Fred E. Katz. Get it? ‘Fraidy cats?
Yes, it’s pretty painful. Not as painful as ACTUALLY READING THIS BOOK, though.
And also not as painful as the realization that I ordered several of these, which will presumably be arriving next week.
I know what you’re probably thinking: you’re thinking the overt Christianity is what spoiled this book. Oh, didn’t I mention that part? Yeah: these are a Goosebump clone-series, written for the Christian market.
But the shoe-horned-in Christianity, though a little jarring at times, isn’t what made this book so awful.
There are even a few moments when the Christianity added to the book. When the main character is trying to force himself to check out a noise in the basement, for instance:
“Perfect love takes away fear, perfect love takes away fear,” I repeated to myself hurriedly under my breath. First John 4:18 had given me courage before, and I really needed it now. (pp. 72-73)
That’s about as subtle as a shovel to the head, but you know what, having a character keep their faith front and centre as a means of summoning some courage is not a terrible idea.
No, the problem is this. On the back cover of this book (and presumably every other book in the series) there’s a little rectangle of text:
Looks can be deceiving when fear backs you into a corner.
Enjoy thrills and chills with the kids in this story who have fun as they demonstrate Christian character based on love for God, parents, and one another. You’ll share a scare…but, of course, the only ghouls and ghosts are in the imagination.
Newsflash: the only ghosts and ghouls in ANY WORK OF FICTION are “in the imagination” because THAT IS WHAT A WORK OF FICTION IS. But the author (or series creator, probably) didn’t trust their own Christian readership to have the brains to figure that out. It’s as though whoever is responsible for this mess doesn’t believe children could get by with a “ghosts aren’t real outside this book!” reminder, so instead they made the entirely craptacular choice to make sure nothing scary INSIDE the book is real either.
So instead of having the characters confront something supernatural (whether a ghost or, if you wanted to stay within Christian-approved-scare territory, an evil spirit), this book consists of false scare after false scare, all of which are in this kid’s head.
The end result is that the character looks positively brain-damaged.
We open with the obligatory ditch-the-parents scenario:
My folks had been invited to speak at a marriage-counseling conference and were going to take me skiing afterward. Now I couldn’t go. Why did I have to break my leg? (p. 1)
So far, so good. That’s neatly and swiftly given us the scenario and also gently hinted at the Christian culture the kid inhabits.
Connor’s parents still have to go on their trip, so they get Aunt Bergen to look after him (she was already going to be there to house-sit anyway).
Connor’s mom tells him that Aunt Bergen is “out of this world,” and then we get a cliffhanger so contrived that R. L. Stine himself would take it out and shoot it:
I turned the doorknob and expected to see Dad’s happy face smiling at me from behind a bunch of suitcases.
Instead, a flash of red and white smashed into my body and sent me flying backward. (p. 5)
Santa Claus? His red suit and red hat pushed through the doorway, and an inflatable Santa plastered me against the wall. (p. 6)
Seriously, you can best understand how painful this book is when I tell you that this was the most believable scare/fake-out to happen.
After his parents leave Connor has a totally believable chat with Aunt Bergen about how he wishes Christmas were less about gifts and more about taking presents and food to people who can’t afford it. Ha. Very admirable, and I know plenty of Christian people who DO put charity at or near the centre of their celebration, but…
Well. Anyway. Aunt Bergen takes him seriously, which is the main thing, and says the best gifts come from “giving of yourself.” She gives him a glass of milk and then he goes to his room and falls asleep, only to be woken by someone at his door. Time for another fake scare:
A ghastly green face! I stifled a scream.
Whatever it was, it was staring straight at me. (p. 11)
The green-faced figure stretched out its hand toward me and spoke.
“Did I scare you? I forgot that I had this green mud pack on my face. I thought you might like another glass of milk.” (p. 12)
Yes, it’s Aunt Bergen, who will deliver so many glasses of milk during the course of this thing that I started wondering if the “twist” was going to be that she was keeping a pet cow in the kitchen. (I was wrong, because there is no twist.)
Chapter four ends with another cliffhanger: there’s a scary pounding noise! Which in chapter five turns out to be the delivery guy with a package. Only Connor is so dumb he spends two pages thinking it’s a mysterious flying box, then thinks an elf is carrying it, and finally the delivery guy has to explain that he’s a little person working for Elf Express (they hire “every little person in town” to do their Christmas deliveries, which raises some questions about the town’s demographics).
Another cliffhanger! Can you take much more of this “excitement”? No, and neither can I, so I promise to just start summarizing soon.
I hobbled to the front door and pulled it open with a big smile on my face. Only it wasn’t the elf.
