Thursday, November 17, 2016

Post-Halloween Book Review: Bruce Coville's Book of Monsters

So the review-a-week during October thing didn't really work out so well. Life got in the way a lot, and last month was just a huge Sucktober. But I still enjoy reading and reviewing these kid's horror anthologies, so I'm going to post a few more.



 Bruce Coville was a huge influence on me growing up.  Even today I can still vividly remember his strange worlds and unusual characters. And I’m pleased to find that rereading his stories as an adult does not diminish my love for them, as sometimes happens when I read other writers without the nostalgia glasses on.

I first got into Coville through My Teacher is An Alien, and its three sequels. The series started off as a simple plot about a girl finding out that, as you might possibly have guessed, her jerkass teacher is actually an extraterrestrial leading an invasion of Earth. The sequels revealed a deeper complexity as the scope of the plot expanded into a space opera about the potential danger of humanity to the wider universe, and what the other alien races were going do about it. A fairly common plotline in adult sci-fi, but this was my first introduction to it.

Around the same time as My Teacher is an Alien, Coville also came out with a series of anthologies themed around various fantasy/horror tropes. The collection started with the Book of Monsters, which featured corporeal, Earth-bound boogeymen. The next two in the series were the Book of Aliens and Book of Ghosts. You can probably guess what their subjects were. The fourth volume was a Book of Magic which featured fantasy-oriented stories.  Book of Nightmares, the fifth in the series, showcased more surreal and, well, nightmarish horrors that didn’t really fit into any of the other books. A sixth collection, the Book of Spine Tinglers, is a bit harder to pin down thematically. The stories are similar to the Creepypasta feel of the Book of Nightmares, but Coville’s Introduction indicates the book is specifically about fear- about that sense of creeping fright that overcomes you as you read a story. He even admits that this sensation is entirely objective; a story can fill one person with crawling dread and have absolutely no effect on another person.

This review focuses on the first work in the series Bruce Coville’s Book of Monsters. I may eventually review the other books too, perhaps as a Halloween theme next year.

Starting off, I have to say I’m impressed that the cover illustrator, Steve Fastener, was able to replicate the cover design, text and all, on the book the kid with the flashlight is reading. I’m guessing Fastener must have left the cover of the little book in the illustration blank and painted it in after he saw a proof of the finished design with the titles laid out. And yes, that tiny cover is painted in, not just a pasted-in photograph.

I also love John Pierard’s interior illustrations done entirely in pencil. It’s not a style you see very often, and gives each drawing a very lively feel.

On to the stories themselves.

My Little Brother is a Monster by Bruce Coville
As I said before, I love Coville’s world-building. Just the very name of the monster world: the Land of Always October. Immediately I get visions of a misty, swampy world lit by hovering will ’o wisps and smelling of autumn leaves.

The story itself is a classic tale of a kid from the mundane world entering the Otherworld that parallels our own, a world created from our dreams and nightmares, populated by monsters who are the inverse of beings in our world. The set-up feels like it could be the start of an entire YA novel, though as far as I know this was Coville’s only foray into the Land of Always October.

Momster in the Closet by Jane Yolen
A short, simple story about a kid afraid of the bogeyman in his closet. Has one of those out-of-nowhere Goosebumps-style twists (and if you’re reading this review, you hopefully remember the Goosebumps series), but the brevity of this story makes it work.

Merlin’s Knight School by Michael Markiewicz
The first in a series of short stories about young King Arthur and his adopted older brother Cai- probably known best by most modern readers from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, where he’s a jerk and a bully. This Cai’s a little nicer, at least.

I like that the monster in this tale was specifically summoned by Merlin (Merlyn in this tale) to serve a beneficial purpose.

Uncle Joshua and the Grooglemen by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald
A strange story with more going on than a young reader may realize. The story’s narrator isn’t so much unreliable as he is unfamiliar with what he is actually seeing.

This is the only story in the anthology that isn’t illustrated, since an actual depiction of the Grooglemen would immediately give away what they are, as well as the truth about what’s really going on in the story.

Friendly Persuasion by Bruce Coville
A short, goofy story about a sprite trying to explain to the horrible Ba-Grumpus all the reasons that it shouldn’t eat her.

Kokolimalayas, the Bone Man by Laura Simms
A retelling of a traditional story of the Madoc people of Oregon and Northern California. It's neat seeing a "classic monster" story from a non-European culture.

The Thing That Goes Burp in the Night by Sharon Webb
This is one of those stories where you could easily say that everything is taking place inside the main character’s head. But I like to think the kid really DID summon a chocolate-eating basement monster by reading random medical words out of the Merck Manual, Thirteenth Edition.

Personality Problem by Joe R. Landsdale
Poor Frankenstein’s monster can’t ever catch a break. Not even from his therapist.

Duffy’s Jacket by Bruce Coville
A story with a kind “campfire tale” vibe. Lots of slow build-up to a surprise ending, though this one is more goofy than “it’s right behind you!” jump-scare. 

The Bogeyman by Jack Prelutsky
I’ll admit I’m not really big on poetry. But I like the “folksong” feel of this one.

Bloody Mary by Patrick Bone
No, no no! Repeating “Bloody Mary” into the mirror makes her ghost jump out at you. It does not turn you into a hairy, clawed monster! Geez!

The Beast With A Thousand Teeth by Terry Jones
Written by THE Terry Jones of Monty Python fame (and writer for one of my favorite books, the Golbin Companion). According to the biography at the end, this story came from a collection of fairy tales Jones wrote for his young daughter and it definitely shows through the young baker protagonist who figures out a clever way to defeat the titular beast with way too many pointy- and cavity-prone- teeth.

Timor and the Furnace Troll by John Barnes
My favorite story in the bunch. I might even like it more than Coville’s own tales. Poor Timor is terrible at being an elf and constantly gets bullied because of it. When he gets a class assignment to do a report on trolls, he goes to meet the one who lives in the (continent-sized) school’s furnace room and finally finds someone who understands him. Someone who is admittedly an elf-eating 12-foot tall troll.

I like the setting of this story. The way elfland seems like a distorted mirror of contemporary (at least early 90s) society. A sort of “suburban fantasy” taking place among the fresh-mown lawns and flat-roofed, sprawling elementary schools of a middle-class fantasy world. It reminds me of a less dark version of Michael Swanwick’s “The Iron Dragon’s Daughter”.

Anthologies are usually very uneven in quality. Some stories shine. Some fall flat. Some can even be painful to read. Coville’s Book of Monsters maintains pretty high quality overall, though. Even the weakest story- which for me was the very “meh” Bloody Mary- isn’t terrible. It’s quite clear Coville put a lot of careful thought into selecting the tales for his book.

Although Bruce Coville's Book of Monsters is long out of print, you can find lots of decent copies on Amazon.