I just knew from that moment that this new friendship was going to go way different from how Flora thought it would.
A lot of stuff happens really fast after Flora discovers Val. First, she resolves to set him free and he starts helping as much as he can around the house. Then Flora and her best friend decide to save a pirate who has been sentenced to death, and things don't go well there, and they have to get saved and Val isn't so helpful and Flora ends up transparent and she must seek help from an enemy and travels through time (Oops--I think that happens first.) and meets a younger, sober version of her father and must get ready while all this is happening for a very significant birthday while keeping all the extracurricular activities from her mom.
Because her mother will just kill her if she finds out about any of this.
All the while that this stuff is going on, Flora runs from one end of the house to another, finds rooms moving, stairways shifting and the elevator rarely reliable. There is so much going on in that house and this book that readers might feel like their heads are going to spin clear off a few times. What you have to do though is just give yourself up to it, just accept that maybe you won't keep track of every name (trust me) or who did what when in which battle and why Flora is doing what Flora is doing and what the hell Val is doing and why ï¿½. But if you hold on tight and just keep reading, then you will find yourself in a very engaging fantastical mystery. And you will love the house--LOVE IT--I promise.
Just remember to breathe and eat and take a break every now and again while reading, okay? Otherwise you just might lose yourself in this story and that would not be good. As Flora makes abundantly clear, you really do not want to get lost in Crackpot Hall!
Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Treasures of Weatherby is really the book that started me on this particular article. As she mentioned in her introduction, "Of my forty-some books I can think of quite a few in which a big, old house plays an important role." Treasures is her last "big, old house" book and as such it more than lives up to Snyder's long-established standards for a great story written in a quirky, cool setting. What drew me into this book was not only the house but its funky occupants, all of whom combine to give us good guys, bad guys and a dandy little mystery. More for middle grade readers than older teens, The Treasures of Weatherby is an excellent book for lazy summer afternoons that any eleven-year-old will love.
It starts with Harleigh Weatherby IV whose mother is dead and father is always traveling. He is being raised in the family mansion, which is dominated by his very difficult great aunt Adelaide who makes life hard for everyone else, mostly because she can. Anyone who belongs to the Weatherby family line is legally able to live in the house. Harleigh ignores most of them and spends his days following Adelaide's schedule and being homeschooled by his "uncle" Edgar. He thinks he has life all figured out (Well, not totally but he's working on it.) and then he meets Allegra as she comes flying out of a tree in the estate's overgrown yard. Allegra wants to know everything about Weatherby, and Harleigh reluctantly agrees to talk to her about it. Thus begins exploration of long overlooked hallways, the uncovering of a garden maze and a battle extraordinaire with a very bad man over a very big treasure.
This is not a boring book, that's for sure.
The only thing that surprised me about the ending (and no spoilers here--promise) is who Allegra turned out to be. I had this book pegged (or so I thought) but Snyder threw a bit of a curve in the end. It's not overly dramatic but it was a surprise. I'd love to know why she chose to go the way she did, but mostly I'd just like to thank her for crafting such a wonderful cast of characters, all of whom, in the end, had a lot to contribute to this delightful little story. (And yes--the house is major fun!)
The Mysterious Benedict Society is probably the only book I have to stretch a bit to fit into this theme. It does begin with a very mysterious house--a house full of multiple mazes designed to bewilder unwary visitors. But from there the four heroes are sent to a creepy school on a mission to save the world--that's when the book becomes an adventure story. After that the kids discover that there is a brain control plot to take over the world--that's when the book becomes a science fiction story. And then they end up back at the mysterious house--this would be the happy ending - mostly.
I am purposely not going to give too much away plot-wise for this title, because even sharing a little bit might be too much. Suffice to say that some orphans answer an ad in the newspaper looking for "gifted children". They take some bizarre tests and our four favorites keep advancing on to the next level until they find themselves almost in a junior James Bond situation. It's one of those "the fate of the world rests in your hands and what you do here will never be truly known by anyone other than yourselves and you might die but really we hope you don't" kind of stories, but author Trenton Lee Stewart has done an excellent job of keeping it solidly in the land of not outrageous and maybe/possibly/sort of realistic. It's not silly--not Spy Kids silly--and instead gives readers a lot of chances to think about what they would do in a similar set of circumstances, if everyone depended on them to get the really bad guy.
Honestly, you cannot classify Benedict Society as anything other than a good old fashioned story. It's big (almost 500 pages), it has a major villain, lots of scary edge-of-your-seat moments, some deep thoughts about freedom and government/corporate control of the masses and somehow more than a few laughs. It also has Reynie, "Sticky," Kate and Constance, a very original group of kids who are smart, resourceful and determined. They find ways around, over and through the rules like nobody's business and it is great fun to see them crack codes, sneak into buildings and outfox their opponents. The kids really make this story sing and I would love to see them work together again in another future adventure.
