CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 38 . . . . June 3, 2011
Unearthly Asylum. (The Joy of Spooking, Book 2).
New York, NY: Margaret K. McElderry Books (Distributed in Canada by Simon & Schuster Canada), 2010.
298 pp., hardcover, $19.99.
Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.
Review by Kim Aippersbach.
“We need to talk to you,” began Mrs. Wells. “Your father and I are concerned about you. What was all that screaming about?”
“I just banged my toe,” she answered semihonestly, having in fact accidentally kicked her bedpost while flailing about. “What? Am I the only person not allowed to scream in this house?”
“It’s not just the screaming, dear,” said Mr. Wells. “It’s everything lately. Your overall happiness.”
“Your black moods, your constant tantrums,” added Mr. Wells less delicately. “And your strange behavior in general.”
“What strange behavior?” asked Joy, offended.
Mrs. Wells looked almost gleeful, as if spoiled for choice. “Let’s see,” she began. “To begin with, there’s the whole business in the graveyard. . . .”
“Graveyard?” interrupted Joy, puzzled. “What graveyard?”
“Why, the one I found you digging up, of course!”
“Oh, the cemetery. Graveyards are different. They are always beside a church.”
“Really?” replied Mr. Wells. “I never knew that. Did you, Helen?”
“Edward!” cried Mrs. Wells. “We are trying to have a serious talk with your daughter, not engage in pedantic argument!”
Unearthly Asylum is the second of P.J. Bracegirdle’s books about inquisitive heroine Joy Wells and the historical town of Spooking. The plot is mostly independent of the first, but since many characters from the first book, Fiendish Deeds, reappear in this one, it would be best to read them in order. Joy is obsessed with the horror stories of E. A. Peugeot and is determined to prove that his stories are set in Spooking; she is also determined to find paranormal activity in her town, but she is inhibited by the curfew her parents set after her escapades in Fiendish Deeds and also by their concern that she’s losing her mind.
Most of the plot of Unearthly Asylum follows the mayor’s assistant, Phipps, as he tries to turn Spooking’s mental asylum into an upscale spa but ends up uncovering a horrible secret: the waters in the asylum pool grant eternal youth, but they are guarded by the ghosts of long-dead soldiers. Joy stumbles into the middle of Phipp’s encounter with the asylum while looking for her brother and her pet frog. Phipps sort of helps her escape, and the asylum is swallowed by the earth when the soldiers come to claim their due. The novel ends with Joy discovering that her favourite author may have been in love with the previous owner of Joy’s house.
Bracegirdle hints at an interesting and convoluted connection between horror writer Peugeot and Spooking, and it appears he plans to write several “Joy of Spooking” novels in which this history will gradually come to light. Unearthly Asylum provides a few clues to this on-going mystery while it tells the story of Phipps and the asylum and follows several other intriguing subplots. There are a few too many plot threads, however. The narrative jumps around confusingly between unconnected story lines, and a number of things remain unexplained at the end. Why, for example, is there a ghost in the playground? The character of Phipps is set up as the villain, but he doesn’t do anything villainous in this novel, unless urban development is always bad. The asylum directors are supposed to be evil, but the nature of their evil is never developed. What is the “treatment” they give people, and what do they gain from it? Individually, each plot thread would make a great suspense/horror/ghost story, but they lose out by being mixed all together.
Despite having so many different stories of its own to juggle, Unearthly Asylum spends more time than it needs re-living the plot from Fiendish Deeds. There is a great deal of back-story in the first third of the novel, and the previous novel’s action often sounds more interesting than what is going on in this one; the gravedigging in the quotation above, for example, does not happen in Unearthly Asylum. There is yet more back-story used for character development: Bracegirdle has populated Spooking with a whole cast of interesting characters, all with their own histories, but many of them seem quite superfluous to the story of Unearthly Asylum. Some characters, like Morris and the Madame Portia, are only in this book because they were in the first one; perhaps they are important to the on-going story of Spooking, but they have no real role in this book’s plot.
The tone of the book is madcap adventure, and Bracegirdle describes his characters and situations with a good deal of witty humour. Some editing would have helped the pacing as many scenes seemed inserted only because they were humourous. Clever description begins to drag when the plot is not suspenseful enough to keep reader interest.
Unearthly Asylum suffers from too much of a good thing: Bracegirdle has a plethora of great characters and plot ideas, but he stuffed too many of them in one book. Readers who enjoyed Fiendish Deeds will want to read this book so they can find out what happens to all the characters and follow the continuing story of Spooking. Other readers are likely to be confused.
Recommended with reservations.
Kim Aippersbach is a freelance editor and writer with three children in Vancouver, BC.
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