June 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Dark Descents | Chilling Tales for Teens

As the temperatures dip lower and pumpkins appear on front stoops, teens may want to turn to books that go bump in the night. The following mix of titles includes a fractured fairy tale, a psychological thriller, and a noteworthy anthology of horror and suspense from a star-studded list of young adult authors.

dark shimmerFrom gifted storyteller Donna Jo Napoli comes Dark Shimmer (Wendy Lamb Bks, 2015; Gr 10 Up), a gripping tale set in Venice, Italy. Dolce is a misfit, a lonely giantess with only the companionship of her devoted mother. The girl is apprenticed to a local glass maker, and her talent for crafting mirrors is soon discovered and offers her some solace.

Eventually, though, bereft of her mother, Dolce leaves her home and finds a world filled with people of her stature. As she acclimates to her new society, she crosses paths with a nobleman and his daughter and finds happiness in the family they forge together. Her joy is short-lived, however, as the mirror work she has dedicated herself to exposes her to quicksilver poisoning and she begins a descent into madness. In her confused and anguished state, Dolce  believes that the only solution to her despair is to murder her stepdaughter, Biancaneve. While not the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that most young adults read as children, Napoli’s is a fresh and fascinating interpretation of the tale.

The most chilling aspects of Dark Shimmer are the glimpses into madness that readers witness in the main character. Dolce begins as completely sympathetic character, one who longs to find her place in the world. Even as the story progresses and her perspective becomes more and more distorted she is still, at times, a character readers care about, as her murderous intentions appear to be the result of the chemical poisoning and the shame and isolation she faced as a young girl. A story told from the point of view of its apparent villain isn’t a novel notion, but the organic reason for Dolce’s insanity presents an intriguing explanation of the fairy tale character’s actions, so often portrayed as extreme narcissism.

Napoli’s Venetian courts and islands provide a sumptuous backdrop for the story. The palatial setting rife with gilded gowns and haughty courtiers contrasts sharply with the safety and security that Dolce’s stepdaughter seeks in the woods—and finally finds—in the home of the seven dwarfs. The story of Snow White has been adapted many times; Napoli offers a dark, beautifully crafted, and thought-provoking update.

the dogsAllan Stratton’s The Dogs (Sourcebooks, 2015; Gr 7-10) is a fast-paced psychological thriller with a sympathetic main character. On the run from their dangerous, mentally ill estranged father and husband, Cameron and his mother settle into a dilapidated farmstead in an unspecified rural area. A locked attic, a creepy basement, and a taciturn landlord lead the teen to wonder about the farm’s previous residents and history.

As he struggles to adjust to a new normal, including his mother’s burgeoning romantic interest in a local real estate agent, Cameron is faced with more than the typical new-kid-on-the-block blues. Confronted with a bully whose grandmother may hold the key to the secrets of the house, the boy tries valiantly to uncover the source of the house’s secrets on his own, despite being dogged by precarious situations, supernatural and other. When Cameron begins to see and hear apparitions, he wonders if there truly is a dark power lurking about—or if he’s losing his mind.

The boy’s isolation and fears coupled with his mother’s paranoia contribute to the story’s pervasive atmosphere of claustrophobic dread. Events and signs supporting both suppositions—supernatural happenings and questions about Cameron’s sanity—continue to pile up. Rather than clarifying or illuminating the mystery, the clues Cameron uncovers about the property’s former owners only obscure what is happening in the present day, and the teen’s anxiety builds. As details about his father emerge, Cameron also wonders if he is becoming more like his unstable parent.

Yet all along the teen holds on to the belief—sometimes tenuous—that the property is haunted. Readers will find the supernatural insinuations and elements terrifying; wrapped up in a mystery that the boy must solve, they will also begin to hope that they are real—as they are preferable to the possibility that Cameron is losing his mind. A shocking ending and an unexpected visit from the titular beasts make this novel a compelling choice, and one that reluctant readers will also find appealing.

slasherA broken starlet fresh out of rehab comes home with more than a little baggage. A group of girls watches a suspicious neighbor with dark intentions. Having met with an angel of darkness, a girl plays a fraught game of hide-and-seek—with death. This bone-chilling selection of 14 contributions by a host of popular young adult authors including Leigh Bardugo, Nova Ren Suma, and editor April Genevieve Tucholke, Slasher Girls & Monster Boys (Dial, 2015; Gr 9 Up) adds up to one masterful anthology.

Each story draws inspiration from a book, movie, or song that serves as a starting point, including Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and Nirvana’s “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle.” One of the darkest tales in the collection—Carrie Ryan’s “In the Forest, Dark and Deep” was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. In Ryan’s story, the March Hare is transformed from a bespectacled cartoon into a sinister, lurking presence. Cassidy is young when she first sees the creature during one of her lonely tea parties in the wood. As she grows older, the site of the party is marred with violence, all seemingly born from the girl’s interactions with the big-eared interloper. In The Flicker, the Fingers, the Beat, the Sigh, April Genevieve Tucholke marries details from the film versions of Stephen King’s Carrie and Lois Duncan’s I Know What You Did Last Summer to create an even darker tale of teenage torment and revenge.

While some of the stories are laced with dark humor, the anthology as a whole offers frightful reads. Several authors pay homage to the original stories and movies by imagining ever more macabre details and outcomes. Enhanced undercurrents of teen sexuality and adolescent struggles add new dimensions to Hitchcockian themes and slasher movie tropes. Marie Lu’s The Girl Without a Face will have readers inspecting their closets before bed, and Jay Kristoff’s Sleepless will leave them worried about being catfished by a serial killer. Several stories also illuminate tales from other cultures, broadening the options for teens looking for new sources of scares. All of the stories will haunt readers long after the last page is turned.

Thrilling, terrifying, or a combination of both—nothing engages readers at this time of the year like a good scare. Booktalk and display these spine-tingling reads.

Erinn Black Salge is the librarian at Saint Peter’s Prep, a Jesuit high school for boys. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and their boxer named Cooper. Her most recent articles for Curriculum Connections include “Secrets and Lies | New YA Fiction” and Feisty Females in Secret Societies.

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