Tag Archives: Halloween

Scary But Not Too Scary

 

Writing a scary book for young readers is a tricky business. Where is that line between fun scary and scary scary?

With my latest book, The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael, I’m hoping I found that line. It certainly was fun to write, even though it took forever. I really can’t remember when I jotted down the first few lines:

It was the thirteenth of November, a stormy night
When the Thirteen bus hove into sight.
Something about it didn’t seem right
But Michael McMichael boarded.

It might have been as long as 20 years ago. Long enough that the first drafts are somewhere on a discarded hard disc drive.  It was just a bit of doggerel that kept stumping me because I’d boxed myself into a corner with my rhyme scheme. The story had to make sense and have a satisfying arc, yet the first three lines of every stanza needed to end in perfect rhyme and the last line had to rhyme or near rhyme with “boarded.”

The first three lines rule wasn’t hard. It was that darn “boarded.” I think I managed to find just about every word that rhymes or near rhymes with “boarded”, from the sensible “hoarded” to the desperate and untenable “sore head.”

Years would go by as I worked on other things; The Frightful Ride forgotten only to be rediscovered once in awhile in my files and noodled with a bit more. Finally it occurred to me that I had a complete story and this might be a picture book. Luckily Sarah Ketchersid at Candlewick agreed—with a few changes.

Back to the drawing board for a few more years. Then the completed manuscript went to the marvelous Mark Fearing for illustrations. (Where I suddenly realized that a word I’d used years ago when banishing the villainous bus driver–deported–needed to be changed to “exported.” Deported had become too loaded of a word.) Then a year for printing and distribution. And finally, it is here! The official release date is July 10, 2018.

But all along it was geared to younger readers, so, of course, the scary thing is defeated in the end. But the real key to me between scary but not too scary is humor. And that was my instinct from the get-go. What was really rattling around in my mind was my memory of the macabre, rhyming tall tales of Robert Service, especially his poem The Cremation of Sam McGee.

My father read that to us when I was a kid and I loved its wonderful “chewy” language.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

 “The men who moil for gold” or “That night on the marge of Lake Lebarge,” who can beat that?

There’s that kind of juicy language throughout Service’s poem. At the same time it’s a complicated story, but Service doesn’t cheat with easy or obvious rhymes. He reaches for the great instead of the good. (I’ve always wondered if “moil” was made up, but it’s a real word as is “marge.” There’s even a Lake Laberge in the Yukon. Service definitely isn’t a cheater.)

I can’t claim I achieved a “Robert Service” but his macabre humor, his love of words and tall tale format were my inspiration. In these tense times with voices of concern all around us, it’s nice to know that sometimes our stories, even scary ones, can just be for the fun and the love of it.

Here are some more samples of Fearing’s wonderful illustrations. Thanks, Mark and Sarah and all of Candlewick for making this book possible.

 

 

 

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All Hallows

What a strange conglomeration Halloween has become. It’s such a weird mixture of fear, horror, candy, naughtiness, and dress-up.

Though it originated in rituals marking the passing of harvest season into winter, Halloween melded with religious beliefs and became the last chance the dead have to visit the earth, and therefore a day for the living to watch out. But Halloween now has morphed into a day to celebrate one’s alter egos. And eat bucketfuls of candy. Is that not creepy?

Even so, I can’t resist the Halloween spirit. With half a roll of black butcher paper, some colored tissue, a craft knife and lots of tape, I worked fiendishly fast yesterday afternoon to put together some Halloween decor for our front window.

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It seemed to be successful. We went through 200 pieces of candy in an hour-and-a-half. One trick-or-treater told me she liked our window.
I said “thank you, I made it myself.” She replied “you must be very artistic.”
I took that as a compliment.

While most of the ghouls and goblins and superheroes who came to our house last night wore store-bought costumes, I most enjoy the home-made get-ups. The Doctor was here.

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As were this black fairy and killer bunny. The girl made both costumes. I was seriously impressed.

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My neighborhood has some freakishly inspired souls that keep the rest of us on our toes as far as Halloween decorations are concerned. Down the street there is the “Big Scary House” that transforms its front yard into Horrorsville.

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This includes two wooden outbuildings, a smoke machine, lights, numerous gravestones, skulls, bones, an entire hedge covered in fake cobwebs, and about fifteen strategically placed statues of horror figures, some of which turn out to be alive and jump out at you when you walk by. It is terrifying, believe me.

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When my youngest daughter was little she wouldn’t even walk across the street from that house on Halloween. The screams start at around 6:00 and continue steadily till 10:00.

Then there is a friend of mine who lives a few blocks away. She constructs a facade for her front doorway every year. Past years have featured a robot, an enormous spider, a man-eating plant, a demonic clown (that was super scary), and a giant chicken with a missing leg giving out chicken drumstick candies. This year it was a huge rat coming out of a sewer pipe. A black light brings it all to life in a frightful kind of way (note the severed plastic arm in the rat trap coming out of its mouth).

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But if you really want to see who sets the creative bar devilishly high in my neck of the woods, you must visit the Skeleton Theatre – a fifteen minute repeating show that involves animatronics, video footage, professional lighting, and of course, skeletons.

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This guy has been seriously bitten by the creativity bug (or zombie). In his day job, he works as a sound designer and composer for live theater, but after hours, he dreams up shows that star skeletons. This year it is the voyage of the Ulna 13. Here’s a preview if you’re curious.

What is it about the gut-wrenching mixture of too much candy and (almost) dead people? If it wasn’t so much fun it would make you sick. I’m not sure I get it, but I still find it amusing. Especially the chocolate.

Almond Joys and Heath bars aside, what I like best about Halloween is the creativity it brings out on parade. That, and having people brave the urban mythology to take candy from strangers. What other excuse do we have to drop in on our neighbors these days and comment on their decor?