Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Dead of Winter (book) by Chris Priestley

Release date: January 31, 2012

This is one of the ARCs I picked up at ALA Midwinter. The back of the book says it's a YA novel, while Amazon says it's for ages 12 and up. I've tagged it with "young adult."

FYI, since I know some people really care about this sort of thing, this book is written in the first person from Michael's perspective.

Synopsis:

Michael, now an orphan, has only just finished attending his mother's funeral when he's told that his guardian will be Sir Stephen, the man for whom Michael's father gave his life. Michael's mother hated Sir Stephen, and Michael's not too fond of him himself, but he promises to at least stay with Sir Stephen through Christmas.

Hawton Mere, Sir Stephen's home, is not an inviting place. Michael thinks he can feel someone or something watching him, he sees things no one else sees, and he hears strange sounds no one else hears. The servants, at least, seem nice enough, and Charlotte, Sir Stephen's sister, makes an effort to welcome him. Sir Stephen, on the other hand, is ill, and Michael rarely sees him. When he does see him, the man seems frightening and mentally unbalanced. The longer Michael stays at Hawton Mere, the more he wants to leave, and he wonders: what secrets does Hawton Mere hide?

Review:

When I was younger, I used to read lots of horror novels. The first time I raided my parents' bookshelves, I took Stephen King's Firestarter (which I enjoyed) and a German copy of Pet Sematary (that didn't work out so well – my German vocab just wasn't up to the task). I'm much more of a wimp now and rarely read horror, but I couldn't resist the bit on the back of this book that said fans of Neil Gaiman would enjoy it.

This is one of those books that I enjoyed more as I was reading it and in the grip of its creepy atmosphere than when I wasn't reading it. When I wasn't reading it and had more of a chance to think about it, I found that certain aspects of it irked me more.

My biggest problem with the book was probably Michael, who I didn't entirely like. Part of the reason for that, I think, was that there was hardly any time to see Michael at his best. The story began right after Michael's mother's funeral, which would have been bad enough, but then he was essentially forced to live with a man he resented. I tried to cut Michael some slack, at first, but his sullenness got a bit old after a while. He wasn't as bad towards the servants as he was towards Sir Stephen, but I don't think he was likable enough to deserve the affection some of the servants demonstrated later on in the book.

Initially, I didn't mind Michael's reaction to Sir Stephen so much. I could understand why Michael might blame Sir Stephen for his father's early death, and Sir Stephen did act a bit unhinged at times. However, I couldn't understand why it didn't occur to Michael that he and Sir Stephen had a few things in common, especially after he learned that both of them had seen and heard similar creepy things at Hawton Mere. It wasn't that I thought Michael should start to like and trust the man – I was just surprised that he never made the connection between his own reaction to the scary things happening at Hawton Mere and Sir Stephen's declining mental health. I figure, if I had grown up at a place like Hawton Mere the way Sir Stephen had, I probably would have eventually gone crazy too. Instead of seeing Sir Stephen as a potential ally or even just as another source of information, Michael seemed more focused on blaming him for everything.

Despite slightly disliking Michael, I plowed through this book really quickly. I read it in three sittings and could probably have finished it in one or two if I hadn't been so tired. Its atmosphere had such a grip on me that I found myself wishing I had more than just my cat for company while I read it.

Although I did think the book was very creepy, after a while I found myself wishing for a greater variety of scares. Mostly, the scares consisted of darkness/shadows and strange noises, along with different combinations of “I think there's something behind/nearby me,” breathing sounds, a ghost, a mysterious child, and a priest hole. Even though I sighed a bit when I got to yet another “it's dark and there's something in here with me” scene (not that those scenes didn't work on me each and every time - I'm that much of a wimp), the book never felt like a slog. It helped that I was very intrigued by the mystery of whatever had happened at Hawton Mere. I really wanted to find out who the woman and child Michael kept seeing were and why they were there.

Overall, I enjoyed this and would recommend it to someone looking for horror that doesn't rely on gory, gruesome moments for its scares. It'd probably work well for its intended audience (“Ages 12 and up,” according to Amazon).

Read-alikes:
  • Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (book) by Ransom Riggs - This is not something I've read, although I've heard of it and it has been on my TBR list for a while. It sounds like it might be creepy in a way that fans of Priestley's book would enjoy.
  • Coraline (book) by Neil Gaiman - I have both read this and listened to Neil Gaiman read the audio version. Whether you plan to read or listen to it, it's a fun, creepy book. Although I figured things out before Coraline did, that didn't diminish my enjoyment of the story. I haven't written about this particular book, but I've written about another book by Gaiman that those who liked Priestley's book might enjoy, The Graveyard Book.
  • Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Madness (anthology) by Edgar Allan Poe, illustrated by Gris Grimly - This collection includes slightly abridged versions of "The Black Cat," "The Masque of the Red Death," "Hop-Frog," and "The Fall of the House of Usher." I found this particular read-alike recommendation in a read-alikes list for another one of Priestley's works, and it occurred to me that Poe would make a great read-alike for this book as well.

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