Philip Reeves has done a great Sci Fi twist on the weird old house story with his interplanetary adventure, Larklight. Myrtle and Art Mumby actually live in Larklight with their obscurely famous scientist father. They are joined by some rather antique mechanical wonders and the occasional visiting supply ship as they linger on the back side of the Moon. Life is good, although a bit dull, especially for Myrtle who would much prefer a bit of society like any British young lady of the Victorian era. David Wyatt's illustrations bring the house to life with all its fascinating turrets, towers and telescopes and it's easy for readers to see just why Art would find the whole place an endlessly fun playground (while Myrtle might be a bit annoyed by the problem of keeping it clean). Before you have much of a chance to enjoy it, however, really creepy spider creatures show up at the door and everything goes to hell in a handbasket.
With this title, Reeve has created an amazing combination of the best parts of the British Empire and everything NASA wished it could accomplish. On top of the Martian landing and Oliver Twist flashback, he also gives his readers pirates--space pirates! How awesome is that?! There's a bit of Isaac Newton, the Crystal Palace and some flying pig creatures. It's almost like he made a list of everything a middle grade boy or girl could want in a space/pirate/historical adventure and put it together to see what happens. The spiders are a bit unexpected, but evil spiders are good--they're always good. So first we read about the house, then we meet the spiders and then Myrtle and Art are winging their way through space in a handy dandy lifeboat (every Victorian space house should have one).
And then there's a whole bunch of getting captured/avoiding capture/rescuing captives until we learn just what sort of secrets Larklight has been hiding all along.
Larklight succeeds on multiple levels and is a great book to pass along to the reluctant reader. Wyatt's illustrations bring an added element to the story and help keep the plot rolling along at a merry pace. This is just flat out fun reading more than anything else though and while I was a wee bit annoyed at Myrtle more than once (she does tend to whine), and I wish Reeve had given her a spine, it doesn't get in the way of enjoying the story. After all, Larklight is about the best when it comes to mysterious old houses--it is in space after all, and that combination of elements is pure genius as far as I'm concerned.
Finally, I have to tell you, Daemon Hall pretty much scared the crap out of me. This is definitely a "mysterious house = haunted house" kind of book and I honestly have never seen the attraction for this sort of thing. There were houses that were supposedly haunted in my hometown and I never--not for a freaking minute--had any interest in checking them out. So when I started Daemon House and found out that it involved five kids who won a horror story writing contest and then had to spend the night in a haunted house to win the grand prize--well that's when I started shaking my head. It might make for good reading but no way, no how as far as I'm concerned.
This is one contest I would not have entered.
But for the brave at heart (and the determined horror fans out there), Andrew Nance's story promises to get your blood racing in a most definite way. Our five intrepid souls (well--four intrepid and one there because her twisted mother made her go) write their scary stories and show up at Daemon Hall at the appointed hour for a fun-filled night with their favorite teen horror writer, Ian Tremblin. The Hall is supposedly haunted by a family (murdered by the patriarch of course) and then has a habit of apparently freaking out people who dare to attempt to spend the night there. The kids figure this is all just talk (except the one smart terrified one) and so they happily go along with the game.
And then a lot of bad things start to happen.
Author Andrew Nance has done something new with Daemon Hall; he gives us the big nasty secret-filled house and the little group hoping to survive its nastiness for one night but he also adds to the story with multiple short short stories as well. Each of the kids (and Tremblin) tries to out scare the others by telling their prize-winning stories. This gives the reader way more bang for their buck then just the single novel; you get all the stories along the way as well. After each one is told the tension in the house ratchets up another notch but the kids are pretty determined (again--except that one smart one who keeps saying she wants to leave; she was my favorite). I was thinking they were going to make it, maybe unmask the tricks behind the haunting or just defeat the ghosts and then, well--then all of a sudden the doors blew off of this one.
Okay, here's a mini spoiler: one of the good guys dies.
I'm really conflicted on that plot point; I just hate it when authors kill off a character for dubious reasons and I'm not sold on the fact that this death was all that necessary. I don't understand why this particular character was chosen, why one had to die and the others got to live. It made no sense to me as I read the book and still, thinking about it, doesn't make any sense now. I keep coming back to it's just a classic horror movie moment--of course one of the good guys had to die because there always has to be a sacrifice that really makes it clear to the readers/watchers just how nasty the big bad is. But I was already there before the dying and honestly--I'm just tired of somebody always having to be the one that doesn't see the sun come up.
But then again, that's kind of what happens when you go spend the night in a big mysterious house (which of course has no electricity--why do they never have electricity?).
So, Daemon Hall is by far the scariest of the books but if you like that sort of deal then you will love--LOVE--this one. It's edge of the seat all the way and the ending; well I was quite happy to see what was going down for this particular house of spirits. (Now if someone could just do the same to that Amityville place...)
Treasures of Weatherby by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
Little Brown 2007
Larklight by Philip Reeve
Daemon Hall by Andrew Nance
Henry Holt 2007