The Book of Bad Things
by Dan Poblocki
I reserved this book from the library for the sheer enjoyment of asking for it by name! Dan Poblocki again proves himself a master of the middle-grade horror novel. His latest is perfectly suited for fans of John Bellairs, Julie Berry’s Splurch Academy, or Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s The Witch’s Sister who are ready to take a step into darker shadows. There are some pretty creepy chapters in this book, my favorite being a nightmare version of the trash compactor scene in Star Wars.
Cassidy Bean is visiting her sponsor family for the summer, part of a program to get city kids out of the asphalt squalor to breathe some fresh country air. Only her friend Joey just isn’t the same this year. He’s withdrawn and despondent, still grieving over the loss of his dog last year. Or it could be that he still blames Cassidy for Lucky’s death, since she’s the one who had the genius idea to go and have a regular, normal, everyday chat with their town’s resident crazy-lady at the end of the road– a visit that resulted in Lucky’s death.
Lucky was horrifically murdered last year, appearing to be either the result of psychic phenomena… or Ursula’s insanity.
But the crazy hoarder-lady, Ursula, has just died and the town has come out in droves, filching her stuff faster than you could grab the stapler from a co-worker’s cubicle when he quits.
Soon, she became a pariah, the target of eggings, of small fires set in her driveway, of the awful graffiti that now decorated all sides of the poor old farmhouse. They started calling her The Hermit of Chase Estates.
Cassidy finds a more receptive friend in the next door neighbor Ping, an outcast who has an interest in the paranormal. This is great, because Cassidy needs someone to confide in. One night she sees Ursula shambling down the road in a zombie-like stupor with a limping Lucky beside her. Then the townsfolk who snagged stuff from Ursula’s house begin to complain of ghostly visitations from the old lady– and then begin to die in horrifying ways.
The “Book of Bad Things” refers to Cassidy’s diary. She uses it to record all of the bad stuff she can think of. I’m reminded of a line from Zero Mostel’s appearance on The Muppet Show: “Once they’re counted and compelled, they may quickly be dispelled.” That’s the idea behind the journal; it provides a sense of order and security in a world where bad things can happen, and Cassidy has recently had a pretty big scare. Will her enumeration of every horror she has ever faced help her against the oncoming zombie crisis?
His exposed skin was shriveled, vacuum-sealed to his bones. His jaw hung open, his lips pulled back to expose what were left of his brown teeth. His hair was long and grey and wet, plastered to his skull and neck, dangling down to his shoulders…
Poblocki skillfully raises our hackles in suspense as we wonder what’s causing the dead to rise. The mystery deepens as Cassidy, Joey, and Ping explore the ley-lines that converge within the town and discover a hole in the cellar wall when they go to explore the crazy lady’s festering house. The author pulls no punches in this Night of the Living Dead meets Stephen King’s It terror tale. The zombies are real, and there’s something dark slithering under the town.