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.