Culture & Conversation

Goes Best with Thunder and Lightning

It was a dark and stormy night. Or, as P.J. Bracegirdle writes, “The night was wretched.

Rain clattered and wind howled. Gates banged and screeched as garbage cans blew

down driveways and crashed into garage doors. Swollen black rivers rushed along

gutters, roaring down through sewer grates.”

Young readers will be drawn by the drama of these first few paragraphs of Unearthly

Asylum, and adults will be enchanted by a Montreal-based author named Bracegirdle

– he rather charmingly insists on his web page that this is a real moniker, all the while

modeling marvellously spectral and new(ish) facial hair. Bracegirdle’s humour shines

through his writing, as well as in his taste in promotional photographs.

Unearthly Asylum is the follow-up book to Fiendish Deeds, a creepy 2008 tale for

middle-grade readers, aged 8 to 12 or so. This new story is, yet again, set in the

neighbourhood of Spooking (thus the series’ name, “The Joy of Spooking”), located in

the city of Darlington Heights (a tip of the hat to Nancy Drew’s home of River Heights,

one presumes). And Fizz the pet frog is back, too.

But you needn’t read the first book to enjoy the second. Unearthly Asylum is funny

and scary, and even at times tips over into true horror. Not everyone survives when the

recurring baddie, the political attache and ex-punk rocker Octavio Phipps, attempts to

encourage the redevelopment of an insane asylum into a snazzy new upscale spa and

facelift complex. Mad residents will just have to go elsewhere. That’s right, this is a

juvenile horror novel that touches on urban redevelopment. Quite Canadian.

While American fiction might depict angst with a youngster who cuts herself, our blonde

heroine Joy Wells is merely socially inept, has parents who don’t understand her, zero

friends, and truly seems to think that hanging out with her nine-year-old little brother

Byron is fun, rather than a fate worse than death.

Of course, it’s not entirely wholesome. Joy loves the horror-laced tales of Ethan Alvin

Peugot, whose stories of evil, death and ghastly greeblies sometimes read a bit too close

to Joy’s home.

She will impatiently explain the difference between a cemetery and a graveyard — both of which she prefers to soccer or ballet.

Joy has an imagination to match Peugot’s, which might explain why she gets lousy

marks in school but is a smarty-pants kid who can out-think academics four times her

age, sleuthing her way through the creepy-crawlies that fill her world. The scary sections

move along nicely, and it’s a fun book for younger city kids; those in more rural and

less affluent settings will appreciate the collapsing house Joy lives in (although both her

parents are high-earning professionals – one a university professor, the other a lawyer

or notary of some sort). Sadly, mom is a bit of a tedious creature when it comes to her daughter (Sigmund Freud would nod knowingly), but fictional kids need to have a least

one problematic parent. And mom’s well-intentioned for all that. (We can only hope

that Joy doesn’t follow in mother’s footsteps when she hits puberty. Indeed, Joy eventually embraces her “inner madwoman” in true feminist fashion.)

Bracegirdle’s Unearthly Asylum is an entertaining read, perfect for a rainy Saturday afternoon. It goes best with thunder and lightning.

Eleanor Brown is a Sherbrooke-based writer. She has been known to stomp her feet and pout when arguing that it’s not her turn to do the dishes.

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