(Shadow House #1)
by Dan Poblocki
Five raging and violent ghosts trapped in a house, five children haunted by their past, and five spirits tied to them through blood. It isn’t a school, it isn’t a movie, it isn’t a dream home. It isn’t a vacation. It’s a doorway into terror.
The Gathering is the first in a series of three books surrounding the history of an endlessly sprawling castle-like institution in upstate New York. It is also the first of a ground-breaking new multimedia format, the first book to be accompanied by an app for your mobile device of choice.
The scenario is a familiar one. A group is gathered together in a haunted mansion with no idea how they are related, but they’d better figure it out fast because things are about to get scary. It is reminiscent of A House on Haunted Hill …targeted at younger readers, but don’t expect it to be any less frightening. [Evil laugh]
The book is an introduction to the series with minimal plot, but the action screams full-throttle at a breakneck pace until, like the coyote in the road-runner cartoons, we realize the cliffhanger is the ending, and we’ve already flown past the edge.
Poppy is an orphan, Marcus is a musical prodigy, Azumi saw her sister lost in the Suicide Forest, and the twins, Dylan and Dash are child-actors who were just cut from a popular television show. Despite what each of the invited guests thought they were getting into, (Poppy’s dream-offer to live with a rich aunt, a music academy, a new television gig…) what is truly waiting for them is far from what they had imagined.
Shadow House was once called Larkspur Home for Children, an orphanage. An asylum. Once it was, but now it’s dead.
Tied to the doorknob was a fluorescent-pink nylon ribbon. Just like the one Moriko had followed into the woods. Just like the one Azumi had turned away from on the last day she’d seen her sister, fearing what they’d find at the end of it.
Many years earlier, when Larkspur was at its peak, “The Specials,” they discover, were inmates at the sanitorium, kids close in age to today’s visitors. The Specials, in animal masks, attack the newcomers with supernatural flair, and with great strength. They can affect things physically, throw objects. Lock doors. Set things on fire.
We’re not sure exactly what the orphanage director had in mind when he isolated specific individuals from the community as his special cases, but what he did to them amounted to torture.
The director of Shadow house was related to Poppy, a Caldwell. Just like the visionary girl who has been appearing in Poppy’s mirror, who it turns out is the girl in the painting in the music room. A Caldwell. (Read the engraving below. Did you catch the clue?) In fact, something is going on with every one of the kids who visits Shadow House beyond what is discernible on the surface.
By the time they realize it’s all a lie, it’s too late. The angry ghosts close in around them. But rather than discovering what the visitors all have in common, it seems that perhaps they should discover how the recently invited guests are each connected to one of the poltergeists… before they’re killed by them.
“The rabbit-faced boy we saw earlier attacked me. And Poppy said a cat girl came after her. We need to get out of here.”
“But that wasn’t even the weirdest part,” said Dash. “There was a fire, and Poppy got locked in the room, and then–”
“Wait,” said Dylan. “There’s a fire upstairs?”
The backstory of each of the ghosts is filled in by a mobile device app, a multi-media vision Scholastic is proud to offer. Ghost stories revolving around The Specials reveal the secret history of Larkspur House and why the current inhabitants linger on as ectoplasmic entities. Crazy Esme, Alyosius, Irving, Matilda, Randolph… What was Director Cyrus Caldwell guilty of? What did Delphinia Larkspur have to do with it?
It works like one of the Which Way? books from the 1980s. Small paragraphs comprise each page, and at a certain point, you are asked to make a decision and swipe in one direction for or the other. Each story is unlocked by tracing a sigil on the welcome screen; the symbols can be found hidden in the book, but many are offered in the app if you can’t find them all.
The interface makes you feels like you are in a claustrophobic maze. You can’t go back once you’ve begun a storyline, so you are completely trapped. There are worn vintage photos, some defaced by an unknown hand, that create a symphony of unrest within the confines of your electronic device, and moving, color images that make your spine tingle as you look over your shoulder to see what that noise was…
In Shadow House, choices have consequences. If you revisit this ghost story and change your choices, it may alter what you see in other stories.
There are some drawbacks. I found the arrows indicating the direction to swipe to be confusing (If it points to the right, you need to swipe from right to left), and there are some dead ends where, if the app doesn’t like your decision, it will repeat itself until you make the other choice. But the chilling graphics in the app are unquestionably successful in infecting us with the disturbing atmosphere of the ruined asylum.
If I stop playing, we die!
A book with an app to accompany it with additional depth of story seems a logical progression from the once similarly ground-breaking format of Patrick Carman’s Skeleton Creek, with its online supplemental material. Where will the future take us? Will we be receiving automated phone calls from 1-800 psychics when our Kindle app e-Book reaches page 200? Will we find ourselves locked in a chat-room with other kids trying to solve a puzzle before time runs out?
Can it be enjoyed without an app? For sure. It’s a frightening book, and the app adds an exciting extra dimension, but should it ever be lost to whatever technology follows our long-obsolete iPods, the story will remain viable.
And neither will the story of Shadow House: The Gathering!
You came. You actually came.
If you liked Stranger Things, you will like the camaraderie of this special group of kids as they fall deeper into a maelstrom of fear!