by Vivian Vande Velde
Magic Carpet Books (Harcourt), 1997
A lot of the best horror is crossover. William Sleator, for instance, is a science-fiction writer, but his stories all resonate with an edgy fear that will keep you up at night contemplating aliens that may be more deadly than nice (and in really creepy ways, too). Similarly, Derek Landy is Adventure/Horror with his undead detective Skulduggery Pleasant. Vivian Vande Velde is one of the masters of this crossover horror, her stories often set firmly in the fantasy genre yet instilled with imaginative elements that might well churn your innards if you think about them too deeply.
Her anthology, Curses, Inc. and other stories is a collection of not-too-horrifying shorts that will make you think or make you smile, but make you hope to heaven that it never happens to you. Any of these stories could be perfectly adapted for an episode of Are you Afraid of the Dark? She has other similar anthologies titled Being Dead and All Hallows Eve: 13 Tales.
A boy looks for revenge through a magic service offered over the Internet. (Where else would you look for a cheap curse?) He never stops to think about his own motivations, and he never considers whether he is truly the one who was wronged in the situation, but it doesn’t matter, ‘cause he’s got $400 burning a hole in his pocket and the web site accepts ACH transfer.
I was impressed with how well this story withstood the test of time. Usually when books draw upon technology as the foundation of a story, it is outdated by the time the book makes print. Wait… I mean, comes out in Epub format… (But just try and get your Kindle or Nook signed at a book fair.)
A sad tale about a homely woman who has the gift of magic but can’t escape the people around her who just won’t let go of who they think she is. Her encounter with a prince gives her the motivation to take the future into her own hands, giving the story a happy ending.
A small village has learned to accept that there is a lady who walks the streets of the village at night, a lady you can never look upon, for once you meet her eyes, there is no turning away. This is a charming ghost story. I love how the children hide from the white lady behind the window as much as I enjoyed the element of supernatural adventure. You can almost feel her breathing on the other side.
To Converse with the Dumb Beasts
Who hasn’t wondered what their pet was thinking at one time or another? Vande Velde explores what would happen if you really could.
The cat said, “Do you really think he’s sick? If he dies, do you think we should eat him?”
Clarence’s mother specialized in good spells. One day while she is out, he decides that he will help a customer himself even though he’s not quite ready to weight the consequences of his actions yet. His outlook on the ordeal at the end is worth the price of admission.
This story isn’t about revenge or just deserts, it’s just scary. More so for grown-ups, I think. It explores what happens when a man loses his objectivity over a pretty face; something that is all too easy for any one of us to do. The real horror comes from the lack of empathy on the part of the pretty one, who seems to love to devour people’s lives.
A wealthy landowner loses his memory and learns empathy for those who are less fortunate as he slowly loses everything that makes him who he is. (I am reminded of the Babylonian myth of Inanna when she goes to visit her sister Ereshkigal in the underworld.) My favorite part of this entire anthology is the contemplation of who it was that put the curse on him, causing him to lose his memory, and why.
Akin to Fahrenheit 451, this fantasy story is more than it seems. A Witchfinder pursues a girl and her family because of the books they keep in the house. Of course, the book is a Satanic Bible, but doesn’t a young woman have the right to read what she wants?
I still think about the ending. A series of well-played twists earned this one a spot as one of my favorites.
Cypress Swamp Granny
One of the best of the compilation, set in New Orleans, is about a Southern girl during The Reconstruction who is looking for a husband. One of her household servants happens to mention that her grandmother does spells for people, for a price. But getting your wish doesn’t always translate into what you really want.
Vande Velde examines the attitudes of the South, both those folks used to having servants and those used to a harsh slavery, in a direct, matter-of-fact tone. It is honest and unapologetic, and reads like an Old Time Radio show as the underdog turns the tides in her favor.
The Witch’s Son
A more serious tale about a boy killed at the beginning of the American Revolution who is brought back to life by his mother. The story is really about everyone else, the conscience of the shooters, the passion of the girl he saved, his mother’s heartbreak. The angle is that Hugh has to kill the man who took his life in order to stay alive, and he’s got to do it before midnight. It is well enough crafted that it could easily hold its own in an adult anthology.
The afterward of the book is a look at where the ideas for each story came from. It’s one of the best chapters. The most frequent question kids ask authors is always where they get such amazing, original ideas. Vande Velde has always answered the question with respect to the curiosity behind it. This peek inside her mind is honest and interesting, but more importantly, it is successful at satisfying the question. (Should you happen to be a teacher or librarian, there is also a study guide for your class: Curses, Inc. Study Guide)