As a fan of scary things that can’t hurt me, I’m always on the hunt for thrilling books and chilling portraits. When you regularly devote hours of your life to consuming media meant to disturb you, you begin to see a pattern in what is collectively considered spooky. Sure, we’d all prefer to avoid vampires and haunted dolls, but often the most chilling foes are more common (not to diminish the haunted doll population, which does seem to be getting out of hand, and is certainly too large at any non-zero number). I’m referring, naturally, to children and forests. And before a parent or park ranger takes offense, certainly children and forests can be both worthy of devotion and majestic, but once they get creepy, they can get really dang creepy.
Zoje Stage offers good examples with her first two novels. Her debut, “Baby Teeth,” is about a creepy child who saves her creepiness for her mother and has her dad seeing the best in her. As she gets more creepy and her mother gets more overwhelmed, the reader will find the pages flying faster. I assume parents have nightmares about their child giving them a haircut or doing some really unsettling google searches, and this book makes it clear why those scenarios are nightmare fuel.
In her second novel, “Wonderland,” a family buys a dilapidated house in the woods. While you’d assume there are ghosts or a masked man with the sort of knife that looks good on a movie poster lurking about, the menace here is much stranger and more compelling. While I’ll leave the reveals for the eager reader, it’s safe to say that no masked murderer is causing sudden inexplicable snowstorms to trap them on the property and rare is the coven of witches capable of causing the trees surrounding your house to come closer and closer.
While it’s good to be reminded just how unsettling a child or a forest can be, what’s most important about these books is that they are fun. Certainly more fun than gazing at a chilling portrait, even one that seems (you’d swear) to whisper to you, nay, to call to you, entreating you to come a little closer, perhaps pierce the veil of artifice that separates you from that enchanted prison and place your palm to the canvas and perhaps find there is depth there you’d never perceived and indeed you are welcomed, nay, it is insisted, that you climb inside thereby allowing the painting’s cursed prisoner to take your place among the living while you endure an eternity pressed into paint.