CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 7. . . .October 18, 2013
Twelve-year-old cousins Cheryl and Tweed, orphaned in a mysterious airplane accident, live in a world dominated by their love of B-grade horror movies that they devour at the drive-in theatre where they live with their grandfather, Pops. When a ramshackle carnival arrives in town and takes business away from their theatre, they decide to investigate, and they find that the carnival’s owner, Colonel Dudley, has imprisoned the mummy of an ancient Egyptian princess who was entombed alive and is using her in his freak show. When the girls’ much-taunted friend Artie accidentally breaks the jewel that holds the key to the curse that keeps her imprisoned, the mummy escapes and threatens to terrorize the entire town. Gaining the princess’ trust, the girls, Artie, and local crop-duster’s son Pilot concoct an elaborate plan to reunite the princess in mid-air with the amulet Dudley uses to control her so that she can finally join the afterlife through a supernatural portal.
An intensely action-filled and twisting novel that draws heavily on the type of campy horror and alien movies typical of the mid-to-late twentieth century, How to Curse in Hieroglyphics also features action sequences written and illustrated in storyboard format where the group imagines that their exploits are more spectacular than they are. But while this could have been the recipe for a fun, engrossing, and potentially humorous story, instead this book is marred by poor conception, sloppy editing, and glaring inconsistencies that make it a much less effortless read than it was meant to be.
From the start, the girls’ fascination for B movies and their disdain for “newfangled” digital media clearly reflect the authors’ past and current interests rather than something that would mean anything to young people today; there is no attempt made to explain or contextualize it. The small-town setting is not only stereotypical but is almost patronizing; the book mentions that a six-storey office building is the only one in town—making it a small town only to a seasoned urbanite.
Inexplicable details abound. The girls are described as “identical twins” but then noted as cousins only. The carnival’s Ferris Wheel support arms are described as “clawing their way up into a pale-blue sky to complete the circle of the ride” (as if no equipment or employees are helping). During the action, the twins are supposedly babysitting a large group of cats—but leave them in their carrying cages the entire evening, except when they become useful to tame the cat-loving princess. When they sneak into the carnival, they run when a group of employees is approaching, yet their pursuers are never mentioned again. Instead, standing outside the freak-show tent, Artie then excitedly spots the mummy’s sarcophagus which is covered by a cloth in a dark corner far from the tent’s open flap (how could he see it?). Artie even says something during a sequence in which he is missing, pursued by Dudley, and is not present.
As well, there is a sense that beyond knowing what fascinates people about B movies, the authors have done no research to confirm certain details or facts. Their friend Pilot, 12 or 13-years-old, is in the habit of piloting a plane for his mother’s crop-dusting business, something that is likely illegal for both vehicle licensing and child labor reasons. A carnival employee named Delmer helps them out by verbalizing hieroglyphic symbols in order to secretly tell them to take the magic amulet from Dudley, but the significance of the hieroglyphics, while understood by Artie, is never explained—one suspects because the authors, themselves, don’t know.
Moreover, the action sequences, themselves, are full of plenty of bluster that doesn’t seem to make sense or conform to any laws of physics. In the excerpt above, the reasons for the fight scene aren’t even explained—the girls confront each other because one or both has broken “the monster-hunting rules” which seem to be known by only them and not the reader (one suspects its because they think they’re being turned into monsters themselves by the princess). The final action sequence—where Pilot pilots the plane over the carnival site while Artie makes sure the amulet is within view of the princess, allowing it to open a portal to the afterlife—is certainly gripping, at least momentarily. And when the book ends with a final game of storyboard-action where Artie, now recognized as a hero, plays a pharaoh called Glaack (his usual exclamation of horror), there is some sense that friendship has become more important than games.
But even tantalizing the reader with a connection to the cousins’ parents disappearance falls flat. Pilot suggests that they fly the princess to a secluded spot to protect others from the power of the portal when it opens—the very spot in the hills where his father, also a pilot, disappeared along with the cousins’ parents, leaving the girls the sole survivors. That is derailed by the fact that Artie can’t bring the amulet there, still fighting with Dudley for it at the carnival. When a book fails to exploit a classic mystery, and fails even to capture the fun campiness that inspired it, it will have a hard time keeping any reader engaged, let alone enticing them to follow the rest of the series.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario.
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