GORE IN THE STORE
INTERVIEWS FILM BLU-RAY DVD & BOOK REVIEWS
Written by Kim Newman. RRP £7.99. 400pp.
Out now from Titan Books.
Doll-faced spectres, sinister teachers and the tribulations of childhood friendships (friends who just happen to have supernatural abilities) are some of the challenges that face Amy Thomsett (a.k.a Kentish Glory) throughout her new year at Drearcliff Grange School in the latest book in Kim Newman's charmingly Gothic young adult series. THE HAUNTING OF DREARCLIFF GRANGE SCHOOL is the sequel TO THE SECRETS OF DREARCLIFF GRANGE SCHOOL although it works just fine as a standalone read with Newman getting readers quickly up to speed. Amy is an ‘Unusuals'. ‘Unusuals' have bizarre talents. They can hide things in pocket dimensions, have super swift hands or become a werewolf. Amy's skill is she is a living poltergeist. She can move objects and levitate herself using phantom limbs.
We join her as she's competing in the ‘Great Game', an inter school tournament. This involves solving fiendish clues to collect trophies hidden around London. Things go awry after an encounter with a cursed cape. Amy is forced to contend with new dark impulses, even darker visions of a creepy doll, and a teacher hell-bent on causing student dissent.
Similar in setting to HARRY POTTER and MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN, the novel is more in line with A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS due to its fondness for obscure Gothic references and humour that's as dry as a ship's biscuit. Newman's lifelong devotion to horror pays off as he crafts some chilling sequences yet keeps them appropriate for the target audience.
The doll antagonist is a creepy presence; 'A figure in a long dress. A grown woman with a cracked doll's face. Sometimes she's limping. Sometimes she's missing an arm. She carries a doll herself, but a doll with a living child's face. The child's mouth is open as if screaming. The sequence where Amy enters the sinister ‘Villa DeVille' is also a horror highlight. Well paced and evocative the characters are charming and fun. There is an insightful humanity that Newman draws them with. They are rarely reduced to being simple gimmicks. For example, we find out the sobering fact that ‘Unusuals' with mental talents are prone to brain aneurysms. Then there's a generous focus on how Speke, who has hideous crab hands, copes with this affliction/gift and how others perceive her. The Haunting of Drearcliff Grange School is often very funny. There are tinges of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams in Newman's eccentric world building and offbeat tangents.
Those familiar with Newman's film criticism know his encyclopaedic knowledge of and passion for horror and classic pop-culture. This strength at times becomes his weakness. His eagerness to bombard the reader with references, pastiches and jokey digressions can stall the plot's momentum. Also employing slang and flamboyant vocabulary causes the prose at times to become a little too purple, confusing what Newman is trying to say. Another irksome tendency is the switching between a character's real name and their nickname. This, especially for supporting characters, gets confusing. Its central conceit of otherworldly school shenanigans is a little too familiar, so means it falls short of entering the classic status held by the genre's Potter and Peregrine standard bearers.
Overall, THE HAUNTING OF DREARCLIFF GRANGE SCHOOL is entertaining and inventive, and you can sense that Newman is having tremendous fun. His mind is running in so many directions desperate to tell more jokes or reveal snippets of this world and there's more than enough laughs and thrills to make this a worthwhile read, and it has compelled me to seek out more of Newman's fiction. So, in spite of minor caveats, I would recommend anyone, young or old in the mood for a ghoulishly amusing and thrilling time, to do the same.
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