It was a snowman. (p. 17)
A pair of human eyes peered out from under a snow-covered stocking cap. It was one of the younger kids from our church. I didn’t know him very well. He was covered with snow. (p. 18)
Summary of other fake scares in this book:
A snake jumps out of a box! No, it’s a toy astronaut that Connor’s parents sent him. (pp. 20-21) What? How could that possibly look like a snake?
A creature leaps at him out of the basement! No, it’s Aunt Bergen walking up the stairs. (pp. 22-23)
Aunt Bergen acted nice, but I’d experienced things that would bother any kid. (p. 24)
No you haven’t, Connor, you neurotic little liar. You’ve experienced nothing whatsoever, that’s the problem with this book. Back to the fake scares:
Some holly wraps around his throat and tries to choke him! No, he’s asleep and having a nightmare. (pp. 25-28)
There’s a clanking sound like Marley’s ghost! It’s Aunt Bergen bringing him his fifth glass of milk, while carrying the chains from the porch swing for some reason. (pp. 30-33)
Aunt Bergen is talking to someone! It’s her ventriloquist’s dummy. (pp. 33-36) Okay, that’s actually genuinely creepy. Imagine catching your aunt having a conversation with one of those. But it’s still not creepy enough to excuse this idiocy:
“Hey, Bergen the Bedazzling, when am I going to do my specialty for the little boy?”
“I don’t want anyone to see it until they are all together,” she answered. “Besides, you are such a cutup. You will kill them.”
I gulped. What did she mean? He was a cutup. He would kill us. (pp. 35-36)
Look, Aunt Bergen is obviously a little creepy, what with the dummy and all, and she has some kind of milk-related problem. But her wildly outdated slang doesn’t even begin to excuse Connor imagining this is some kind of threat. Yeesh.
More fake scares:
Something grabs him from behind! It’s Aunt Bergen. (pp. 38-39)
There are ornaments on the tree with human faces in them! (p.40) These turn out to be holographic ornaments Aunt Bergen’s son makes. (p. 115)
Someone’s in the chimney! It’s another Santa Claus decoration. (pp. 45-47)
The garage is filled with dark shapes! (pp. 48-49) These turn out to be props for Aunt Bergen’s magic show. (p. 114)
Connor’s friend Glen disappears in a box! Yup, still magic show props. (pp. 51-53)
In the effort to keep up the frantic pace of these non-events, the author plays weird games with physics. Like this pratfall, which is supposed to make the scene in the basement seem scarier, I guess. All it really does is make me think Connor’s friends are made out of rubber:
The sudden smashing nose startled Eddie, and her feet flew into the air and her back smacked the hard floor. Glen flipped over her and landed directly on top of the box as the creature crashed its body against the lid. (pp. 55-56)
The “creature” is just another prop, of course.
Worst end-of-chapter cliffhanger of all time:
Before I could open the door, something came flying at me. (p. 62)
Aunt Bergen’s hand was racing toward me. And something was in her hand. Her words snapped me to attention.
“Connor, I thought it was time for a nice glass of milk to help those bones grow strong. Drink up,” she said to me with her big smile. (p. 63)
That’s about the eighth time the author’s tried to make something menacing out of “my friendly aunt brought me a glass of milk.”
I honestly can’t drag this out any longer. It’s a 117-page book. The first 112 pages are frantic, ridiculous efforts to create scares out of nothing at all. Then there are five pages where the parents are home and Connor learns that his aunt (and her husband, when he was alive) does magic, and is planning to put on a show for him.
The only TEENSY scare that doesn’t get an immediate, obvious explanation is the last line of the book. Connor’s wished the dummy a merry little Christmas, and he hears a little voice answer and wish him a scary Christmas. It would be cute, but after 117 pages of Connor being a semi-hysterical idiot I was out of patience.
Look, I get that the broader culture isn’t kind to Christianity. I really do. I have been known to go off on absolute rants about it, in fact.
But….my personal bottom line is that, if you’re going to write fiction, you should do it well. If you want to honour God through fiction, doing it by writing the best possible fiction you are capable of given whatever gifts of talent or perseverance he’s given you. Talent isn’t distributed evenly, I know, but do YOUR best.
Ditto rock music, or painting, or whatever: don’t churn out something substandard and slap a “Christian” label on it. That’s disrespectful to your readership or audience, and, honestly, it’s disrespectful to your faith as well.
To end on a more hopeful note, though: at the back of this book there are two free chapters of another entry in the series, Birthday Cake and I Scream. Judging by those two chapters, that book looks better than this one.