The Devils You Know
by Margaret C. Atwood
Soho Teen, 2014
Boulder House is a thrilling twist on my favorite motif, the ancient, endless castle (like Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast,) filled with traps and dangers. Throw in a cadre of diverse teens from different walks of life, who have to find a way to work together in the face of adversity (as if ), surrounded by the relentless pitter-patter of unseen creepy dolls following them.
Gretchen – A tough-as-nails punk girl who makes her own clothes.
Ashley – Popular girl extraordinaire, she’s a senator’s daughter and has the attitude to match.
Violet – Super smart, and super hot, too, at least to Paul.
Paul – A sports hero who isn’t so sure he really enjoys the company of the football team.
Dylan – A goth boy who has been with Gretchen so long he’s like family.
The teens each find themselves drawn away from the rest of their schoolmates during a field trip. Then a storm begins, and the exhibits in the crazy horror-show of a museum come to life. The spirit of the evil man who built and filled Boulder House with its hideous collection of denizens appears and lays it on them: escape or remain there forever, not necessarily as a human, but definitely as his slave. Despite the warning that only a select few may survive, (“survival of the fittest”, he taunts,) the classmates determine that the only way out is together. They’ll need everyone’s best effort to make it alive.
Each section brings us more in touch with the relationships between the characters through the physical threats they must escape, from animated suits of armor to a whale and giant squid locked in mortal combat (a truly intimidating exhibit for those of us who can recall the enormity of the actual Smithsonian display).
Each section of the book is preceded by an omniscient narrative clip, cited at the bottom of the page as coming from a work of historical non-fiction, but there is no way a reference book would talk in emotive prose, or have the knowledge it does. But it does the job of establishing the dark history of the house and its owner outside of the story.
They discover that some of the animated things they encounter may be allies, like the small centaurs, while some may be villains in disguise. The story is non-stop action from cover to cover; so much, in fact, that by section four, I needed a rest. In a single scene we go from a discussion about the power dynamics of sexual assault and a plethora of profanity to girls kissing, to a tiny bearded wizard giving out high-fives. Then the chase is on again, like an Escape from Lemoncello’s Library, only with more violence, language, and sexual innuendo.
“As if! What is this, the fucking Breakfast Club now?
A lot of the narrative is about sex, well, thinking about it, anyway, and planning for it, though none actually happens (it’s not a Sookie Stackhouse novel.) But it deals with real issues that high-schoolers face. Maybe one girl hates another because of a secret crush on her. What are a emo-boy’s true motivations? How do the men support each other in the face of fear and weakness?
Maxwell Cartwright, the devil-man who is responsible for Boulder House’s demonic influence, separates the players out after they survive a series of chaotic challenges… but not before revealing each of their secrets. In fact, he says, they were all chosen specifically because they had hidden selves they felt they could not ever reveal.
As they work their way through the deadly mansion, they also work through their differences and their feelings of betrayal. There is a war between cupid dolls and miniature centaurs and by the time they reach the next cafe, everyone is bleeding.
”…I don’t see you trying to talk to me at school. I don’t see you trying.”
I can’t help it, I snort loud. “Why in all that is holy would I want to talk to you? You wouldn’t give me the time of day!”
Ashley stands up, too, the tears gone now. “Oh, please. As if you don’t know this is how the world works. Can you blame me for being what I’m supposed to be? Do you think I have a choice?”
The story was a fun exploration of teens discovering their true selves in contrast to what they are expected to be… and what they feel safe portraying. Like the Breakfast Club in a haunted house. Where the floor could cave in and swallow you at any second.