The Dreadful Fate of Jonathan York:
A Yarn for the Strange at Heart
by Kory Merritt
Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015
Middle Grade (11-14)
Wandering in a seemingly endless swamp as night is falling, Jonathan realizes there is no way he’s going to find his way home before dark. He is hopelessly lost.
Luckily he finds some kindred souls (…or are they a bunch of crazies that are going to toy with him?) Just three young travelers who seem to know their way around. (Can they be trusted?) The trio take him to a house in the heart of the swamp, a bed & breakfast that charges only one thing for a night’s stay: a story.
We listen to the tales of each of the others. A tale of the horrors behind Slynderfell’s Ice Cream that can’t top the horrors of falling in love with a materialistic woman (after an underwater adventure for her benefit, rife with sea monsters, giant angler fish, and needle-teethed glowthings). Then the third, a deeply satisfying series of Lovecraftian landscapes in a story of alien abduction. But poor Jonathan, he has no story to share. He has led a painfully sheltered life.
What’s an eldritch abomination got to do to get some steak sauce with its human sacrifices?
Ejected back into the cold, dreary, dreadful swamp, Jonathan wanders again, this time to happen into a short-statured man, C. Percival Trullus, who directs him to another safe house where he will be welcome. (I am reminded of the teens hired to lure European backpackers to a youth hostel for a small commission.) What York finds instead, is the hideout of the notorious West Bleekport Gang.
(Noting that the author had attended school in Brockport, New York, I began to detect several plays on local names and landmarks, which I appreciated fully because I, too, am an upstate New Yorker. Rochester and Syracuse hold a plethora, might I say a whole burned-over area of talent in children’s literature such as Vivian Vande Velde, Bruce Coville, Julie Berry, and Linda Sue Park. So, indeed Mr. Merritt is in good company.)
The gang’s leader, one Phintesmo Blyme, a man who’s face is composed nearly entirely of teeth, coerces poor Jonathan into helping them in a number of nightmarish tasks. The first is to retrieve the key to a treasure chest from the belly of the Bogglemyre, and of course, the only way to get there is to let one’s self be eaten. Did I mention that Phintesmo speaks suspiciously like Fagin from Oliver Twist?
I must say we ‘ad some doubts regarding your– shall we say– abilities, Mr. York. Mayhaps we’ve underestimated you.
The task successfully completed, they move on to get back their lost chest, what the key fits, by stealing it out of the lair of the Terrakingpin… and that you get to by floating past the Fear’im Gnott on a barrel. The only way past him is to think happy thoughts, so York, of course, imagines popping his jerk of a boss in the kisser.
Again successful, the gang steers Jonathan to a castle in the Northeast of the swamp, having promised him a safe place to rest. It is the Keep of Sym-Iy-Kro. He is a hideous, yet respected, necromancer who proceeds to attempt the zombification of Mr. York. He promises the sweetness of never experiencing anxiety again, eliminating the fear of the unknown, never again to fall into such reckless wandering and pitfalls as befell him this very night.
Will he give in to a safe life or will he try to escape? If he does, what about The West Bleekport Gang? How will he find his way out of the swamp alive?
This morality play about the priceless value of life experience is lengthy enough to have some real substance, but quick enough to be an enjoyable Halloween read. The artwork is grim like Gorey or Addams, or more closely, Gahan Wilson. Merritt’s dark, rich color palette conveys the distinct air of a dismal swamp, his illustrations of creatures that sound like Suessian abominations skirting the edge of nightmare.