Dead Boy and Escalation (a Review)

In October, I read nothing but horror and horror-related books. This past month, I kept mostly to classics: Jaws by Peter Benchley and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. For my third and final book, I decided on something a little lighter. Dead Boy by Laurel Gale is horror in premise only: a dead boy come back to life.

First, a basic plot breakdown. Crow Darlingson is dead…. with none of the perks. He spends his time not in the grave but in his house – mostly in his room. He doesn’t eat, doesn’t sleep, doesn’t talk to anyone beyond his controlling mother (and mostly absent father). Crow’s only task is learning, preparing for a life he’ll never really get to live because, well, because of the whole being dead thing.

So he’s dead – but he’s not. His body is trapped in a status of semi-decay. The kid’s got maggots… and apparently he doesn’t smell great to be around.

If you were a fan of Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book, I would definitely recommend this title.
If you were a fan of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, I would definitely recommend this title.

Anyway, Crow “lives” a boring existence until a new neighbor and his daughter, Melody Plympton, move in next door. Crow waves to Melody, Melody waves back – she comes over, wanting to know who Crow is, Crow’s mother doesn’t want him socializing.

The plot seems right for an obvious conflict, but I promise you – this story is not about what you think it is. Without going into spoilers (yet), Dead Boy is different. While I’m not the ideal audience, I did enjoy this book quite a bit. It’s fun, moves at a good pace, and keeps entertaining until the last page.

For those parents out there wondering that it might be too scary, I say this: it’s far more gross than it is scary and, as long as you’re not super disgusted by maggots and detachable limbs, it’s not even that gross.

My recommendation – if your kids loved (or even liked) things like ParaNorman and Coraline, have them give this a read.

I could easily see Dead Boy existing as this style of film.
I could easily see Dead Boy existing as this style of film.

Okay, let’s get into the nitty-gritty (spoilers to follow).

Saying Crow is dead doesn’t accurately reflect the nature of the story, saying he is cursed does. In this world, there is magic – and the pinnacle of magic seems to be the chimera-esque Meera, a creature that grants monkey paw wishes to those that best its challenges.

Two parents braved the Meera’s ordeals once to ask for their son to succeed, the byproduct of this wish killed Crow. Crow’s parents braved the same trials to wish their son could grow up. The book focuses on Crow and Melody going after the Meera for wishes of their own. Melody wants to know magic, Crow would like to breathe again.

While the chapters with the Meera are entertaining, this level of fantasy caught me by surprise. In part, I believe this is because the book does not do a good enough job grounding magic into the world. How did the first two parents find out about the Meera (why didn’t they go for a simpler method… like a tutor)? How has the history of magic evolved in a world that is otherwise our own without having tremendous consequences? How did Crow’s parents find out about the Meera (this one may have been answered – I’m drawing a blank right now).

Imagine a world with hippogriffs in it and that's it. Only the hippogriffs could also grant wishes... but apart from that the world is completely the same.
Imagine a world with hippogriffs in it. Only the hippogriffs could also grant wishes… but apart from that the world is completely the same.

Point is: the Meera is a high level of magic contrasting sharply with ordinary rural life.

By making the plot about the Meera and wishes, I also feel that Dead Boy misses some key character moments, particularly with Crow’s parents and Melody’s parents. Crow’s parents are divorced… but we never really know why. The exact reasons are kept vague, and Crow’s father does not behave in a validating way to many theories. He does not seem to regret his decision to bring Crow back, as he makes himself emotionally available to his son as an outlet. He also seems surprised at the mother’s controlling nature.

In addition, the clear separation anxiety issues that Crow’s mother has are not addressed properly (in my opinion). This isn’t just a woman who wants to control her son – she discovered magic to bring him back to life. I feel like she is depicted as too stable, and then just resolved with a quick “I’m only doing this to protect you…” speech. Parents put helmets on their kids to protect them, they don’t resurrect them and proceed to keep them trapped for eternity.

I thought there was enough drama in this plot without adding a transforming monster.
I thought there was enough drama in this plot without adding a transforming monster.

Melody’s mother appears to have abandoned her… but we never see Melody deal with this. It is this abandonment that made Melody believe in magic in the first place, if only to reconcile the fact that she came from a broken home. This is a truly tragic aspect of her character that is never resolved in a satisfying way.  The cynic in me would say that it was largely included as bait for a potential sequel.

In short, by opting for higher stakes, a.k.a. escalating the plot, the book loses valuable character moments that I believe would have taken it from a good story to a great one. The premise of Crow’s life… the existential questions he would have, the discussions with his parents, are never really the focus. Laurel Gale appears almost bored with her initial premise as she quickly angles the book to focus on something else entirely.

In this regard, I believe my earlier comparison with ParaNorman is apt. That film is premised around a boy who can see dead people… but the real plot deals with a zombie invasion. Ghosts were not enough – had to have zombies to be entertaining. So Norman’s initial ghost abilities, much like Crow’s everyday struggles, feel like more of an afterthought.

Again, all this is not to take away from the book. I maintain my recommendation. Dead Boy is a surprising story, for better and for worse, and well worth the short time it will take to read it.

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