CM . . . . Volume XXI Number 33 . . . . May 1, 2015
Middle-grader Morton moves to the town of Dimvale with his older siblings, James and Melissa, after the death of their mother. Finding a stone gargoyle half-buried in the backyard that offers three wishes, the three each make wishes that result in Morton's monster action figures from his favorite comic, Scare Scape, coming to life, James slowly transforming into one of them, and the monsters kidnapping all the town's cats. Learning that Scare Scape cartoonist John King had lived and died in their new house, the siblings, plus their new-found friends Wendy and Robbie, race against time to understand the connection between the gargoyle, King, James' transformation, and mysterious school counselor Mr. Brown. A final scene where Brown attempts to reverse their wishes and kill them all in order to re-set the gargoyle results in the cats defending them and killing Brown, allowing them to reverse the wishes and set everything right again.
A horror and mystery story wrapped together, Scare Scape takes the fascination of one boy for a monster comic and spins it into a fantastical adventure involving dark magic, greed, psychology, and even bullying elements. Morton's fandom is entirely believable, as is his loss of enthusiasm as the object of his fascination turns into a threat and he can't decide whether King was a genius or a madman. The tumultuous relationship among the siblings is exploited well, right down to the long-standing mystery of James' transformation, eventually revealed as a semi-conscious wish to become one of the monsters in order to scare his nagging older sister. Melissa, whose wish is for an infinite closet full of fashions, is realistically torn between loving her supply of clothes and needing to defeat the monsters that threaten them. As he transforms, James is particularly tortured and pitiful, right down to his uncontrollable urge to eat rotten meat.
Although the text is occasionally tedious, there is enough action and strange twists to keep most readers going, if a little confused by the mystery and the subplots. It is those subplots that occasionally bog the story down. The bullying storyline involving Robbie seems particularly out of place and not even terribly sympathetic, and its only real connection to the main story is when James uses his new-found strength to rescue Morton and Robbie from the bullies. As a character, plainly-dressed Wendy seems to have little purpose, and her friendship with Melissa, who usually prefers fashionable friends, is noted but never explained. Occasional oblique references to their mother's untimely death also seem superfluous.
One detail also sticks out as unexplained. Once James' transformation is discovered, Morton learns that the monster he is becoming gets its energy from brimstone. Opining that "coal counteracts the brimstone", the group encourages James to eat coal to slow the transformation; since coal is unavailable, they instead buy charcoal barbecue briquettes which have the desired effect and buy them some time. Not only is the reference to coal and brimstone not explained, the book does not explain how charcoal can substitute for coal.
Although dark magic and danger, even death, pervade the story, there a light side to this book that exploits the somewhat campy fictional comic from which it takes its inspiration. The centre of the book is made up of a "monster deck"—illustrations and descriptions of each of the grotesque and exaggerated monsters that play important roles in the story. As the only illustrated portion of the book, the "deck" breaks up an otherwise fairly long text and makes it more appealing to reluctant readers. In the end, the complex and fascinating story of John King, and the increasing action and peril of the protagonists culminating in the final scene, will not fail to draw readers in.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario.
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