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Star-Ledger Halloween Books Roundup

November 2, 2009

These reviews originally appeared in the Star-Ledger on October 25, 2009. Wordcount: 860

Sense and Sensibility
and Sea Monsters

Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters
Quirk Books, 344 pp., $12.95 paperback

Following on the success of the monstrous mash-up of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (Quirk Books, April), another Austen classic gets the B-movie treatment. This version of the struggling fortunes of Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters takes on a maritime flavor that is both suspenseful and outrageously comic. Some of the nautical touches are moderately plausible.

Sensible Elinor includes carving driftwood among her hobbies. The seafaring aspect enhances some of the original’s plotlines, like a rough sea journey to the Dashwoods’ more modest lodgings, marking the transition more definitely. Potential suitors can prove their worth in fights with sea beasts. The fit of some of the maritime touches makes the more fanciful additions jarringly ludicrous.

The sea monster battles are gripping and fun to read, while Willoughby sporting tentacles of his own is cartoonish in the wrong way. Although the fusion of Austen and campy monsters is still fun, this particular combination gets uneasy.

The Casebook
of Victor Frankenstein

Peter Ackroyd
Nan A. Talese, 368 pp., $26.95

Imagining Victor Frankenstein’s university days, Peter Ackroyd stays faithful to both Mary Shelley’s original soul-searching character and to the language of the classic novel.

The young Victor, awestruck by the urban bustle of London and the fledgling science surrounding voltaic power, or electricity, befriends fellow student Percy Bysshe Shelley. Here, Frankenstein begins his chilling investigations into the scientific nature of death, even gruesome possibilities for reanimation.

Not only Ackroyd’s writing style, but also his attention to detail complements Mary Shelley’s classic novel and fuels an utterly believable vision. As Ackroyd’s narrator, young Victor has an urgent anxiety, pushing and questioning what he learns, while also pausing to savor rare moments of natural beauty, like the mountain ranges of his boyhood home or the open space of the English countryside.

Ackroyd’s vision of the troubled, questioning student foreshadows the classic novel with a subtle menace. This captivating tale would work in its own right, or read as a companion piece to amplify the themes and questions raised in Shelley’s literary classic.

A Monster’s Notes
Laurie Sheck
Deckle Edge, 544 pp., $30

Laurie Sheck’s hauntingly surreal poem-novel imagines a rich interior life for Frankenstein’s monster. It reveals the voice of Frankenstein’s creature, as if he had been physically created and met Mary Shelley as a young girl, then lived on to ponder the workings of 20th-century science and the human soul. Veering back and forth across time and place like a series of poems, the lonely imagery is gorgeous, although sometimes confusingly disjointed.

It’s too frustrating to aim for a linear path through images that catapult from astronauts to the Arctic to Wollstonecraft and Shelley family history, complete with imagined letters between the siblings. Instead, read this as an evocative collage of twisting digressions. Sheck’s voice for Frankenstein’s creature resonates with ageless loneliness and sometimes philosophical dreaminess.

Before this book, it would have been impossible to picture Frankenstein’s monster writing about Chinese philosophy or the traffic of a bustling city. These innovative riffs on Frankenstein’s monster are so dense with images, the book demands re-reading.
A History of Magic Books

Owen Davies
Oxford University Press, 384 pp., $29.95

Grimoires are texts said to contain powerful magical lore. Owen Davies’ fascinating book traces their evolution from ancient Persian tribes, to lost books of Judaism and Christianity, through to World War II Germany to modern magical lore in fiction, like Harry Potter. Davies’ study is more than a survey of written magical traditions.

It traces historical and cultural perceptions about magic, as well as scholarship and the transmission of knowledge in a more general sense. Although the prose itself gets dryly academic in spots, the extent of Davies’ study is impressive, countering assumptions a curious reader might have taken for granted.

From the suppression or destruction of magical texts, to cycles of reverence or persecution of those who held that knowledge, Davies examines who practices what kind of magic and how they are regarded by the larger society. Grimoires, in Davies’ context, work toward a bigger picture of what knowledge is prized or feared, and how it is transmitted.

Johannes Cabal,
The Necromancer

Jonathan Howard
Doubleday, 304 pp., $25

Necromancer Johannes Cabal traded his soul to Satan years ago. Now, he wants it back. The bargain he makes with the devil sends him on a macabre adventure that’s as farcical as it is Faustian. Hoping his vampire brother won’t hold a grudge after years of imprisonment, Cabal journeys across the English countryside, hawking his twisted and spooky carnival amusements. And collecting the souls of anyone who signs the right paperwork.

Jonathan Howard’s dry, absolutely British narrative voice will appeal to fans of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Howard deftly combines the macabre with the patently absurd in his small-town settings.

All of his descriptive passages are wonderfully chilling, from the carnival staffed entirely by ghouls and zombies, to Satan’s hilariously bureaucratic realm of lost souls. Howard’s tone is so wry that it nearly deflects some of the tense and ghoulish scenes of attempting to collect souls, or the cautiously emerging respect between the Cabal brothers.

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